I had the honour of being profiled this week by French paper Le Figaro to talk about my career and why it led me to sounding the alarm on mental health in the workplace. I discussed what it was like working in national security as an Egyptian-American Muslim woman in the wake of 9/11, the mental health toll of working in stressful environments for years on end, and why in the post-pandemic era, it is more important than ever for employers to support the mental health of their employees at work.
Below is the English translation of my interview.
After 20 years in counter-terrorism and national security, this American warns about mental health at work.
TESTIMONY - From the war in Iraq to the Pentagon and up to the gates of the White House, Jasmine M. El-Gamal has worked in the most stressful environments in the world.
For 20 years, Jasmine M. El-Gamal worked in national security and counter-terrorism, in the field, in the middle of the Iraq war, in the offices of the Pentagon. Is there a more stressful career environment? She specializes in US policy in the Middle East, issues related to Iraq, Syria, the Arab Spring and Islamist terrorism (among other issues). An analyst, speaker and writer, her experiences have led her today to becoming a specialist in mental health at work.
2003, United States. Jasmine El-Gamal is just graduating when, at the same time, her country launches an armed intervention in Iraq and goes to war against the Saddam Hussein regime. Quickly, the young woman receives a letter from a company, looking for translators alongside the American army. “Do you want to work for us?” says the letter. Jasmine, born in New York but raised in Egypt, is Arabic speaking. She thus volunteered to be a translator and cultural adviser and was immediately deployed to the south of the country of the two rivers.
Southern Iraq, 2003. I was working with a civil affairs team setting the stage for reconstruction efforts. © Jasmine El-Gamal
"At 21, overnight I found myself in the middle of a war that I knew nothing about at the time," she says. Arriving with the American soldiers, she becomes a bridge between the soldiers and the Iraqi population who will give her the nickname of “Yasmine the Egyptian”. Upon her return to the United States, the young woman does not have time to digest what she has just experienced. On the contrary, she is already taking off on another most sensitive mission.
For a year and a half, she translated interviews of Guantanamo detainees, reputed then to be the most vile criminals in the world, in a prison that has become the symbol of human rights violations. Jasmine finds herself with a major responsibility on her shoulders. "In Iraq, I learned that we weren't always told the truth about what was really going on in those faraway places," she says. "I felt it was my responsibility to see for myself and help where I could.” There, in Guantanamo Bay, amid military uniforms and orange jumpsuits, she celebrates her 24th birthday.
Accumulation of trauma
"I carry the images and conversations of that time with me today... They have forever shaped my work and my identity," she wrote in 2020 in New Lines Magazine. In the midst of this stressful environment, immersed in the heart of national security and counterterrorism, she must also weather her own internal storm. After September 11, 2001, the eyes of the whole world turned on the Muslim community. "I thought I knew who I was, but I really didn't. It was the first time that I was looked at as an Arab and Muslim Egyptian as much as an American,” she explains. Are you Muslim? Do you know al-Qaeda? “I was facing absurd questions.” Thus, many things jostle and intersect, without the young woman having the opportunity to put these accumulating traumas into words, and without taking the time to process these periods where she was subjected to such heavy pressures.
With the pandemic, employers have never talked so much about mental health and well-being at work, an economic issue for companies in the United States as well as in France. The World Economic Forum reported in 2021 that by 2030, the costs related to mental health problems in the world will total more than 6,000 billion dollars... Across the Atlantic, some estimates suggest that depression alone costs 31 to 51 billion dollars to companies per year in lost productivity. “Your employees look after your business, so look after their health,” argues Jasmine El M. Gamal. “A work contract should also be a social contract based on well-being. It is not an act of charity. Indeed, a healthy workplace is the cornerstone of a healthy society.”
After Guantanamo, the American official continued her career. She obtained a master's degree in international relations at Georgetown University and was successively, from 2008 to 2013, a Middle East adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, then from 2013 to 2015, Special Assistant to three undersecretaries. Then, at the height of her career, came the break, the fall. After several recruitment interviews, a final interview separates her from a position at the White House. Her superiors having highly recommended her, her candidacy was a matter of consensus.
