Having struggled since her teenage years with “repeated, prolonged and chronic periods of severe depression, often accompanied with a side order of anxiety,” Alia Cooper, HSBC’s Europe Head of Strategy Engagement Governance, Financial Crime Threat Mitigation, understands what it’s like to have “invisible differences.” After taking over the role of co-chair of HSBC’s health related employee network, Ability, Cooper made a bold decision to talk openly about her mental health challenges in order to reduce the stigma and increase understanding of people living with all types of invisible differences.
This marked a turning point in both her personal and professional life. In a recent interview with Aspire, we asked Cooper, who will speak on “Change Agents for Invisible Difference” at Aspire’s Trailblazing Leadership Conference, Dec. 12 and 13 in London, to give us her best strategies for understanding and managing invisible differences in ourselves and others.
1. Accept people for who they are. Really, everyone is different in their own way. If you think about focusing on everyone’s individual differences, you can lose sight of the real challenge – which is inclusivity. We know that often people from minority groups — this includes men when it comes to talking about mental health — feel isolated and apart. This sounds like such a clichéd position but just by accepting people for who they are you can have a positive impact on their mental health.
2. Acknowledge invisible differences. The reason we do need to have a conversation about invisible differences, whether neuro-diverse or mental health related characteristics, is because there’s still a lot of stigma attached to them. As much as people say it doesn’t matter to them, it often does, whether consciously or unconsciously and there is still a lot of uncertainty for people who haven’t experienced an invisible difference about what it really means for someone to have “a difference” you can’t see.
3. Share your own the differences. Opening a conversation with my mental health background would not necessarily be my starting point when I deal with people on my team, but it definitely helps when team members themselves are going through their own difficult times, long term or even short-term mental health challenges. Just them knowing about my own challenges has enabled and encouraged them to tell me what’s going on in their lives. They know they have my support. Of course not everyone will have a long term mental health issue but most people have experienced ups and downs in life and almost everyone will have some kind of experience which leads them to have a dip in mental health at some time, maybe during a very stressful time, such as a bereavement or a financial uncertainty and that is, a mental health experience just like a physical health experience condition.
4. Appreciate the differences. I have worked with people who I think may have some degree of autism. One guy in particular comes to mind. He’s a really hard worker, fantastic with numbers, diligent. He does some work hardly anyone could or would do. When I inherited him into my team, there were people who told me “He’s odd, he’s a weirdo.” He’s not. He’s just different and not as good as some people at communicating but he’s great at his job. The very fact that he’s different makes him good at what he’s doing. He’s never going to stand up and give a presentation but he doesn’t have to. Recognize what each person is good at and learn where their skills lie and try to leverage them.
5. Avoid labels. Nobody wants to be defined by or particularly labeled as “I am a person who suffered from long term depression and anxiety.” Well, that is one of the things about me but it’s not the only thing about me. There’s lots of other things that make me who I am, like the fact that I am female; that I am British; that I like the countryside.
6. Develop your emotional intelligence. We spend a lot of time in our culture thinking about IQ and intelligence that we can measure based on how people do on exams, but we don’t spend enough time thinking about people’s emotional intelligence. It’s just as important, especially when you work in an industry that focuses on people and human capital which many industries are today. If we don’t invest in people’s ability to manage people, we won’t be getting the best out of everyone.
7. Consider cultural/gender/sexuality differences, which can often be invisible. There may be things in people’s backgrounds that factor into how they communicate, how they work, how they react to different triggers. It’s important to consider this as they can also be invisible.
8. Focus on the strengths of people not their weaknesses. We have a tendency to focus on limitations that people might face or might think exist rather than considering the whole person which is really the message that I would like to get across. When we talk about invisible differences, whether that’s a long term physical or mental health condition or being neuro-diverse. We often focus on what are the challenges or what can that person do or what special things are they going to need. We don’t talk enough about what can they do that other people can’t do. Some of these unique skills that people might have naturally because they are neuro-diverse are beneficial in different ways. They have a different way of thinking or acquired life skills from having to manage various complexities that other people might not have had to cope with.
9. Take time to understand what the differences are. There’s a lot of misunderstandings still, particularly for people who have long-term mental health conditions or are neuro-diverse. It’s hard to have a conversation with people who still don’t have the mental framework to carry it out in. There’s also a generational aspect to it. The older generation, a lot of those people were brought up in an environment not to talk about these things and to kind of keep everything that’s personal and private to themselves. Whereas the younger generation, have a very different perspective on life. My Generation X, which is right in the middle, no one ever talked about this stuff when I was a teenager or in my 20s. I wish they had, my life might have been very different if I had existed in a world where these sorts of things were being discussed in a professional context. The next generation, the generation that’s coming into the workplace, I feel hopeful for them. There’s a lot more openness and willingness to discuss mental health and neurodiversity in the same way there is to talk about physical health.
10. Tell your story. What I have discovered through my willingness to talk about what I’ve experienced in public is that people connect with you. A number of people will come up to me after I’ve spoken and say “I’ve been through something very similar” or “That’s what my friend experienced” and you see it actually is much more prevalent than anyone realis So just by being more open to talk about it, you can then create a lot more space for people to be themselves.
11. Recognize that people can change. Individuals can feel very locked into a certain way of thinking or behaving but with the right support and help, they can come out the other side of it. It’s not to say there won’t be any challenges anymore but they can learn to manage them better.
*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
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