Workplace Wellbeing

Mental Health Stigma is Keeping Employees From Getting Help. Here Are 3 Ways to Address it.

Mental health stigma is a major barrier to employee wellbeing. Let’s talk about what it is, where it comes from, and how to reduce it at your organization.

Written by
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D'Andrala Alexander, M.A., LPC-S
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC-S)
Clinically reviewed by
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    Mental health is a fundamental part of every workplace

    Every organization employs people who are struggling with their mental health, whether that’s living with trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

    Employees spend a significant portion of their lives working—spending time away from people they care about and things they love doing—to create value for employers.

    This dynamic calls for organizations to take their duty of care seriously, and bear some responsibility for employee wellbeing. People leaders, HR leaders, and supervisors can simultaneously hold the needs of the business alongside the needs of their employees.

    But to do this well, it’s essential to normalize conversations about mental health. 

    What is mental health stigma?

    There's a very clinical word for this: it's the "ick" feeling that keeps us from doing what we need to do to help ourselves. 

    Mental health stigma can cause someone who is struggling to feel deep shame, anger, or fear, and it’s a major barrier to employee wellbeing. In fact, 75% of employees report dealing with a mental health issue, yet 8 out of 10 of those employees don’t seek help due to shame and stigma.

    Where does it come from?

    Mental health stigma is subtly communicated in movies, TV shows, and other media we consume. We may hear friends, family, or coworkers make negative comments or assumptions about people with mental health challenges. 

    Over time, we internalize these messages and they become part of our thought processes, part of the way we view ourselves and other people. 

    Cultural and religious factors can also lead to mental health stigma. For example, Latino culture often downplays mental health issues, making it difficult to actually access care. Other marginalized groups, such as Black Americans, feel unable to admit to mental health challenges for fear of being further excluded or penalized.

    This can keep someone from reaching out and getting help, or talking about their mental health challenges with people they trust. They may not even be able to admit to themselves that they’re struggling or need help.

    4 ways to encourage employees to seek support

    Let’s dig into this. If your company or organization wants its people to feel comfortable asking for help, and provide them with the tools they need to get help, what’s the best way to achieve this? 

    Here are four steps you can take:

    1. Assume your workforce has mental health issues. Remember, 75% of employees report dealing with a mental health issue.
    1. Don’t assume employees have what they need to care for their mental health. While your organization may have a healthcare plan or EAP in place that includes a mental health component, that doesn’t mean needs are being met. If they’re not, advocate for adequate mental health support.
    1. Once a solution is in place, shift your focus to employee engagement. Getting their buy-in requires a commitment from leadership. This means not just putting money toward mental health support, but also taking the duty of care seriously. This involves giving employees the flexibility to go to therapy when they need it, and ensure they’re getting care that’s actually useful.
    1. Find ways to stay informed about employee mental health needs. You can’t address issues when you don’t know what the issues are, and you need specifics to create solutions. For example, are employees from the same demographic groups or a specific department doing poorly at your company? 

    If your company has Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) you can partner with them to better understand the needs of specific communities.

    How to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace

    Even if you don’t have a mental health solution in place, you can still make significant strides toward reducing mental health stigma in your organization. Here are three ways to do this. 

    Start conversations about mental health

    Isolation is often one of the underlying emotions for people who are navigating mental health issues. It’s deeply intertwined with stigma, contributing to thoughts like, “no one else is struggling like I am, so there must be something wrong with me.” 

    The shame of that feeling is a huge barrier to seeking care.

    Creating spaces to share experiences and stories about mental health challenges is a way of normalizing mental health conversations in the workplace. It can also help anyone who is struggling see they’re not alone—others have experienced and overcome similar struggles.

    Anytime is a good time to talk about mental health. HR and people leaders can:

    • Promote casual wellness check-ins during meetings or conversations
    • Make it a habit to start supportive conversations with employees who show signs that they may be struggling
    • Share experiences and stories about challenges they’re experiencing or have overcome
    • Let every employee know during one-on-ones and in group settings what mental health support options are available

    Confront internal stigma

    There are many external barriers to accessing mental healthcare. For organizations that want to confront stigma within their workplace culture, each individual, especially those in leadership positions, needs to look inward and consider how they think about and act around mental health issues.

