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Every organization is addressing mental health awareness at a different pace.
Many modern companies are tackling mental health stigma directly in the workplace. But a disproportionate level of stigma still plagues frontline and service industries, preventing essential workers from receiving the mental healthcare they need.
Factory workers at a large food and beverage company are giving us an unfiltered look at the fear stigma can cause, and how they are benefiting from therapy.
Frontline workers are facing a mental health crisis
Bayley and her co-workers help illustrate how mental health stigma in frontline workplaces can lead to feelings of fear, shame, frustration, misunderstanding, and avoidance. Each of these reactions represent a unique layer in the foundational barrier to employee wellbeing at work.
The stigma around mental health remains a prevalent, almost impenetrable presence in many workplaces across the country. Frontline or essential workers—which make up nearly half of our workforce—have historically faced a higher level of stigma, compared to their counterparts in traditional office-based jobs.
The challenges facing frontline workers
According to The State of Mental Health in America 2023 report, a growing demand for mental health services, a shortage of mental health providers, and an increase in out-of-network participation often results in access to quality mental healthcare that is only available for those with higher incomes.
Those with lower incomes frequently encounter difficulties accessing the treatment they need, and on average, frontline workers receive lower wages than any other cohort of the workforce.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a well-documented crisis in mental health. The previous three years have further fractured America’s workforce and deeply impacted frontline workers.
The pandemic exacerbated mental health challenges for a population that wasn’t afforded the safety and peace of mind that working from home allowed their counterparts in most offices.
Additionally, isolation is more prevalent among frontline workers who are navigating mental health issues. Isolation and stigma can contribute to the belief that one’s struggles with mental health are unique and abnormal: “no one else is struggling with their mental health like I am, so there must be something wrong with me.”
Bayley’s barrier to therapy
Bayley’s fear of being stigmatized for going to therapy caused her to discontinue care. Even though she knew how helpful it could be, she felt that by going to therapy, people would perceive her as being incapable of handling life challenges.
She says, “I want to be a better person for my partner. (Therapy) is something I know will help me get through it and that I could really benefit (from). I just don't know how that will be perceived.”
The honesty demonstrated by Bayley and her co-workers speaks volumes about the barriers to mental health access that stigma can build—particularly in these two quotes, which illuminate the factor fear plays in frontline workplaces.
“So, a lot of us here are going through some really deep, dark personal issues and journeys and we are so scared because there's that judgment,” admits one co-worker.
“I feel like when it comes to mental health everybody's scared. I think that it will always be something that's going to be a little bit touchy,” says another co-worker.
5 ways to reduce mental health stigma among frontline workers
HR and People leaders play a critical role in creating sustainable change in the culture and wellbeing of the workplace. Here are five steps your organization can take to reduce mental health stigma:
Create more opportunities for normalized conversations
In many frontline workplaces, the opportunity to have meaningful conversations or personal interactions while working can be limited. That’s why dialogue between an employee and manager, email communications, or team meetings present valuable opportunities to normalize conversations around mental health.
Conquering stigma in the workplace can be achieved with just one employee talking openly about mental health, whether it be their current challenges or what they are doing to address it.
Provide training that empowers leaders to recognize mental health challenges
If People leaders have not received adequate training, they may feel unequipped and hesitant to identify or address mental health issues in their employees.
Giving your employees the tools to succeed requires training your People leaders to properly recognize mental health symptoms, show empathy and understanding, and normalize conversations around mental health.
If needed, People leaders should also know when to confidentially escalate issues to HR leaders to confront any stigma that may be stopping employees from getting help.
Increase meaningful engagement between leadership and workers
Organizations can effectively overcome mental health stigma and nurture employee engagement when prioritizing their responsibility of care toward their workforce.
This includes facilitating honest conversations that lead with empathy, giving employees the flexibility in their work schedule to attend therapy, and ensuring they’re receiving care that’s beneficial.
Establish new open lines of communication
Confidential communication channels that encourage workers to share experiences about mental health challenges facilitate the normalization of meaningful conversations in the workplace.
This can also help struggling individuals recognize that they’re not alone—and fellow co-workers have experienced and overcome similar challenges.
Establishing new strategies for leadership to stay informed about employee mental health needs is critical. Leaders can’t effectively address issues affecting their workforce if they aren’t aware of exactly what the issues are.
Proven strategies include confidential self-screening literature and educational, company-wide email communications about mental health support resources.
Provide workers with expanded access to precision mental healthcare
An advanced EAP program can be a catalyst for normalizing support for frontline workers, breaking down the barriers (reinforced by stigma) that prevent them from seeking the help they need.
Defeating stigma: All it takes is one
It’s remarkable how simple acts of human vulnerability can initiate a contagious effect, leading to open and normalized workplace mental health conversations. Bayley says:
“It was kind of mind blowing to me to hear (co-workers) talk about (their therapy) and be open. Seeing other people share their story really validated me and sharing (my story).
“It also helped me know that I'm not alone, and there are other people here that I also probably could have been talking to throughout this entire time. We could have shared our struggles and had more of a support system."
When mental health and wellbeing is supported in the workplace, employees are healthier, happier, more engaged, and able to be more present at work, leading to increased productivity and improved results for your company.
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