While this story begins with talking about depression, don’t be too quick to click away. It is also a story of hope, inspiration and the power of living an authentic life.
First, the bad stuff. Depression and stress disorders represent the fastest growing category of disability claims. They currently account for more than $9 billion in disability claims, or 30 percent of the estimated $30 billion that disabilities and presenteeism (the problem of employees being at work but not fully functioning) cost Canada’s economy each year (as reported by the BC Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health).
One of the most disturbing things about this increasing trend toward depression, stress and other mental-health related disabilities in the workplace is the fact that, while 80 to 90 percent of people with these disorders can be treated successfully, only one third of them actually seek help.
So what does all of this have to do with this post about networking?
A few years ago, I attended the Canadian Mental Health Association’s annual conference on mental health in the workplace where one of the most inspiring and empowering speakers was a tiny, dark-haired, passionate woman in her 50s, Sandy Naiman.
An accomplished journalist, broadcaster, teacher, mental-health advocate and public speaker, Sandy has also struggled with mental illness since she was 12-years old – a journey that has included 20 hospitalizations and four different diagnoses. As I listened to Sandy’s stories, it dawned on me that what had allowed her to create such a successful career, despite a serious mental illness, was her ability to cultivate her network.
The secret to Sandy’s success, however, is the exact opposite of what most people are taught to do when building their network. Sandy was fortunate to have a mother who both encouraged her to discuss her illness openly and to not see it as a defining factor in who she was and what she was capable of.
Sandy became equally comfortable describing her limitations as she was her strengths. When she wanted to attend journalism school, for example, she walked into the office of the chairman of Ryerson University’s journalism program, sat down and explained to him that she had a serious mental illness, but that she very much wanted to be in the program. After listening to her story, he admitted her on the spot and later was instrumental in paving the way for her to work at the Toronto Sun.
We can all take a lesson from this when building our personal and business integrity, as well as strengthening our networks. In this day and age, where customers and employers are becoming increasingly suspicious of anything that sounds too good to be true, being honest and open about limitations builds trust.
While it is also critical to be aware of and confident in your strengths, when it comes to networking, this can be easier said than done. Many mistakenly believe that promoting themselves or their product as the greatest thing since the iPad best portrays confidence. Using a more subtle approach that keeps the hyperbole to a minimum and focuses on accurate benefit claims, however, is far less likely to set off the bull**** meter of your audience.
Ironically, I believe that it was Sandy’s acknowledgement of her weaknesses that helped to lay the foundation for her confidence in her strengths. In presenting herself as a whole person, rather than hiding her weaknesses, she learned that she was useful and valued just as she was.
The lesson for networking is this: building a strong network that will help you and your business to thrive is not only about promoting your strengths. In today’s economy it can also hinge on your willingness to be vulnerable. Vulnerability builds trust, the key to solid relationships in all areas of life and work – and to high performing organizations.
This kind of authenticity also builds my confidence and trust in myself. Seeing that others, with all of their imperfections, have succeeded, I know that I can too. If we would all have the courage to begin building our networks by presenting ourselves as whole people, with both strengths and weaknesses, it will go a long way to stem the rising tide of stress, depression and mental health issues in the workplace.