Reducing Workplace Mental Health Stigma
Stigma around mental health is still common in the workplace despite the rising prevalence of mental ill-health and stress in employees. This stigma creates a workplace taboo on the subject with employees and their managers often being wary of talking about, recognising or acknowledging mental health issues.
Many employees believe that if they share struggles with mental ill-health at work, it will negatively affect how they are treated by their managers and colleagues and their prospects within the organisation will be hampered. They fear facing negative attitudes of others and being left with negative ‘stereotypical’ labels which will affect how others perceive them . For the employer, such a culture will also foster the likelihood of employees giving reasons for absence as due to a body-related rather than a mental ill health-related reason. This makes it difficult for an organisation to assess the true impact mental health is having on them in terms of lost productivity.
So, why is NOW the right time to address workplace mental health stigma?
The following reasons outline why NOW is the right time for your organisation to ‘normalise’ mental health and create a workplace culture that promotes mental wellbeing and encourages employees to talk about their mental health and seek support when they need it:
- The number of adults in our workplaces who suffer from ill-health is on the increase
Prevalence of mental ill-health has increased during the Covid pandemic; the Office of National Statistics  states that one in five adults reported that they experienced some form of depression during the coronavirus pandemic and this rate has doubled from pre-pandemic levels. The Charity Mind  also reports that two thirds (65%) of adults with existing mental health issues share that their mental health has gotten worse since the first national lockdown. Employees have generally experienced a period of changing work practices and insecurity during the pandemic which has increased their levels of anxiety and risk of mental ill-health. The problem is being exacerbated by increased home working; using the internet and mobile technologies, an ‘always on’ culture has often been created within organisations with working outside ‘normal’ hours being the norm; this is difficult for employees to disconnect from.
- Increased cost of mental ill-health for UK employers
As the prevalence of mental ill-health increases so does the cost for UK employers . The annual cost of mental ill-health to UK employers in 2020 was £45bn. These costs relate to mental health-related absenteeism, high staff turnover and mental health-related ‘presenteeism’ where employers work but are not as productive as they should be.
- Increased need for UK employees to act fairly and responsibly towards their employees
Organisations have a responsibility via the UK Equality Act 2010 to not disadvantage or treat an individual unfavourably because of mental illness. As prevalence increases employers have an increased obligation to protect their employees (potential and current) from discriminatory behaviours and prejudice which may lead to legal ramifications and associated costs. Employers must also be prepared to make reasonable adjustments for an employee if they are aware that they are suffering from a mental illness just as they are legally required for an employee with a physical disability. If an individual presents a case of unfair treatment, can lead to costly legal ramifications for an employer.
Exploring mental health stigma
For organisations to identify and address existing stigma in their workplace it’s important for leaders, managers and employees to share their understanding of what it is. Mental health stigma can be defined as the negative view or attitude towards people struggling with their mental health, including those living with a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. It refers to problems of knowledge (ignorance), attitudes (prejudice) and behaviour (discrimination). Unconscious bias, which is influenced by our backgrounds and experience, also might cause us to perceive people with mental health issues as different to ourselves. This bias may unconsciously lead us to undertake behaviours that negatively affect others e.g., not inviting someone with social anxiety to social gatherings which may increase their feelings of alienation. An individual with mental health issues can also internalise stigma (self-stigma) when they incorporate negative views into their own identity which affects their self-belief and confidence (Corrigan et al., 2006).
The building blocks of stigma have been commonly identified as stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination (Corrigan, 2004).
- Stereotypes are common beliefs about a group of people often shared at the societal level e.g., a belief that people with a mental illness are to be feared as they are a danger to the community in which they live.
- Prejudice is a negative attitude or feelings towards a group of people or person which is not based on experience e.g., an employer who believes that a person who has experienced mental illness will be unreliable and incompetent in the workplace or may take more sick days.
- Discrimination is the behavioural response as result of stereotypes and prejudice e.g., an employer who does not employ an individual based on their prior experience of mental illness or an individual who has been passed over for promotion due to previous anxiety-related absence.
Facilitating an increased understanding of the building blocks of stigma and investigating how they present themselves within your organisation can help identify the most effective intervention components for reducing workplace stigma at both the organisational and individual levels.
What steps can leaders and managers take to reduce mental health stigma?
- Educate all employees on mental health and how common mental health disorders are via online resources and training; this will help address people’s misconceptions.
- Speak more openly about mental health in the workplace so that others will feel more comfortable doing the same.
- Implement a mental health and wellbeing policy that can include a good return to work process for employees following periods of absenteeism and practice guidelines that will help protect people from experiencing discrimination or prejudice.
- Ensure all line managers have the necessary skills and levels of empathy to engage in sensitive interpersonal conversations with their subordinates. Management coaching can help line managers reflect on their current managerial practice, communication skills, levels of emotional intelligence and interpersonal sensitivity.
- Provide advice for employees on how to seek support if they do not wish to discuss issues with their line manager or other colleagues.
- Establish a positive working environment by minimising workplace risks to mental health, such as job stress.
- Create online chat groups or wellness forums, e.g., a Wellness Breakfast Club, where employees can get together to talk about their feelings, attitudes and experiences of physical/mental health.
A workplace culture built on trust, integrity and openness, within which employers can rely on their leadership and management to act compassionately and in a supportive way, fosters open dialogue and support seeking. This will help ensure that more people seek the help they need before symptoms become debilitating illnesses and will help organisations reduce the costs associated with mental health absenteeism and presenteeism.
How Impact can help
We at Impact Psychology offer tailored workshops and 1-1 coaching to address the specific needs of you and your team. Some of the recent workshops we have delivered have focused on Organisational Change, compassionate leadership and increasing resilience in leadership. For more information about how we can help you, please click here.
 Corrigan, P. et al. (2014) The impact of mental illness stigma on seeking and participating in mental health care. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(2), 37-70.
 ONS (2021) Are we facing a mental health pandemic? | National Statistical (ons.gov.uk) Accessed on 17.10.21
 Mind (2020) https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/nearly-two-thirds-of-people-in-england-say-that-their-mental-health-has-got-worse-during-lockdown-mind-announces-as-it-reopens-thirty-five-charity-shops-across-the-country/ Accessed on 17.10.21
 Deloitte (2020) Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year | Deloitte UK Accessed on 17.10.21
 MHFA England (2020) Mental Health Statistics Accessed on 17.10.21