How to Break the Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace
How to Break the Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace

How to Break the Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace

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These days, discussions about mental health, its challenges, and its importance, are more prevalent than ever. Yet, despite that, the stigma surrounding the issue remains. That’s likely because looking at such a personal topic head-on is hard. But while it may seem more comfortable to keep a “stiff upper lip” and sweep the issue of mental health under the metaphorical rug, ignoring a problem has rarely, if ever, solved it.

Today, as the occurrence and impact of behavioral-health conditions ballooned during the Covid-19 pandemic, destigmatizing mental health concerns, improving support, and seeking out better solutions is more important than ever.

The effects of mental health in the workplace

So, what is stigma? Often, it’s one of those things that we understand when we see it but struggle to quantify on its own. At McKinsey & Company, they define stigma regarding behavioral health as “a level of shame, prejudice, or discrimination toward people with mental-health or substance-use conditions.” They go on to say that because of this “such conditions are often viewed or treated differently from other chronic conditions, despite being largely rooted in genetics and biology.”

Think about it, how many times in your life have you heard the phrase “just buck up”? People who deal with mental health concerns are often told to “get over it,” or are given the advice to simply “let it go” or exercise more or eat better. Such examples of stigma and minimization can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects. To help us better understand stigma and how it works, here are its three primary forms as outlined by The National Academy of Medicine:

Self-stigma: These are the negative assumptions and stereotypes we internalize. Rather than believing they have an illness for which there are treatments, a depressed person may instead think of themselves as “broken,” which then harms their sense of self-worth and makes it even more difficult for them to seek help.

Public stigma: Sometimes called the “social stigma,” McKinsey & Company defines this as “the negative attitude of society toward a particular group of people.” For mental health concerns, this stigma creates environments in which people with such conditions feel discredited, feared, and isolated.

Structural stigma: Swap “structural” for “workplace” and in either case it this stigma refers to systemic discrimination found in cultural norms and institutional practices and policies. The result often ends with neurodivergent employees feeling like round pegs attempting to force themselves through unforgiving square holes. 

The problem with stigma is similar to the problem with other types of discrimination: people who don’t match the majority identity end up facing additional challenges while feeling excluded and invisible. For those with mental health concerns, the consequences can be dire.

The time is now

These are challenging times. And even as we ease our way out of the pandemic era, certain difficulties remain one of which is the lingering effects of prolonged stress and upheaval on mental health. People who struggled before and those who are struggling anew may find their organizations perpetuating stigma while failing to offer enough support.

But, thankfully, on the other side of the pandemic’s upheaval coin is opportunity. We’ve already been pushed to make sweeping changes to accommodate life alongside Covid-19. From a pivot to remote work to reimagining the structure of a traditional in-person workplace, we’ve seen that we can turn difficulty into possibility. Now is the time to do the same with mental health.

Steps to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace

Today’s perception of stigma suffers from a harsh divide. Conducting a series of studies, McKinsey & Company found that while 80 percent of polled employees believed that an “antistigma” campaign would be helpful, only 23 percent of employers actually implemented such a program. Also, while employers ranked reducing stigma at the very bottom of their concerns, 75 percent of employees recognized the presence of stigma at work. The result is a pressing need to dismantle the stigma about mental health in the workplace. Thankfully, building on that research, McKinsey & Company inspires this three-pronged approach:

First: Shift perspectives.   

Perception is powerful. And poor depictions of mental health issues in life and entertainment are widespread. If you tried, you could probably think up a whole list of bad examples from movies, tv, books, and more. Thanks to this, shifting perspectives about mental health is a perfect place to start. Here’s how:

  • Provide all employees with mental health literacy training. Perspective is powerful, but so is knowledge. Help your team learn how to recognize behavioral-health challenges in the workplace to counter stigma and negative stereotypes. These learning opportunities can help raise awareness, reduce stigma, ignite conversation, and serve up resources for support and treatment.
  • Teach leaders to recognize distress signals. After literacy comes recognition, which, in some cases, can be career- or even life-saving. With leaders capable of noticing signs of distress, your organization can move from stigmatizing mental health issues to providing support and actionable solutions.
  • Encourage open communication and the sharing of personal stories. Isolation and shame are some of the most common feelings associated with mental health issues. But the truth is, dealing with behavioral-health challenges is extremely common, and when one person shares their experience, others will feel seen and understood.

