06 Jan 2017

Mental Illness and the Workplace

Katherine Switz on how her own experience with bipolar disorder led to forming the Stability Network, an advocacy and support group for working professionals


Katherine Switz (MBA 2000) is the founder of the Stability Network, which aims to ease the stigma of mental illness. They hope to achieve this by having professionals share their struggles, paving the way for greater openness and increased community resources. She spoke with Bulletin associate editor Julia Hanna about the work of the Stability Network and what she does to keep herself well.


Julia Hanna: Katherine, when did you first begin to realize that you might have a mental illness?

Katherine Switz: I realized it the first time I had a psychotic break in my second year at Harvard Business School. When I looked back after that, I realized that I had actually had symptoms as early as fourth grade, but it really wasn't until I had that break, that I first got my diagnosis and began to realize the magnitude of what I had.

Hanna: And a lot of people may not know what that was like, would you mind talking about that a little bit, just to give us a sense of it?

Switz: Absolutely. I think many people don't know what a psychotic break looks like and I think, that's-- in some part-- why they're so scary. In my case, I thought I was Jesus. I was baptizing nurses in the faucet of the urgent care facility. To everybody else around me, it looked incredibly scary. But for me, I thought I was omnipotent. I was speaking in Dr. Seuss rhymes and flailing wildly.

It's incredibly scary to see somebody going through psychosis, and it's very scary to be in it, and that's what it looked like for me.

I still have periods of psychosis, even now. And what that looks like every day is going into a Starbucks and getting incredibly confused. Thinking that the barista is sending you secret messages. Thinking that what everybody sees and says is special. That you're, again-- like at Harvard Business School-- like you're God, like you're the pope.

Hanna: And you came back, though, and you finished your degree, which is kind of amazing. How did you manage to do that?

Switz: It was very difficult. I can say, I nicely got great support from HBS in helping to return. They had heard that an HBS student had been checked into McLean and then, I reached out to the key person in the student services. So part of it was a lot of support that I got from HBS. I also, had some great friends there who helped. And I was able to tell a couple of people what I was going through.

But more than anything, it was just putting one foot in front of the other. It was extremely difficult, but I think I just thought, what other choice would I have? I certainly didn't want to opt out and be on the couch for months. I really felt like the best way to recover was to get back to school as quickly as possible.

I kind of thought there was no option and I think, for many people, work and school are-- anything structured activities-- absolutely key to recovery. To be with people within community. Being productive. And I think that's so important. And that's one of the reasons we really need to improve the ability of people with mental health conditions to get back to work quickly and back to school quickly because it can have such a positive impact on your mental health.

Hanna: Right. And can you help us understand the nature of your mental illness? What it's called. And how do you cope with it now? How do you stay well?

Switz: Sure. I have what's called bipolar disorder and I have what's called, bipolar 1, which means I have regular psychotic breaks. And really, what it means is that you have periods of depression, where you barely can get out of bed. Have suicidal thoughts, in my case. Mixed with periods of what's called mania, which is hyperproductivity. Feeling on top of the world. And often, is linked to increases in irritability and other characteristics.

But the fact is that these states alternate over time. And in some cases, happen at the same time. And over time, I've learned to manage it using what I call, a cocktail of approaches. I use medication daily. Exercise daily. Meditation. But I also, have a very supportive family and structure of friends around me to be supportive. But it really is a combination of approaches that enables me to stay well.

And I also, use something called dialectical behavioral therapy, which helps greatly in managing stresses, which can be the triggers of that psychosis that I have to manage so carefully.

Hanna: And you did graduate. You were employed. And you were managing very well. You did-- I believe-- have another psychotic break, is that correct?

Switz: Yes, I went from HBS to McKinsey for three years and then, to GE Capital in a strategy role. And a couple of weeks after my wedding, had my second psychotic break. And I think, it's important to note that, that happened despite the fact that I was taking medication and going to therapy. All of that wasn't enough to deal with a psychotic break that happened around the annual strategy cycle.