Being interviewed by then-VP Biden and offered the job to be his advisor was surreal. After this selfie, he called my mother and left a voice message, which left her in tears of joy. Alas, as one final interviewer determined, it was not to be. © JasminEl-Gamal
Being unconditionally forthcoming during the final interview, Jasmine evokes the death of her father, her best friend, her champion as she calls him, which occurred two years earlier. Like all mourning, hers was long and tortuous and she takes the time to open up about that period of psychological distress. Yet this detailing, in all its logic, does not pass muster [is regarded as a liability], despite multiple work promotions during the period of time in question. A veto is issued, which prevents her from obtaining the authorization necessary to work in the most guarded building in the world. Overnight, the devoted civil servant went from “assistant to a very important person”, to feeling cast aside, completely rejected; the same young woman who a few years ago flew over Iraq in a Black Hawk helicopter with the Secretary of Defense. She leaves Washington, devastated
Travelling with then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to the Middle East on his official aircraft. Growing up in Egypt, I often had to pinch myself to know my career was not a dream. It would take me years to recover from the trauma of leaving my government career behind. © Jasmine El-Gamal
“I disappeared off the face of the earth... My whole identity had been taken from me, first my father, then my job. It broke me to pieces, as if all these last years, where I had accumulated stress, anguish, sadness, meant nothing because I dared to share my past grief in an interview” she relates. "I didn't know where to start rebuilding. For the first time in my life, I had no distraction to help brush this trauma aside, like after Iraq and Guantanamo, where I had always immediately followed up with something else."
With the help of a therapist, she gradually sheds past wounds and realizes the importance of mental health in the workplace. “I had the means to resort to a good specialist. But what about others? We have no tools in the workplace to deal with trauma [as it happens]... We have to live, bottle everything up and then return to the office as if nothing had happened.
During the pandemic, Jasmine M. El Gamal began sharing her story on Twitter, discussing these psychological struggles and the lessons she had learned from them. “I have received over a hundred messages... A lot of people are suffering in silence and think they are the only ones going through this. Employers have been absolving themselves of responsibility for mental health for too long. This needs to change.”
I began using my experiences and expertise to write and speak about foreign policy and international affairs and, eventually, mental health at work. I realised that I did not have to belong to an organisation to be worthy of contributing in the way I always wanted to. © Jasmine
Arguing the case
Moreover, in addition to personal problems, there are external events that affect collective mental health, the many shootings in the United States on that side of the world, evokes Jasmine M. El-Gamal, citing as well the Islamist attacks in France, then the pandemic and political unrest or the climate crisis.
"In 2020, mental health support has gone from a valuable asset to a real business imperative", announced a study published on the Harvard Business Review website. Recently, the profession of Chief Happiness Officer has emerged, guarantors of well-being at work supposed to reduce turnover, promote cohesion, reinforce conviviality in the company. A “feel-good” trend has come to take over employer brands and has become a marketing argument for recruiting. But to what effects? 41% of French employees declared themselves to be in a situation of psychological distress according to the barometer carried out in June 2022 by OpinionWay (for the firm Empreinte humaine). More than two million employees in France would be affected by burnout, a figure twice as high as before the pandemic.
Four-day week, remote working arrangements, mental health days … Companies certainly seem to be looking for solutions to take care of the psychological state of their employees, but it is not enough, according to Jasmine M. El Gamal, who advocates for a real restructuring at the organizational level. "Managers have a solemn duty to the health of their employees," she insists. And they should lead by example, especially in intense areas like national security.” Since we spend the majority of our lives at work or working, employers are in a unique position to make strategic decisions regarding their employees’ health. “However, the company is still not a place where you feel safe to express yourself fully and take care of your mind... Just as you take care of your body. This must change.”