After two 10-day contracts with the Sacramento Kings, pro NBA player Royce White has again found his career up in the air. According to NBC’s ProBasketballTalk, the Kings announced in late March that they would not be extending a long-term contract to White, who came to them after a highly publicized dispute with the Houston Rockets over how they handled his generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Their disagreement ended with the team trading White to Philadelphia in July of 2013, where the 76ers waived him prior to the start of the season.

USA Today notes that when White first signed on as a rookie with the Houston Rockets, their knowledge of his mental health issues and subsequent decision to sign him was seen as a positive step forward for the NBA. Things changed rather dramatically when the Rockets and White could not find common ground on how the team would accommodate his phobia of heights and flying, which hindered his ability to travel with the team and make practices on time. The debate escalated when White asked for a special protocol akin to those given to athletes with severe physical injuries. White’s situation has sparked a widespread discussion about how employers should balance practicality and the need for results with sensitivity towards individuals in need of health-related support of any kind.

We all face challenges and stressors at work. Pressure to perform well at our jobs is a daily fact of life, and in the right amount, that pressure can help us grow professionally. However, for millions of Americans suffering from conditions such as anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), workplace stress can be debilitating, if not paralyzing.

Mental illness affects millions of Americans

According to Harvard’s Mental Health Letter, a study of working Americans conducted by the U.S. National Comordibity Survey discovered that 18 percent of participants ages 15 to 54 reported experiencing mental health disorder symptoms within the last month. Similarly, the National Institutes of Mental Health reports that 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder in any given year, while 6.7 percent of U.S. adults experience severe depression and about 2.2 million Americans struggle with OCD. And these are only the reported cases.

Many employees who suffer from mental illness choose to weather the effects of their disorder silently, rather than bring them up with their employer. The reason? Fear of stigmatization. Though the American Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against people with physical or mental disabilities and requires employers to accommodate workers’ disabilities if they know of them, many people believe that letting their employers know of their disability could lead to discrimination and/or reduced opportunities for employment elsewhere. As Martha Ross of The San Jose Mercury News explains, “Bay Area mental health advocates point to studies that show people with mental illness have the highest rates of unemployment of all disabled and that half of U.S. employers are reluctant to hire someone with a past psychiatric history or currently undergoing treatment for depression.”

The celebration and stigmatization of mental illness

Ross describes how our society is caught between two different attitudes towards mental illness. The first is one of acceptance or even celebration, as films such as “Girl, Interrupted” or “Silver Linings Playbook” indicate. The other is of understated discrimination, fueled by practical expectations about how people should behave and perform. When people do not meet these expectations, their employability can suffer; Ross cites the example of a Foster City woman who was fired from her job when her mental health medical appointments got in the way of her meeting certain quotas.

Employees struggling with mental disabilities sometimes feel stuck between a rock and a hard place — tough it out without workplace support, or risk unspoken but very tangible discrimination? Employers, too, are trapped in a difficult situation. Most good supervisors wish to support and nurture their direct reports; however, when an employee underperforms because he or she is taking care of personal issues, how should a manager handle it when faced with the practical needs of his or her team?

Nurturing mental health at work

Despite the tough circumstances that employees and employers face when dealing with mental illness and disabilities, there are concrete things that both parties can do to promote mental well-being and optimal productivity in the workplace.


  • Grant employees flexibility, but set productivity expectations — Allowing your employees the flexibility to schedule counseling or medical appointments, or to work from home a few days out of the week can make all the difference in their emotional well-being and morale. That said, it is also important to set the expectation that productivity should not decrease due to these accommodations.
  • Create a positive, balanced work atmosphere — A workplace that is full of stress and negativity will push even those who are not struggling with mental illness away from their jobs and hinder their productivity by lowering morale. As a result, it is important to nurture an environment that is welcoming and supportive as well as motivated. Simple actions, such as emphasizing constructive criticism and having regular check-ins and trainings for all employees, can go a long way in fostering such a workplace.


  • Try meditation — According to Bloomberg, a group of Harvard scientists found that meditation has the power to decrease stress, reduce inflammation and improve immune function. Furthermore, The New York Times reports that, when meditation is practiced regularly and long-term, it can actually change the composition of your brain, reducing gray matter in regions associated with anxiety and depression, and actually increasing gray matter in regions associated with learning and memory.
  • Reframe your thoughts — While severe anxiety, depression and other mental disorders are largely the result of chemical imbalances in the brain (for example, OCD and depression linked to lower-than-normal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain), negative thought patterns only strengthen these disorders’ power over you. Fostering positive thought patterns through structured methods can actually regulate the chemicals in your brain, boost your mood and control anxious thoughts.
  • Nurture your physical health — We tend to think of our mental and physical health as two separate entities, when in fact they are intimately linked. Studies have shown that if you treat your body poorly by not getting enough sleep, eating unhealthy foods on a regular basis, and being physically inactive, your mental health starts to suffer.
  • Seek help — Find a licensed mental health professional who can help you come up with a plan to create a work environment where you can thrive.

White has remained committed to advocating for mental health acceptance and accommodation in the professional sphere. “There’s a disconnect between health and mental health,” he told USA Today in 2013, “I said [to the Rockets], ‘This is my anxiety disorder and you’re not respecting it the same as a physical health condition.'” Even after being relegated to his 10-day contracts with the Kings, White continues to actively call for mental health education and support in society and the workplace. “My advocacy for mental health will be there regardless of whether I’m playing or not,” he told the Associated Press. “If it takes this platform to boost or activate what we need to do mental-health wise, then that’s not good enough.” The fact that Royce’s outspokenness and health-related demands ended up jeopardizing his career seem to confirm his view that our society has still not found a way to fully support the mental health needs of millions of Americans in or out of the workplace.

This article was originally published on