Ending Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace

Doug Brigham By Doug Brigham

When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, coworkers, friends and family typically rush to support and encourage that person. However, when someone receives a diagnosis of depression, anxiety or other mental health condition, the individual may be reluctant to admit they have a problem due to the stigma attached to mental illness. In fact, those with a mental health condition may even be blamed by others for their condition or categorized as lazy, weak or incompetent. As a result, those dealing with the devastating effects of mental illness are left feeling ashamed, alone and hopeless.

This negative stigma associated with mental health issues is especially powerful in the workplace, where employees compete for projects, titles and compensation. As humans, our usual response to private and public shame is secrecy, to protect ourselves from further embarrassment. Unfortunately, this reaction often leads individuals in need to remove themselves from the very support systems that can provide the help they need.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 80% of workers with a mental health condition report that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment.

The Impact on Your Business

The vast majority of mental health conditions remain undiagnosed or untreated, with a huge impact in the workplace. Even those who seek help often delay treatment for years. NAMI reports the average person waits 8 to 10 years after the initial onset of mental health symptoms before seeking help. According to a Harvard University study, untreated mental health conditions cost a minimum of $105 billion in lost productivity each year. And community-based nonprofit Mental Health America reports that untreated depression can be as costly as heart disease to the US economy, costing over $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity and $26 billion in direct treatment costs.

According to a Harvard University study, untreated mental health conditions cost a minimum of $105 billion in lost productivity each year.

Another danger of ignoring behavioral health issues in the workplace is how mental health concerns can contribute to presenteeism— the practice of being physically present on the job, but not engaged or productive.

A recent report by EHS Today on a Global Corporate Challenge study found that “while employees were absent from work an average of four days per year each, they confessed to being unproductive on the job for 57.5 days each – almost three working months.” As a result, presenteeism can cost employers ten times more than absenteeism. According to the study, absent workers cost employers approximately $150 billion per year, while those who came to work but were not fully productive cost $1,500 billion annually.

Like many other health issues, mental health conditions can create a ripple effect in a family, so even if an employee is not suffering from a mental health issue, he or she can be missing time or dealing with the stress of having a family member who is struggling with mental illness. And, when one member of your team is unproductive, the rest of the team also feels the impact.

Changing Perceptions

A growing recognition of the importance of mental health has begun to make positive changes in the workplace.

NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, is working to change misperceptions about mental health. In 2015, NAMI launched the “StigmaFree” initiative with a focus on workplace issues designed to cultivate a company culture of caring and enhanced engagement around mental health. Both individuals and organizations can find tips and resources on NAMI’s Stigma Free website.

Last year, global consulting firm EY(formerly Ernst & Young) launched a mental health awareness program called “R u OK.” It features a simple core concept— encouraging employees to ask the question “Are You OK?” when they notice a coworker who may need help. A dedicated section of the EY website features R u OK coaching materials and additional resources.

Tips for Ending the Silence

Even those seeking help outside of work may wonder if they have a valid issue if the subject of mental health is never discussed in the office, where most of us spend the great majority of our weekday waking hours. Breaking the taboo and speaking openly and casually about mental health treatment at work can help to normalize the issue and encourage those in need to seek help.

Here are a few tips for addressing mental health issues at your organization:

  • Educate yourself, your leadership team, and others about mental health issues
  • In benefits discussions, fully explain both physical and mental health resources you offer
  • Encourage equal consideration for both physical and mental illness among managers and supervisors
  • Highlight resources available through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to address mental health concerns
  • Be conscious of the language used throughout the organization— minimize use of terms like “crazy” and other unintentional negative references to those needing help
  • Demonstrate compassion for those dealing with a mental health issue
  • Fully support coworkers who are honest about seeking treatment

Bottom Line Benefits

Adopting a culture of compassionate and open support for mental health treatment can also have an unexpected benefit in terms of employee retention and recruitment. Employees dealing with a mental health issue personally or with a family member are less likely to leave and more likely to join an organization that offers an open and honest approach to mental health. Therefore, doing the right, fiscally responsible thing can also provide your business with a competitive advantage by providing access to a deeper pool of talent that may hesitate to join a workplace that is less accepting and supportive.

An effective EAP can be a valuable resource when handling workplace mental health issues. A well-designed EAP can support the employee, their family members, and the organization. Want to learn more? Get in touch.

Doug Brigham

By Doug Brigham, LCSW, LEAP, SAP Director of Operations, North Carolina, BHS