Second: Eliminate discriminatory behavior.

This feels a bit “easier said than done,” but the sentiment is essential, nonetheless. As McKinsey & Company reports, “most employers agree that behavioral-health conditions should be treated with the same urgency, skill, and compassion as other medical conditions.” Meanwhile, 65 percent of respondents with a mental illness and 85 percent of those with substance-use disorders still perceived stigma at work. Clearly, there’s a divide between leadership’s desired outcome and the lived experience of employees. Because of this, we need to take some sturdier steps toward eliminating discriminatory behavior. Here’s how:

  • Commit to using non-stigmatizing language. Language can be loaded. For instance, there is a whole range of negative connotations attached to terms like “crazy” or “addict,” all of which make it difficult to separate the individual from the affliction. Because of this, companies must make a concerted effort to remove stigmatized language from their vocabulary and, instead, use person-first language that emphasizes someone’s humanity over their health challenges.
  • Include neurodiversity in your DEI training. Make sure to include behavioral-health challenges alongside your other inclusivity initiatives. Doing so will help people both learn more about what neurodiversity is and that discrimination against it is on par with other types of biased behavior.
  • Value psychological safety. Psychological safety occurs when people feel comfortable both bringing their whole, authentic selves to work and speaking up about concerns without fear of retribution. When it comes to supporting mental health and dismantling stigma, this concept is essential. After all, if someone feels they must hide their neurodiversity at work, then they certainly aren’t feeling supported as an entire, complex person.

Third: Treat mental and physical health needs equally.

Most of the time, mental health issues are invisible. Compared to disabilities or health concerns that are immediately apparent to others, this can lead to skepticism, invalidation, and minimization. After all, no one wears a note from their doctor around their neck declaring that they have anxiety. Yet, a lack of visibility doesn’t make issues concerning mental health any less real. Because of this, we need to counter stigma and ensure the parity of mental and physical health benefits. Here’s how:

  • Communicate your commitment. Employers can prove their commitment to mental and physical health parity by ensuring that company-provided healthcare plans cover behavioral health services. At the same time, companies should develop avenues for support. As seeking help for mental health concerns is already difficult, organizations must do everything they can to help remove obstacles for their employees.
  • Make mental health initiatives a priority. When mental health concerns are ignored within an organization, it’s the same as the company saying they don’t care. In fact, the survey by McKinsey & Company found that “only 39 percent of organizations have appointed an executive-level leader who is responsible for overseeing the organization’s behavioral-health portfolio.” Moving forward, especially in our post-pandemic world, this needs to change. All companies should give mental health the time and attention it deserves.

How leaders can help

Regardless of where someone falls within a company’s hierarchy, everyone can help dismantle mental health stigma in the workplace. But as with most large and lasting changes, including addressing structural stigma and creating better policies and access to help, success comes from the top. Leaders at every level should take the following steps to improve mental health within their teams:

  1. Normalize the conversation. Gone are the days when discussing mental health concerns and solutions was taboo. Instead, we need to be more open and honest than ever before.
  2. Practice emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to a set of skills including self-awareness, social awareness, self-and relationship management, and effective communication. Together, they help a leader stay attuned to their team’s emotional well-being.
  3. Raise awareness about resources. If your company offers resources and avenues for support, make sure that your team is aware of them. If it doesn’t, then now’s the time to change that.
  4. Set your own example. As with all leadership, you need to both talk the talk and walk the walk. For mental health wellness, this means being open about your own journey while having compassion for others.

With the big changes and bigger challenges of the past few years, most of us have come face to face with mental health concerns. Ranging from depression to anxiety to burnout and beyond, whether we dealt with issues personally or worked with or cared for someone who did, it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s gone untouched by behavioral health conditions. Because of this, it’s more important than ever that we bring discussions of mental health out of the dark, break down the stigmas surrounding them, and focus on empowering all team members to manage their mental health in a positive and constructive way.

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