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Opinion: Confessions of an unhealthy workplace

Eyes & Ears

Posted online

Chief executives have a scary resemblance to psychopaths.

They are very driven and charismatic yet often lack empathy and can turn toward manipulative. Those traits have proven to greatly benefit business but also can do damage to other people – or themselves.

A recent podcast got me thinking about this. It ties in to mental health.

Does your office promote mental health? I don’t mean simply recognizing it’s a problem. A scan of headlines tells us that: “Kate Spade’s tragic death: suicide warnings to look for,” “The troubling signs leading up to Anthony Bourdain’s suicide” and “US suicide rates rise by more than 30 percent in half of states.”

The upside is that the high-profile and tragic deaths of otherwise successful businesspeople, and recently released suicide statistics, have sparked a national conversation on the matter. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and it costs the country $69 billion a year. Missouri has the 13th highest suicide death rate among all states at 18.6 deaths per 100,000 individuals, based on the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cost in Missouri is estimated at $1.18 million per suicide death when factoring medical and work loss expenses – not to mention the unmeasurable costs of the loss of human life.

Take a moment to consider if your office is a safe place for employees to say things like: “I’m not well.” “I didn’t have a great weekend.” “I don’t feel like I can produce in this job.” “I feel alone in my family.”

I tend to forget I’m a human being and that I work with other human beings. My proclivity is to be a human doer and so set the same expectations on others around me. But we are complex creatures and exist for way more than just doing things.

The question is: Does our work environment reflect that?

After all, we may spend more hours a week with co-workers than we do with family and friends. The difficulty is we show up at work in order to produce results, right?

The host of this podcast, “Building a Story Brand with Donald Miller,” says his office culture tries to emphasize “grace over guilt.” Miller says when put into practice it creates a more safe environment for work, even when mistakes are made.

Miller asks his audience: “How do we create deeper, human interactions in our workplace?”

His recent guest, Dr. Lee Norton, begins to answer it this way: “I think we’re hardwired for connection, not for perfection.”

Here’s what she means: “We’ve gotten to a point where sometimes output is so important that we’re running havoc over each other in the interest of that. We’re becoming myopic in the way we view things.”

Norton runs the Center for Trauma Therapy in Nashville, Tennessee, and she was hired to study the Timothy McVeigh case following the Oklahoma City bombing.

Some psychologists say psychopathy is a spectrum disorder, meaning we all score somewhere on the spectrum. This may give ease to some (the recognized psychopathic CEO) and concern to others (those thought to be the most normal among us), but factors include our brain, genetics and environment. The industry standard is the 20-question Hare Psychopathy Checklist.

Psychopaths are a very small percentage of society, as are CEOs. If you test your level, the bar for clinical psychopathy is a score of 30 or more, according to Psychology Today.

This column is a gut check. This is not the answer sheet. We each need to answer for ourselves.

Norton suggests business leaders begin with asking: What am I trying to achieve here? And ask it frequently.

Otherwise, we may read the headlines but miss our own warning signs.

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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