Workplace Wellbeing

Overcoming Mental Health Stigma: A Guide for HR Leaders

Reducing mental health stigma in the workplace not only encourages people to seek the help they need but also boosts productivity and lowers costs for employers.

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Connor Holmes
Clinically reviewed by
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    Employees who experience mental health stigma in and outside the workplace are on average less happy, less likely to seek treatment, less productive, and earn less. Investing in mental health resources for employees can therefore be massively beneficial in reducing stigma and bettering treatment outcomes and productivity.

    In addition, reducing stigma is ultimately more profitable for organizations. A study by the World Health Organization estimated that for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 due to better health and productivity.

    The implications, both economic and otherwise, can be substantial since mental illness affects so many individuals. Roughly one in five Americans will experience some form of mental illness each year, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Every business therefore needs to address mental health stigma in their workforce. However, overcoming mental health stigma and offering the right solutions poses unique challenges.

    What is mental health stigma?

    Stigmas are based in negative stereotypes. They define how someone’s characteristics and values are viewed.

    Common areas of stigma include:

    1. mental health
    2. disability
    3. race
    4. culture
    5. gender
    6. sexuality
    7. creed

    Mental health stigma stems from lack of knowledge, fear, perceiving mental illness behaviors or symptoms as “not normal” or violent, and negative portrayals in the media.

    For instance, team members may view those with depression or anxiety as weak. They may perceive decreased productivity, trouble concentrating, lack of enthusiasm, or other performance issues caused by mental illnesses as a choice an employee makes—or a lack of willpower.

    Those who seek counseling, take medication, or engage in other treatment options may also face stigmas.

    A brief history

    Stereotypes about mental illness have persisted for most of human history. Early civilizations sometimes viewed mental illness as a religious punishment. And stigmas have persisted over time.

    Due to stigma, the United States institutionalized the mentally ill—often in unhealthy and dangerous conditions—up until the mid-20th century. At this point, treatment began to move toward community-based outpatient solutions and away from harmful isolation and confinement in asylums.

    Racism also plays a significant role in the history of mental health stigma for people of color. The National Alliance on Mental Health Issues states that mental health stigmas have been used historically against Black Americans to segregate them into facilities with poor conditions and treatment.

    Past medical practices regarding race and mental health continue to hurt the Black community, according to NAMI, as Black men are more likely than white men to:

    1. be diagnosed with schizophrenia

    2. avoid treatment for mental illness

    3. be imprisoned while mentally ill

    Related: Black mental health matters: Facts, resources, tips for allies


    1. One in five U.S. adults (47.6 million people) experienced mental illness
    2. One in 25 U.S. adults (11.4 million people) experienced serious mental illness
    3. 43.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness received treatment
    4. 64.1% of U.S. adults with serious mental illness received treatment
    5. African Americans or Black Americans, Hispanic or Latino Americans, and those of multiracial backgrounds have lower treatment rates than whites.

    *in 2018, according to NAMI

    To better understand the role mental health stigma plays in the workplace, it’s important to know how and why it persists.

    How is mental health stigma created and perpetuated?

    Internalized stigma: Internalized or self-stigma can cause someone to see their mental illness as shameful and attempt to hide it. When they hold these views, internalized from negative interactions with others, they are less likely to seek counseling or other solutions for treatable conditions.

    Family: An individual may feel embarrassed or ashamed to come forward with a mental health issue within their family dynamic. A study by the WHO additionally found that family members may also experience stigma when their relative experiences mental illness or substance abuse issues. They may feel embarrassment or stress about the relative’s condition.

    Society and the media: The media often equates mental illness with violence, crime, or those who are a burden on society. This can perpetuate many harmful stereotypes that paint mental illness as dangerous and shameful, even though the mentally ill are statistically more likely to suffer violence than cause it themselves.

    Workplace culture: If employers and coworkers constantly bully or harass an employee, they will experience increased stress and be less likely to come forward when they have a problem. If they feel they will be punished for being honest, they may hide their condition and suffer without treatment for longer. The bullying may also worsen the employee’s sense of self-worth, among other negative impacts.

    What are the impacts of mental health stigma?

    Economic: Depression and anxiety cost to the global economy is $1 trillion per year in lost productivity, estimates The World Health Organization. In the U.S. alone, untreated mental illness costs the economy $200 billion per year. One of the costliest mental health issues among full-time workers, major depression, leads to increased absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover.

    The workplace: For workers, mental health struggles often manifest as lack of productivity. Even if they’re showing up for work, they may be hiding their conditions due to stigma and not seeking treatment. Untreated mental illness such as depression also increases the risk of needing treatment for other illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, according to a report by the American Heart Association.

    Discrimination: The adult Black community is 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems, such as Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. As discussed above, Blacks and other ethnic minorities face increased discrimination and mental health stigma.

    Suicide: Stigma plays a major role in how society views suicide. The American Psychological Association finds that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 35 to 54, and the second for 10- to 34-year-olds, and the 10th leading cause of death overall, as of 2019. Stigmatization of suicide includes association with criminality, as well as myths linking suicide to weakness. Suicide attempt survivors may not be taken seriously, and others may see them as seeking attention.

    Related: Suicide prevention in the workplace and beyond

    How can we reduce mental health stigma?

    Training for managers

    Managers equipped with more tools and knowledge about mental health can better facilitate a healthy workplace. Training helps managers assess the current culture around mental health, as well as workplace conditions that could cause burnout and other issues. They can better recognize and address depression and anxiety when they arise in workers.

    A focus on reducing discrimination

    Managers can also learn how to offer more culturally sensitive mental health solutions to employees based on barriers to treatment they may face, such as institutionalized racism and other forms of discrimination. Assessing these barriers and understanding the unique nature of Black mental health, for instance, can make a major difference in making all employees feel psychologically safer.

    Training for employees

    Employees can likewise learn to reduce stigma in their own experiences. There are courses available that can benefit employees. For instance, Mental Health First Aid offers virtual training for employees to learn steps to address mental health issues in themselves and help coworkers.

    Change the conversation

    The way we talk about mental health can help alleviate stigmas. Workplaces can foster an environment where employees and supervisors speak openly about mental health. Avoid and discourage stigmatizing language that may make employees fearful to come to supervisors about their conditions.

    Providing mental health benefits for employees

    Mental health benefits encourage employees to seek solutions to and treatment for mental health concerns. The best of these  benefits reduce barriers to care and provide pathways to the right treatment no matter where an employee is in their mental health journey.

    Barriers to mental health solutions can be detrimental to workers. This is especially true when stigmas already cause many to avoid treatment or face other adverse impacts in their lives. Spring Health believes employees should receive the right solutions as soon as possible when seeking treatment.

    Our peer-reviewed machine-learning models focus on individual outcomes, rather than broad demographics. This reduces the need for trial and error and leads to more accurate and effective treatment early on, with higher and faster recovery rates.

    Spring Health combines clinically-proven technology with world-class providers to deliver precisely what each employee needs. These personalized solutions range from meditation to more serious interventions such as clinical treatment and medication.

    About the Author
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    Connor Holmes

    Connor is a staff writer for Spring Health.

    About the clinical reviewer
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