One in six employees experiences some sort of mental ill health every year, and their recovery is often hindered by the misconceptions and negative associations surrounding the issue. David Price, wellbeing expert and CEO of Health Assured, looks at what employers can do to address mental health stigma.

People living with mental ill health admit that stigma and discrimination can make it difficult to recover. In some cases, it can even worsen their condition. As such, It is important and beneficial for employers to address and eliminate this stigma around the workplace.

Employers also benefit from fostering an attitude of support for employees struggling with mental health issues: it typically results in a decline in staff turnover and an increase in productivity and employee engagement.

What is stigma?

The Oxford dictionary describes stigma as, “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.”

In a work environment, stigmatising (or discriminating against) someone means viewing them in a negative light based on characteristics or traits deemed to be a disadvantage.

It causes unfair treatment or exclusion and isolation from society as a whole or within groups.

Unfortunately, there’s still some negative stigma and stereotyping that people experiencing mental health issues have to deal with. Mentalhealth.org details some mental health facts and statistics that show not only is it common, it comes in various forms and can affect anybody.

The media also contributes to this negativity. It sometimes portrays people with mental health issues as homicidal, violent, childlike, criminal or evil.

Social stigma

Also called public stigma, this is the negative stereotype associated with mental health problems.

This marks employees experiencing issues with their mental state as “different” and can even prevent them from feeling like individuals.

One example of social stigma associated with discrimination is leaving staff members out of activities or events because of their perceived disability.

A survey by the British Journal Psychiatry showed that up to 9 in 10 mental health service users in England had experienced some form of discrimination. The consequences of discrimination (unemployment, social isolation, etc) further stigmatises the sufferer, which in turn could worsen their condition.

Self stigma

This occurs when an individual dealing with psychological issues internalises the negative stereotypes associated with them. It can lead to cases of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, shame and hopelessness.

Both types of stigma contribute to employees not wanting to talk about mental health issues they may be experiencing because they feel embarrassed or fear isolation or being shunned by their colleagues.

The cost of staying silent

The stigma around psychological wellbeing can be detrimental to business activities when left unaddressed.

In 2017, staff turnover, sickness and lost productivity as a result of ill mental health cost employers more than £42 billion. This figure reinforces the argument for looking after employee health.

How can we prevent mental health stigma?

Some easily implementable ways to reducing mental health stigma around the workplace include the following.

  • Talk openly about mental health When you talk openly about wellbeing, employees feel more confident to join the conversation. Openly talking about mental health, and increasing awareness of how many people struggle with it, helps to take away some of the negative perceptions about it. The more we talk about it, the easier it is to talk about, and the more people will reach out for support.

  • Educate others Training managers to identify and respond to symptoms of a mental ill health can go a long way to supporting employees at work. It can also reduce the stigma surrounding the issue. Consider introducing Employee Assistance Programmes(EAP) that offer counselling for various issues around employee home and work life.

  • Be conscious of language The type of language used when addressing issues surrounding mental health can have a great effect on those it affects. We should all be aware of the words that we use and whether our language contributes to stigmatising the issue.

  • Rethink the definition of sick days Businesses recognise other physical illnesses as genuine reasons to call in sick from work. Should this not apply to instances of mental ill health? While many businesses are now recognising mental illness as a legitimate issue, not all organisations are on board. We need to get more comfortable with the idea of suggesting and requesting days to focus on improving mental as well as physical health.

Other ways to reduce the stigma includes encouraging equality, showing compassion and encouraging inclusion.

If you’d like to find out more information on any of the topics mentioned in this article, contact Health Assured, the UK and Ireland’s largest employee assistance programme provider, on 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 1 April 2019