(This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur)
From 2004-’07, Britney Spears was having a serious nervous breakdown.
During that period, she shaved off all of her hair. She attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella. She drove unsafely with her baby in her lap. She broke down on air in a tearful interview with Matt Lauer. She got into public fights and was hospitalized multiple times.
This is why, in 2008, when she was 27, a court-ordered conservatorship put her father in charge of her financial and personal freedoms. Since then, she’s been relegated to her home and to specific venues (particularly in Las Vegas, where she has been a longtime performer-in-residence), all while under close supervision.
You can’t blame Britney Spears for her struggles. She was a young woman under an enormous amount pressure and stress. Hundreds of photographers and reporters stalked her. Millions of fans wanted a piece of her. Advisors and other people with financial interests wanted money from her.
The good news is that it seems Ms. Spears is well on the way to recovery, if not already there. Take a quick scroll through her Instagram feed (yeah, I follow her, so please don’t judge), and you can see a woman that’s looking much happier, healthier and content with her life. As we all know by now, she made news this week by asking that her conservatorship be lifted. Now it’s up to the courts to decide her fate, and I hope that the decision is in her favor.
But the Britney Spears story isn’t about Britney Spears. It’s really about something else that’s much more important. It’s about mental illness.
Mental health issues are not only significant on their own in this country, but are the underlying cause of many other healthcare problems. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20.6% of adults (51.5 million) in the U.S. experienced mental illness in 2019, and the ripple effects are significant. According to the organization, people with depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population, and 18.4% of adults with mental illness also reported contending with a substance use disorder that year. The rate of unemployment is higher among U.S. adults who have mental illness (5.8%) compared to those who do not (3.6%). And the problem has gotten worse thanks to the pandemic.
The good news is that employers are waking up. A study recently released by The Hartford found that 70% of employers now recognize employee mental health as a significant workplace issue, and 52% of employers said that employees with mental illnesses are experiencing significant or severe workplace issues due to substance misuse or addiction.
Unfortunately, 72% of those employers said the stigma associated with mental illness prevents U.S. workers from seeking help. When your employees are suffering from any form of mental illness — like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, to name a few — your business suffers. When they don’t feel comfortable sharing their situation with people that can help them, they suffer.
Are you the cause of this? Are you like the photographers, fans, media and advisors that were hounding young Britney Spears? Are you turning a blind eye to the demands you’re making on your employees, the stress you’re causing them and the lack of resources you’re providing? You may be. Many of my clients are. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that they’re not aware.
Well, if Britney Spears’ story has taught us anything, it’s that now’s the time to consult with your healthcare insurance provider and benefits consultants. Ask them about what more your company can be doing to aid employees who may be suffering from any form of mental illness, regardless of how severe. Take a look at your environment and reassess the demands you’re making. Consider new benefits like flexible time off and the hiring of mental health professionals.
All of this will be good for your workforce. And what’s good for your workforce is good for your company.
So let’s never forget the time Britney Spears shaved her head and attacked a photographer with an umbrella. Why? Because if anything positive has come from her decade-plus-old ordeal, it’s that she’s made many more employers like me aware of how serious mental health issues can affect our organizations.