Fighting mental health stigma in the workplace

When it comes to mental health in the workplace, you might have already heard an often-cited statistic: 

" Every week, more than 500,000 Canadians are missing work because of a mental health issue. "

That’s a lot of people. But what often isn’t said is that this figure is actually probably much higher because many people will “hide” the real reason for their absence—whether it’s anxiety, depression, bipolarity or burnout—for fear of being stigmatized.

According to an England-based study, 95% of employees who miss work because of work-related stress or anxiety will only mention stomach pains, headaches or other strictly physical symptoms.

Although mental health has started to be increasingly talked about, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, the stigma surrounding it is well alive. 

mental health in the workplace

Mental health issues aren’t necessarily caused by work itself. In fact, work can promote well-being and help us develop social contacts, skills and self-esteem.

The problem often comes down to the context in which the work is done. Risk factors that can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues and symptoms include, among other things: 

  • Work overload 
  • Job insecurity 
  • Task ambiguity 
  • Performance pressure 
  • Lack of recognition
  • Psychological harassment
  • Poor relationships at work
  • Lack of participation in decision-making
  • Fuzzy boundaries between professional and personal life
  • Little or no communication between management and employees 

Although these factors affect us all, some studies have shown that low-skilled, part-time and low-job-security workers are more prone to mental health issues than others.

The consequences are devastating—not only for people living with mental health issues,  
but also for the organizations they work for.

Taken together, absenteeism, presenteeism, low productivity, resignation and constant turnover cost Canadian employers over $6 billion.

But why are we in this situation if the consequences are so high?

mental health stigma at work

The stigma surrounding mental health issues can make individuals reluctant to seek help.

As many as 80% of employees living with depression or anxiety choose not to seek support because of shame or fear of paying the price in some way.

And for good reason.

When they confide to someone that they need help, people living with a mental health issue at work are often labeled, ostracized, belittled or isolated.

report being “pigeonholed,” “professionally disqualified,” or “encouraged to take an unwanted retirement.”

They may, for instance, be looked upon by their employers or co-workers as “fragile,” “incapable,” “less productive,” “less reliable,” or “at risk of relapse.”

Studies have also shown that co-workers are less welcoming of an employee who is returning to work after a mental health-related absence than an employee returning after a physical illness.

The stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace gives rise to a dangerous and vicious circle: it not only tends to worsen the situation of people living with a disorder who don’t dare to ask for support, but creates a blind spot for employers who are unable to properly identify employees in distress and the measures they should adopt.

This is why the stigma is referred to as an “aggravating factor.” 

whose responsability is it to fight the stigma?

All too often, the proposed means of preventing or responding to mental health problems are focused on individual rather than organizational responsibility.

Psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy (medication) and other forms of support or treatment are essential, but they primarily place the responsibility on the person living with the mental health disorder.

The employer’s role is downplayed or even neglected, whereas mental health should be a shared responsibility. Since mental health is an issue that concerns everyone at an organization (at all levels!) and mental health issues have ripple effects across the organization, the response must also be collective.

Managers have a key role to play, but they may be confronted with mental health issues of their own or feel helpless in the face of an employee living with an anxiety, depressive or other disorder.

Only by creating an organizational culture that fosters psychological safety—in other words, feeling free to express what one is experiencing, thinking or feeling without fear of retribution—will it be possible to lift the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. Employee assistance programs, for example, are a promising measure, but they are useless if the employees concerned don’t feel comfortable turning to them. 

how can we lift mental health stigma in the workplace?

The first step in ending the stigma around mental health in the workplace is to talk about it more (and differently), raise awareness, demystify the issue, train and equip individuals, and conduct surveys.

There are many ways to do so. Here are just a few ideas: 

  • Plan an intervention or talk for your entire team to demystify mental health 
  • Train and equip your managers to better identify and address mental health issues in their teams 
  • Arrange workshops or focus groups to reflect on how to adopt healthier practices in the workplace 
  • Survey your employees and meet with them individually to check in on them
  • Adjust work practices and employee programs based on your survey results or discussions 

Relief supports businesses and organizations based in Quebec and across Canada in creating a work environment that is healthy, balanced and conducive to good mental health.

The Relief for business program, intended for executives, managers and employees, combines awareness, information, support and intervention. 

Discover Relief for business

Relief would like to acknowledge the contribution of Charles Saliba-Couture to this post.

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