And as I like to say, the PowerPoint turned out well, but I did not and I ended up back in the hospital-- a couple of weeks after my wedding, actually. So it was my husband who was by my side, despite having just gotten married. I had told him when I was first dating him, what I had, but I don't think he had any sense of the magnitude of it until he was sitting by my side in the emergency room and I was again, psychotic. This time, thinking I was the pope.

Hanna: I wondered, that might have been a different experience, given that you were at a big Fortune 500 company. Before you were in a pretty high pressure place-- Harvard Business School-- but it was a school. And then, you're at a company where you're being expected to perform and to perform on time.

Switz: Yes, so at GE, I completely hid this psychotic break and we basically, told the company that I had a thyroid disorder and had been in the hospital, as a result. And even, the office offered to send flowers, but we had to make sure they didn't know to send them to the hospital because they'd have to go to a psychiatric hospital. So we had them send them home.

And when I got back to work, I-- to be honest-- I was still unwell. As much as I had tried to recover, I only took two weeks off work. And as I got back into things, definitely had challenges that first six months getting back to work and feeling productive.

And I would say-- oddly enough-- I actually got the award for best critical thinking the year of my psychotic break. But there's no question, that when I came back to work initially, I still was unwell and that was something that I was dealing with every day.

Hanna: How are you doing now? How do you feel about your health and where you're at in your life now?

Switz: I feel very good, but that is because I focus on a daily, hourly, minute to minute basis, on staying healthy. It's absolutely, my first priority. I have a three-year-old and a demanding job, but at the end of the day, staying healthy is my job number one.

But I would be lying, if I didn't tell you I had ups and downs. And for me, stress is a trigger and as I have periods of stress, I need to be extra careful. And I need to know when to give up meetings and release my agenda and be more quiet, to make sure that I don't have another period of psychosis.

So as I always say, psychosis still comes and it's just a matter of managing it and dealing with it when it does.

Hanna: Tell me a little bit how you revealed your mental illness at work and how it changed things for you.

Switz: I was in a role as a vice president in a nonprofit and there was a lot of international travel required. And when I was trying to explain to the CEO, why I couldn't do as much international travel as I thought was necessary for the role, I said, I had a health condition. And he asked what it was. And I quickly said, bipolar disorder. And looking back, I wish I had been more deliberate and thoughtful about when and how I shared that, given the magnitude of sharing something like that in the workforce.

I can say, happily, it worked out for me and I was able to get some accommodation and stay in the role. But it is something that is very important to think about. It's a very personal decision. And it's a very specific decision, depending on the circumstances. The Stability Networks' very careful not to recommend how people go about it or whether they go about it. It really is a personal decision.

Hanna: You just mentioned The Stability Network, which is the organization you founded in 2013, and I wondered, if you could tell us a little bit more about how that came about and what sort of work it does.

Switz: The Stability Network is a growing community of people in the workforce, speaking out about their mental health conditions so that other people can get better. And basically, what we're trying to do is give an example for every community in the US, of somebody living effectively with a mental health condition. Because our view is, if we do that, prejudice and discrimination will go down.

So we now, have over 80 leaders in over 25 US cities and Canada, who are taking their message out-- whether it be through social media or speaking engagements-- to help people understand that people with mental health conditions can recover. They can live full lives. And to provide insight from our own experience, on what's worked for us.

Hanna: That sounds great. Do you have any stories you would want to highlight-- other than your own-- of Stability Network leaders who have used their story for good, to help raise awareness about mental illness in the workplace?

Switz: The beauty of The Stability Network is we have many, many voices and experiences speaking out, but if I just were to highlight a couple-- Elyn Saks is a professor at USC and has been very outspoken about her experience and her journey with schizophrenia and has written a wonderful book. Bob Boorstin, who used to be at the White House and at Google, is speaking out about his bipolar disorder. Scott Stossel, who's the editor of the Atlantic, is speaking out about his own anxiety.