    Internalized stigmas for individuals in the workplace can become externalized in policies. For example, how time off and leave policies for mental health issues are created and implemented. 

    For leaders, it's important to assume that employees are doing their best with the cards they've been dealt. There are employees within every company who are dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma, and/or PTSD, and still showing up to work every day and doing their jobs.

    There are some common responses to mental health conditions that spring from stigma:

    • Avoidance: fear and misunderstanding
    • Judgment: dismissing concerns, gossiping, exclusion
    • Anger and frustration: blaming, disrespect. 

    If people in leadership positions take note of how these responses show up for themselves, it can challenge their own stigma and move toward problem solving responses: based on questions, curiosity, empathy, and assuming employees are doing their best. 

    Train managers and supervisors 

    Managers and supervisors spend the most time with employees. They’re in position to build relationships and dispel stigma within their department.

    Managers may feel fearful, overwhelmed, or unequipped to have difficult conversations about mental health with their employees, if they haven’t been trained to do so.

    One-on-one leadership training can show them how to recognize employees who are struggling, and confront any stigma that may be stopping them from getting help. Mental Health First Aid training is an excellent course as well, teaching participants how to identify, understand, and respond to mental health and substance use issues.

    Managers aren’t expected to act as a substitute therapist, but they can ask, “How are you feeling as a person?” If the employee isn’t doing well, the manager will have the training and competency to respond with empathy and validation, and steer them toward the right mental health resources.

    Address the specific needs of marginalized groups

    Mental health issues affect everyone, but not everyone has the same access to mental health care. 

    Marginalized groups—people inhabiting identities historically on the wrong end of systemic power imbalances—have faced higher barriers to receiving care. This includes discrimination by providers, a lack of providers with similar identities and experiences, among other things.

    It’s essential for employers to:

    • Give employees access to a diverse provider network 
    • Find ways to collect useful data about how employees from different demographic identifiers are doing at work  
    • Ensure diversity across the company, especially in leadership positions
    • Support ERGs, which are an excellent way to reach employees and find out how they’re doing

    What does it look like when a company culture is open about mental health?

    There are stark differences between a workforce that is open to talking about mental health and one that is full of unaddressed stigma.

    When conversations about mental health are normalized, leaders regularly discuss their own challenges, model healthy work-life balance, and advocate for policies and practices that provide support within the company.

    On the individual level, supervisors and HR leaders make mental health check-ins a low key and regular component of meetings and casual conversations. They are trained to spot and discuss mental health concerns with their employees, and model good mental health practices—such as prioritizing therapy, work-life balance, and attending to their own wellbeing, while also challenging any mental health stigma under their purview.

    Over time, that openness can help employees feel comfortable going to their supervisor, HR leader, or coworker to seek help when they are struggling. 

    Standing up to stigma 

    It’s essential to remember that mental health is interconnected with everything else. It’s never an isolated issue.  

    Every conversation, every email, every all hands meeting is an opportunity to normalize the idea that there are employees who may need help, and leadership is committed to ensuring they get the help they need.  

    No one should feel like their work and their mental health needs are diametrically opposed, because they aren’t. Healthier employees are more resilient and more productive employees.

    Keep in mind that one in five of your employees has a mental health issue. It’s critical that those issues are addressed.

    Read this blog to learn what it's like to live and work with anxiety and panic attacks, and how to support employees who struggle with one or both of these challenges.  

    About the Author
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    D'Andrala Alexander, M.A., LPC-S
    Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC-S)

    D'Andrala is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC-S), community activist, and public speaker with a passion for mental health, criminal justice reform, and housing equity. She has over a decade of experience working with people seeking seeking mental health care with a focus on supporting marginalized populations and survivors of trauma.

    About the clinical reviewer
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