If you ask Pamela Uplinger about her experience with mental illness, she’s pretty much an open book.
“I never found any reason to hide anything,” said Pamela, a CAD designer for men’s and women’s tops and bottoms for Levi Strauss & Co. “It’s sad to me when people feel like they’re alone and nobody else understands how they’re feeling.”
Which is why the back-to-back suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade back in 2019 prompted her to speak up at a work Q&A with our President and CEO, Chip Bergh, when he was discussing the steps the company was taking around gun violence prevention at the time. “I asked Chip what the company is going to do about mental health and gun violence — they’re definitely intertwined,” she said. “I felt we really needed to step up as a company and offer support to people.”
With Chip’s encouragement and the support of the company’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Team, Pamela launched LS&Co.’s THRIVE Mental Wellness Employee Resource Group (ERG) in the U.S. The group is dedicated to empowering employees to thrive inside and outside of the workplace. By establishing a strong mental wellness community at LS&Co., employees are made aware of and able to take advantage of resources, become comfortable in discussing their own mental health, and feel supported in achieving their own personal wellbeing.
Today, the THRIVE ERG boasts more than 110 members — and continues to grow.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, Pamela shares her own mental health journey to help break the stigma of mental illness.
Breaking the Stigma?
One month after launching the THRIVE ERG, Pamela attended a company-sponsored women’s empowerment conference in San Francisco. At the time, she was feeling pretty demoralized after putting in long hours and not getting a new career opportunity. She was inspired by one speaker in particular — Caroline Wanga, Chief Culture, Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Target Corporation — who talked about her experience with depression and a mental breakdown that led to her hospitalization and subsequent leave of absence from work.
With encouragement from her colleagues, Pamela took a 12-week leave of absence. “I went too hard — it was a huge reality check for me,” she said. She was later diagnosed with depression that stemmed from burnout and not having the capacity to take care of herself. “During my leave, I focused on the things that make me … me.” That meant getting back into exercising, reading, cleaning, cooking and spending more time with her fiancé. After about two months, she started feeling like herself again.
Since returning to work at the end of January, Pamela has been focused on partnering with her fellow THRIVE leadership team to support employees’ mental well-being — which is especially critical now during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ERG has partnered with the HR team in planning and participating in mental wellness-related sessions for employees. They have also provided opportunities for employees who need to process what they’re feeling and experiencing in a confidential, peer-to-peer environment.
One of the things that Pamela and the THRIVE ERG have found particularly helpful is an activity called Rose, Bud, Thorn. It’s a regular Microsoft Teams session the group holds for its members, who are invited to process and express a myriad of emotions in a confidential and psychologically supportive space. During the activity, everyone shares a rose (something positive in their life now), bud (new ideas that have blossomed, or something they are looking forward to experiencing of learning in the future) and thorn (something that is causes them pain at the moment).
As she looks back on her own journey to mental wellness, Pamela reflects on her own rose, bud and thorn. “My thorn is everything leading up to my leave — the whole year,” she said. “My bud is going on and coming back from leave — I was uncertain of both. It ended up being beneficial — more so than I thought it would be.”
And her rose?
“Along with getting my mental and physical health back, I learned the invaluable lesson to never let anything come before my own health.”