And we have many, many more people like that, from all walks of life and all educational backgrounds. And our goal is really, to make sure that everybody who's struggling with a mental health condition, can look to The Stability Network and see a person in it that resonates with them. And that they can relate to, such that they see the hope for their own recovery.

Hanna: What would you say to people out there with a mental illness who have kept their condition a secret at work? What sort of advice would you give them?

Switz: I would first, suggest compassion with themselves. It's very difficult to navigate how and when to share in the workforce. There are not easy answers or solutions. It really is a matter of taking a personal inventory and thinking about your own situation. What you need to be healthy. And then, working with those around you to get that.

But again, as I said earlier, very careful not to prescribe how people speak out in the workforce, just because we would be naive to think that it wasn't still, quite a challenging environment. And we want to make sure that those with mental health conditions have the highest chance to succeed.

Hanna: So I suppose, it's a matter of understanding the culture of where you work and how to work within it-- I'm guessing?

Switz: I think so. I can only speak from my own experience. The important thing is to understand exactly what your needs are. What the circumstances are. And then, to tailor your approach to that.

Hanna: And what can people find-- whether or not they decide to talk about their condition at work-- what sort of resources can they find in The Stability Network that might be helpful to them?

Switz: The best thing to do is to check out our website-- thestabilitynetwork.org-- and we have personal stories and detailed profiles of each of our leaders that really show, again, not just what we face and what challenges we have, but also, very importantly, how we address them. How we stay healthy.

Our message is that it is an ongoing daily challenge. None of us check the box and we're healthy forevermore. It's really, a matter of learning what we need and aggressively, every day, keeping ourselves healthy so that we can continue to do the advocacy that we do.

Hanna: It has been just three years since you started The Stability Network, but I wonder, if you've seen any changes in the culture around mental illness in the workplace?

Switz: I think there have definitely been improvements and changes in mental health in the workplace and in stigma, more broadly. We're seeing so many more Hollywood celebrities and stars speaking out. There is much more coverage in the media. And much more increasingly positive coverage in the media. And therefore, I think, we are definitely at a tipping point.

But that being said, when I talk to people throughout the country who are dealing with these issues every day, we've still got so far to go.

Hanna: And if we were to fast forward, say, 10 years, what are some of the changes you would hope to see in the workplace, in terms of attitudes towards workers with mental illness?

Switz: I would like to see a person who's struggling with a mental health condition get flowers or a card. I would love to see that person get support in transitioning back to work. I'd love to see the mental health condition treated or an employee suffering from a mental health condition, provided the same compassion and support that somebody suffering from cancer has.

So really, it's a wholesale change from thinking about mental health as a weakness and as a problem. To thinking not only about it as something that we need to be compassionate about and supportive of, but also, something that we can celebrate. Those with mental health conditions bring incredible gifts to the workforce-- which have been well-documented-- and I think shifting our perception from that of it being somebody's fault or something for which somebody is to blame, but rather, something for compassion and celebration.

Hanna: That's interesting. This might be funny way to look at it, but that makes me wonder, what are the positive things for you that have come out of having a mental illness? Obviously, it's a lot to deal with and it's something-- I'm sure-- you would not always want to have to deal with, but what has come out of it that's been good?

Switz: And that's an interesting question because just the other day, I was asking myself, whether I would trade and give up having a mental health condition and the answer is a resounding, no, for a couple of reasons. The first is-- and much research has pointed to-- the incredible creativity, innovative thinking that is often attributed to those with mental health conditions.

But I also think, living with a mental health condition gives you a depth of experience that increases your empathy, and your compassion, and your ability to see the world in a way that, I think, is deep and rich and has benefit for all those around you. And I think, just in terms of skills that we learned at HBS-- whether it's leadership or management-- all of these things, I think, are enhanced by that empathy, and compassion, and creativity.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2000, Section C

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