Destigmatizing Mental Health in The Workplace

At the top of their games and often characterized as superhuman, in recent years U.S. Olympians Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, along with Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, all demonstrated on the world stage that, in fact, they are very much just human. All revealed publicly that they were suffering from the impacts of what nearly 53 million people in the U.S. also share: the debilitating effects of mental health conditions.

While their stories beneficially elevate the conversation around mental health, with one in five people suffering from mental health issues and 40% not seeking care or as many as half of those not receiving adequate care, more action by employers is necessary to erase one of the biggest barriers to care – stigma.

According to the American Psychological Association, people with mental illness often keep their diagnosis a closely guarded secret in the face of widespread stigma and discrimination. McKinsey reports that the impact of stigma can be profound. When employees are at their most vulnerable and most in need of help, stigma prevents them from reaching out. Stigma can deepen an illness that is often invisible to others.

Workplace Implications of Mental Health Stigma

Employers have an opportunity to thwart the impact of behavioral and mental health stigma for the betterment of the entire organization. Unfortunately, recent research found that ‘reducing stigma’ ranks last on employers list of top mental health priorities, even though 75% of them acknowledge the presence of stigma in their workplace. Yet, consider the potential negatives of inaction:

  • Stigma can exacerbate employee mental health concerns.
  • Stigma is associated with lower workforce productivity.
  • Close to seven in 10 with high self-stigma levels (they internalize and accept negative stereotypes) reported missing at least a day of work because of burnout or stress.
  • Mental health disability leaves are 2x longer than leaves related to physical health or chronic disease.

It’s a fact that mental health is critical to strong workplace performance and for an organization’s bottom line. A positive sense of mental health can help employees cope with stress, work productively, make meaningful contributions, increase retention and employee advocacy, and help team members realize their full potential. According to the World Health Organization, every $1 invested toward increasing the treatment of depression and anxiety leads to a $4 return in better health and ability to work.

With only 29% of employers feeling very confident in accommodating employee mental health conditions, it’s important to know that wellness solutions are available to help the whole person. Supporting mental health should not be a siloed experience, and eliminating the stigma should be a priority. In fact, Olympian Phelps concurs. “We just have to change the perception that problems with mental health are something to hide,” he advocates.

Five Steps to Help Destigmatize Mental Illness in The Workplace

Leaders play a large part in de-stigmatizing and fostering a mentally healthy workplace. By following these five steps, companies can make measurable progress in destigmatizing mental illness in the workplace.

  1. Adopt a holistic approach to mental health and wellness.

    Mental health is not just about the mind. It’s important to know that one’s physical body, social relationships, and the world impact the management and perception of mental health.

    Too often, employee mental health resources are siloed and accessed reactively. By taking a proactive approach, mental health can be managed alongside every other aspect of employees’ health and well-being.
  2. Acknowledge that mental health is a “we” opportunity.

    Leaders/managers should not be alone in managing their own mental health and the mental health of their employees. Destigmatizing mental health conditions as a team effort. Acknowledge that mental health isn’t a “you” problem. It’s a “we” opportunity.
  3. Provide proper development training to leaders and middle managers.

    Provide development training to leaders and middle managers to effectively spot any mental health changes within their team. Managers and supervisors need to know what resources and support are available to point employees in the right direction.
  4. Know the common warning signs for mental illness.

    The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides warning signs to spot red flags (for individuals, their loved ones, or team members). Knowing these signs can help and guide leaders and their employees to seek help from a mental health professional when needed. These warning signs include:
    • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
    • Severe, out-of-control behavior that causes harm to themselves or others.
    • Sudden, overwhelming fear for no reason.
    • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits.
    • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities.
  5. Be more intentional with language about mental health.

    Language is a complicated but essential component when building a culture of mental health in the workplace. Insist on:
    • Reducing ableist and stigmatizing language (e.g., crazy, nuts, etc.) when discussing mental health.
    • Using person-first language that emphasizes a person’s humanity while reducing stereotypes. (e.g., person with a substance-use disorder vs. addict).
    • Avoiding using the word “normal” because it may imply that others are abnormal or “other”.

It’s also important to remember that leaders also need support and a ‘serve yourself before you can serve others’ frame of mind should be followed. In short, leaders need to make sure they are healthy too.

For more information on how to destigmatize behavioral-mental health in the workplace, download our Guide to Mental Health Promotion in the Workplace. It includes 10 steps on how leaders can help create a workplace that emphasizes humanity, one that allows people to show up as their whole selves, be open about how they’re really doing and offer them the opportunity to flourish – in the workplace and beyond.