Strategies to Reduce Stigma in Mental Health

Strategies to Reduce Stigma in Mental Health

Most employees (68 percent) worry that speaking up about a mental health concern would cost them their job, the Society for Human Resource Management reported, based on a 2019 study by Businessolver, a health benefits administrator. Nearly half of employees reported having a mental health setback, but only one-third of them told their employer about it.

Work isn’t the only place where people try to mask their mental health struggles. Roughly 21 percent of participants said they lied to avoid telling people they were seeking mental health services, according to America’s Mental Health 2018, a comprehensive study of access to mental health care conducted by Cohen Veterans Network and the National Council for Behavioral Health. The study found that nearly one-third of Americans (31 percent) have worried about others judging them when they told them that they sought mental health services.

To overcome these judgments, we need to understand why they occur in the first place. 

Understanding Mental Health Stigmas 

There are several types of stigmas and they each play a role in the perception of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ blog (NAMI), including:

  • Public stigma – When the public endorses negative stereotypes and prejudices, resulting in the discrimination of people with a mental illness. 
  • Self-stigma – When a person with a mental illness or substance abuse disorder internalizes public stigma. 
  • Perceived stigma – The belief that others have a negative perception about people with a mental illness.  
  • Label avoidance – When a person chooses not to seek treatment to avoid being assigned a stigmatizing label.  

One of the biggest stigmas that people with a mental illness face is being blamed for their condition, according to the NAMI. Their symptoms might get brushed off as a “phase.” They might even be told that they could “fix it if they tried.” 

We would never shame someone who was diagnosed with cancer or diabetes. Similarly, mental illnesses are not a character flaw or a sign of weakness — they’re a medical condition.

Other false assumptions people make about those with mental illnesses is that they’re unstable, unpredictable or dangerous. At work, this can cause employees to discriminate against people with a mental illness in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, avoiding them at work or leaving them out of important discussions.      

How Mental Health Stigmas Impact Your Bottom Line  

If mental health stigmas prevent people from speaking up and seeking treatment, their symptoms aren’t being medically managed. This takes a big toll on the well-being of the individual, first and foremost, but it also impacts the company’s productivity.   

One study found that the productivity losses of presenteeism associated with mental health are 5.1 times as large as losses from absenteeism, reported NAMI of Massachusetts.

Depression, for example, hinders a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks 20 percent of the time and reduces cognitive performance roughly 35 percent of the time, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 57 percent of employees with moderate depression and 40 percent with severe depression receive treatment to control these symptoms. 

It can also result in turnover, which is costly for employers. Employees suffering from depression are 20 to 40 percent more likely to become unemployed because of their condition. 

How can you help to reduce the stigmas in your organization that may be preventing people from speaking up — and getting help?

By supporting employees in several key ways. 

Four Workplace Strategies to Reduce Stigma in Mental Health

1. Create a culture where people are encouraged to prioritize their well-being. 

When someone is physically sick, we expect them to stay home. In fact, at some point, we’ve probably all worked next to someone who was coughing or sneezing profusely, to the point that a manager eventually suggested that they go home to rest. 

We all understand if someone needs to stay home because they’re physically ill. In part, it’s easier for us to acknowledge because we can physically see their symptoms. But what about when someone is struggling mentally? They might come in and act completely out of character, tearing up during one-on-one meetings, lashing out a coworker who asks a question, or disengaging during group discussions.   

These employees deserve to be checked on, too. 

Encourage employees to use their paid time off when they need it — for any legitimate reason.       

2. Encourage company leaders to start the discussion about mental health. 

One of the best ways to fight stigmas is to encourage people to talk openly about mental health. 

The best way to open up the discussion? Send an invitation. 

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins sent a companywide email with the subject, “Making Mental Health a Priority.” In the email, Fortune reported, he encouraged people to talk openly and offer compassion to others. After hitting “send,” his inbox was flooded with more than 100 emails from employees who shared personal mental health experiences. 

In order for an email initiative, like this example, to be effective and well-received, there has to already be a culture in place that supports mental health. 

According to one study, less than half of respondents felt that mental health was prioritized at their company, and even fewer viewed their company leaders as advocates. The study’s respondents overwhelmingly agreed (86 percent) that their company culture should support mental health. 

Building a company culture that prioritizes mental health starts at the top. 

It doesn’t have to be an executive who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition (although it could be). You just need someone who walks the walk, prioritizing their own mental health. Maybe they start their day with a five-minute breathing exercise or gratitude journal. Or they set boundaries for themselves, cutting off on work emails after 7 p.m., on Sundays or vacation. Or they take time to authentically respond when asked the usual, “How are you doing?” 

If your leaders are talking about their own mental health, your employees will feel empowered to do the same. Then maybe the conversation will silence the stigmas — not the other way around.       

3. Encourage managers to consider their word choices surrounding mental health.   

One strategy to reduce stigmas in mental health is simply to consider how we talk about it during everyday interactions. Maybe an employee jokingly says “Stop being so OCD!” to another employee who cleans out their keyboard every day with an air duster. Or another employee gossips that their coworker must be bipolar after they appear to be on edge during a team meeting. 

Attaching labels to behaviors — even, and especially, in a joking way — feeds into mental health stigmas. It’s also hurtful to the employee on the receiving end of the comments.

If an inappropriate comment occurs, encourage managers to speak with each employee privately and separately. You’ll want to ensure the person who said the offending comment understands that it’s not acceptable and, separately, check in on the person on the receiving end of the comments to see how they’re doing and ensure them that the company will not tolerate it.  

You might even take it a step further and bring in an expert from a national, credible mental health organization to train managers on language to use and avoid when talking about mental health, which they can then share with their team.  

4. Help employees recognize when they need help — and provide resources for them to seek it.

Consider hosting a companywide training on mental health at the start of each new year.

You might enlist a few experts to speak at the training about the importance of mental health and self-care. They might also be able to help train employees to recognize the signs of stress, anxiety, workplace burnout, and depression — as well as offer tools and resources that can help people take action when these signs arise. Mental Health America is a great starting point to find experts, as it has locations all around the country.

During the training, remind employees about any covered benefits that your company provides to help them better manage their mental health, such as therapy from a mental health professional. 

It’s also a great time to remind employees about your company policy on discrimination.  

By applying these strategies to reduce stigma in mental health, you’ll be building a stronger organization and community from the inside out.


Discover strategies for supporting the mental health of your employees. Join us for our next webinar on this important topic.