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Mental Health in the Workplace: Q&A with Darryl Sleep, Chief Medical Officer

As is becoming increasingly known, workplace-related mental health is an issue that touches everything from our physical health to the global economy. In Mental Health: A Workforce Crisis, the American Heart Association found that one in five Americans has a diagnosed mental health disorder, and 76% of employees has struggled with at least one issue that affects their mental health.

For World Mental Health Day, we sat down with Darryl Sleep, MD, Amgen’s Chief Medical Officer, to talk about the connections between mental and physical health, his responsibilities as a senior leader at a company that employs more than 21,000 staff, and his own challenges with work-life balance.

What can we do about this growing mental health crisis?

To start, we need to do a much better job of recognizing and destigmatizing mental health issues. They are without question underdiagnosed, and that’s because there’s still a huge stigma around them. If you have a heart attack or get diagnosed with cancer, people generally have a lot of empathy and offer their support. But when someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, they may feel less inclined to tell people. Many of us feel like mental health issues are our own fault. We need to understand that these are illnesses just like heart disease or cancer, and we all need to be more open about sharing our experiences. Our work with AHA shows that 76% of people struggle with mental health at some point in their lives — this issue affects everyone.

What do the connections between physical and mental health teach us about the importance of mental health care for patients with physical illnesses?

It’s clear that we need to look at patients holistically and consider both the physical and mental issues they experience, no matter what the illness. For example, with a condition like psoriasis, feelings of stress, depression or anxiety can be both a trigger and a result of disease flares. Or if someone has a bone fracture because of osteoporosis, they may not be able to exercise or get out of the house, and that can lead to depression that affects their ability to recover from their injury. If doctors never ask patients about their mental health, those issues may never get addressed.

How has Amgen’s work developing medicines to treat serious, life-threatening illnesses evolved in response to the growing understanding about links between mental and physical health?

We must consider that Amgen is an integral part of the global healthcare ecosystem. We can’t just focus on the biology of reducing LDL cholesterol, for example, we need to consider how patients use and access our medicines. We also advocate to the wider healthcare community that our medicines are only one part of a holistic approach to treatment that should also include care for patients’ mental and physical health.

Why do you think the Millennial generation seems to be more affected by mental health issues than previous generations?

I think this is something all generations have dealt with in their own ways. My dad’s generation was very stoic, and he would never tell anybody if he was feeling down. There’s also greater awareness and understanding today that has led to more diagnoses. At the same time, I do think life is becoming more stressful. Millennials and younger generations have lived through significant economic, political and social uncertainty. There’s a lot more competition in the workplace. And they are far more connected to vast amounts of information from a young age than any generation that came before. These factors compound the pressures we all feel.

As a healthcare industry leader, how do you see your responsibility for driving awareness about mental health issues and helping staff get support?

I always remind myself that the tone gets set at the top. If I were experiencing depression or anxiety, I would get the treatment I need, and I would encourage anyone I work with to do the same. I also believe one of the most impactful things leaders can do for their staff is to lead by example, modeling healthy ways of dealing with stress and maintaining work-life balance. If I’m emailing my staff while they’re on vacation, how can I ever ask them to respect my personal time when I’m away? And if I’m responding to my emails on vacation, that sends the wrong message that they need to be available on their time off too.

Do you have a personal experience with mental health in the workplace you can share from your experience at Amgen?

Shortly after I joined Amgen, I found myself dealing with a family health issue that was very stressful, and that added pressure on me and my interactions with the leadership team. At one point, I needed to be at a three-day offsite meeting with Murdo Gordon, Amgen’s EVP of Global Commercial Operations, but I ended up calling him on a Sunday to tell him that I couldn’t commit to being there for the full three days. I offered to come in and participate in the sessions that were most relevant to me and where it was important for me to be present, but I explained that I’d need to get back home. His response? “No problem.” Similarly, David Reese, Amgen’s EVP of Research and Development, afforded me flexibility and was genuinely empathetic, recognizing the difficult circumstances I was dealing with. The support I got from my colleagues allowed me to find the work-life balance I needed without skipping a beat.

What are you most proud of about how Amgen supports staff mental health, and where do you see room to improve?

I’m really proud that Amgen doesn’t just pay lip service to its “people-first” approach. There’s real tangible evidence that we follow through on that, from the career development we offer staff to on-site fitness centers, family support and the truly comprehensive benefits we offer. As for what we can do better, I think we can do more to encourage staff to use the services we have available. When Amgen staff do find themselves experiencing stress, anxiety or other mental health issues, we want them to feel like they can talk openly about how they’re feeling and take advantage of the support we offer.

How do you think Amgen’s support of staff mental health contributes to the company’s overall mission to help patients?

The mission to bring innovative medicines to seriously ill patients, and to address real unmet medical needs, is at the core of everything we do. That requires great science, and great science requires great people. If we don’t focus on our people, we simply can’t do the great science needed to improve and save patients’ lives.

Amgen, a member of the AHA CEO Roundtable that produced the report on mental health, remains committed to the wellbeing of employees and offers a number of benefits around both mental and physical health, including employee assistance plans, paid parental leave, family support, on-site fitness centers, meditation programs, and more. The availability of services varies by country for Amgen staff outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico.