Turn on the television, and you might see a commercial for online therapy. Open a news app, and there’s likely an article about mental health. Now more than ever, it seems awareness surrounding mental illness is growing.

With the anxiety-inducing coronavirus pandemic added to the existing stressors of everyday life, more media outlets and celebrities are acknowledging the importance of mental health. However, despite this growing awareness in many public spaces, the workplace often remains a less welcoming place for openness. Too many employees are uncomfortable talking about mental health in relation to work. This stigma against mental illness negatively affects employees and workplaces, overall. 

Luckily, HR and business leaders can actively address mental health in the workplace and create an open and supportive environment. In a recent webinar, Spring Health hosted Dr. Joel Axler, child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and behavioral health leader with Strategic Benefit Advisors (SBA). He was joined by Rob Watson, Spring Health’s vice president of enterprise partnerships, to discuss how to create a stigma free workplace. Read the recap below. 

What is stigma and how does it affect work?

Stigma surrounding mental health can be experienced in different ways, according to Joel. Many people who have a mental illness are unfairly blamed for their condition, as if they caused their current mental health state. This blame results in feelings of shame and low self-esteem and negative self-perception, which in turn impacts performance at work. 

Although society has evolved in regards to how we view and talk about medical conditions like cancer, mental health disorders are still largely shunned and criticized. An unsupportive environment can lead to fear of disclosing details surrounding mental health. The negative effects of stigma towards mental health disorders often outweigh the true symptoms of the disease.

Joel points out that alleviating stigma is not easy, but incredibly worthwhile. Through promoting mental health awareness in the workplace, early interventions are more likely, resulting in faster recovery down the line. Not only is mental health positively impacted through sharing stories and bringing down walls, but so too is physical wellbeing. Heart disease and stroke are connected to emotional health. 

Alleviating stigma means providing education on what mental illness fully encompasses, and reminding those with mental illness that they are not alone.

Responses to employees are key

Joel urges leaders to carefully consider their own reactions to mental illness to start building a stigma-free work environment. People are inclined to react to mental health illness in four less helpful ways: avoidance, judgement, anger, and frustration. 

By taking the time to reflect before acting, one can respond in a more supportive manner. Some effective ways to respond to someone suffering from a mental health disorder are:

  • Listen without making judgements. Focus on their needs at that moment.
  • Ask what would help, directly. An effective manager can open meetings in a supportive way by asking how people are doing, along with other specific questions for each individual.
  • Reassure and provide practical information and resources. Empathic leaders can also lead with productivity. In Zoom meetings, keep employees updated of changes to logistics or policies. Regular communication in email or other forms can also keep all employed up to date with resources. Specifically address employees who might be feeling isolated or undergoing other acute stressors that you know of.
  • Avoid confrontation. Express your concern, and ask what you can do to help. Try to match the pace of that employee and what they are comfortable with.
  • Know your employees’ supportive contact. If there is an emergency situation, know who to reach out to for help.

Also remember to keep comments appropriate, be supportive in general, and take warning signs (especially those of suicide) seriously. 

Further steps to create a Stigma-free workplace

Along with considering how to respond appropriately, Joel outlined some concrete ways to develop a stigma free culture at work.

  • Start a de-stigma/awareness campaign: Begin an ongoing process to increase awareness in the workplace. Don’t do a one-time event, but create a recurrent campaign. Create awareness with the C-Suite and HR leaders, consider a mental health first aid program (akin to a traditional first aid program), and institute a team to implement this mental health aid. This wellbeing team or committee in charge of mental wellness can become the safe place for employees to seek help. Use email signatures and other indicators to identify specific members of the mental health aid team. 
  • Promote resources: Figure out what your company wants to promote in the way of mental health resources—you may want to focus on mental health for a specific population or situation. Understand the needs of the employees to communicate resources that connect and resonate. These could include information sessions on challenges in life as well as creating space for meditation and relaxation. Stay up-to-date with current events and how they may influence mental health in order to address them appropriately. 
  • Explore virtual behavioral solutions: In our connected world, mental wellness solutions now allow employees to get care from anywhere, anytime. People can use the technology in their own home to find solutions that work for them without having to physically go to an appointment. Embrace evolving technology to find the best solutions for employee mental wellbeing. 

Watch the full webinar here for more ideas on alleviating stigma in the workplace.

Webinar replay: Creating a stigma-free work environment

Spring Health provides innovative solutions for employee mental health, right in their own homes. Using AI and other cutting edge technologies, Spring Health uses comprehensive intakes to create individualized care plans that can help people from the start. To see how to better support your team, learn more about Spring Health today.

Nora Hickey
Nora Hickey

Nora is a staff writer for Spring Health.

December 4, 2020