Perspectives: Jana Etheridge on Mental Health
Jana Etheridge shares her experience with anxiety and depression, and why she believes mental health is an important topic
October 9, 2020
Most individuals operate with some anxiety in the workplace. Think about the nerves you get before delivering a presentation or negotiating a raise, for example.
But ongoing, intense anxiety is different. Dealing with it at work can diminish your focus and derail your productivity, initiating a vicious cycle of perpetual stress. Eighteen percent of people who responded to a American Psychological Association well-being survey said they had a difficult time completing their work due to anxiety and other mental health issues. And, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), women are more than twice as likely as men to have an anxiety-related condition, and the most common result of anxiety in the workplace is impaired job performance.
In honor of World Mental Health Day, observed every year on October 10, we met with Chief of Staff for Financial Services at Capital One Jana Etheridge to share her experience with anxiety and depression to bring awareness to mental health issues and how folks can deal with them in the workplace.
A Journey to Mental Wellness
“In my mid 20s, I was part of the statistic that one in five people in the workplace are dealing with a mental health issue,” said Etheridge. “I had experienced two traumatic events in my life in a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, I buried my emotional reactions to both of these situations. Eventually not dealing with my emotions manifested in anxiety, panic attacks and mild depression. I had no idea what was happening to me at the time – I just felt hopeless. There were days I didn’t know if I could muster the strength to get to work or collect the internal calm it took to watch my favorite team at the hockey arena. When I couldn’t find that strength, I spiraled into negative self-talk about being weak or being a failure.
“Fortunately, I had a lot of compassionate people in my life, including a dear friend and roommate who astutely and directly pointed out that I needed to talk to someone about my anxiety and how to manage it. For a while, I was devastated and in denial, hearing that out loud. Eventually, I was relieved to have a path forward. Taking action on your life is empowering and can build on itself with the right support.”
Battling Anxiety in the Workplace
Etheridge noted that one of the hardest parts of any mental health issue is not knowing what it is before you’re diagnosed. She believes both women and men avoid discussing mental health issues, especially in the workplace because of negative stereotypes.
“When I was grappling with anxiety and mild depression it absolutely took a toll on my work,” Etheridge said. “At the time, I thought I was functioning fairly well, but looking back, there was simply no way I could have been at my peak work performance because I wasn’t at my best emotionally. Personally, I was embarrassed and ashamed to talk about my anxiety. I saw it as a weakness, a flaw that I had. Explaining to someone you have cancer, a broken bone or other physical ailment seemed so much easier to understand. Saying you have random panic attacks as a result of not dealing with emotional trauma or trying to explain what depression feels like is harder for people to wrap their heads around.”
“Suck it up,” “get over it,” “it’s just mind over matter” are just some of the phrases that Etheridge has heard in the past when someone isn’t sure what it means to battle anxiety and depression, or doesn’t know how they can help support. Etheridge reassured us that no one was trying to be insensitive or cruel, it's just hard to comprehend mental illness if you haven't been through it or around it.
The Stigma Around Mental Health, and How to Open Up About the Topic
“It took me way too long to open up about my experience with anxiety and depression,” Etheridge said. “While the topic of mental health has become more mainstream, and we are starting to chip away at negative stereotypes, a stigma still exists. That said, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in having a mental health issue. The more we open up about this topic, the more people understand, the easier it becomes to ask for help, and the faster it becomes to truly heal.”
Family members can also struggle with what is happening to their loved one. “For my parents, seeing me go through that difficult time in my life was one of the hardest things they’ve personally experienced,” Etheridge said. “Parents want to help...fix your ‘boo-boos’. My parents were incredibly supportive and a big part of my healing. They struck the right balance between encouragement to progress and support when I needed to pull back. So to all of the family members who aren't sure what to do, my best advice is to truly listen and suspend judgment, refrain from offering solutions, and love unconditionally.”
Etheridge explained that when she did open up about her experience and seek help, she was able to cultivate habits that promote physical, emotional and mental well-being. She felt emotionally stronger and more self-aware, and in that others found hope. “They saw that if I was able to focus on healing from the negative events in my life and overcome my anxiety and depression, they could too,” Etheridge said.
“I encourage associates to share information about ongoing health issues with their managers. It helps associates feel less alone, and managers more equipped to support and offer help,” Etheridge explained. “However, associates shouldn’t feel obligated to share everything. It’s their experience and they should only share what they’re comfortable with.”
Dealing with Heightened Stress and Anxiety Levels
COVID-19 has undoubtedly heightened stress and anxiety levels for many. At Capital One, through our internal medical benefits portal, associates already have access to tools including a medical plan-provided program called LiveHealth Online, which connects associates with a licensed psychiatrist for ongoing therapy. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also provides useful resources for coping with anxiety and mental health issues during the pandemic.
Etheridge also recommends a few tips that helped her manage anxiety. First, she said, people should identify what’s possibly triggering their anxiety.
“Try to pinpoint the moments when you notice anxiety building. Is it when you’re commuting, when you talk to certain people, when you’re at a crowded event or when you receive a new project? If you have a difficult time identifying the exact situations that prompt your anxiety, try journaling about your day when you get home. I’m not one to write lengthy journal entries, but writing down on paper what happened during my day or a particular situation helped me gain a slightly different perspective on what was done and said, and has always been helpful for me.”
She also suggests opening up to someone you trust – whether that be a friend, family member or counselor – and finding ways to incorporate healthy activity into your daily routine. “Go on a run, do some yoga, try to meditate, or sit with a cup of coffee and focus on all of the people or places or things that you enjoy.”
Finally, she encourages people dealing with mental health issues to give themselves grace. “The faster you start taking care of yourself, the faster you begin to heal. Your anxiety may never go away completely, but with support and medical help, your experience with anxiety can be much better and you can feel more empowered.”
Etheridge left us with the following sentiment. “Bravery comes in many forms. As I reflect on that time in my life over 20 years ago, asking for help was the bravest thing I could have done. Suffering in silence is not the answer, asking for help is. Who knows how different my life might look today if I hadn’t been brave enough to speak up and ask for help, if I hadn’t worked through those issues, if I hadn’t had caring and understanding people in my life. I’m so incredibly glad that two decades later, I can openly talk about mental health and the impact it has had on my life. I encourage all of us to keep this important conversation going, to be compassionate with colleagues, family, friends, strangers, and to ask someone how they are doing if you think they might not be okay. Compassion is contagious and it's something we should spread more of in this world.”