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Human resources

How to prevent mental health stigma in the workplace

February 7, 2022

People develop mental illnesses for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s biological. Sometimes it’s the result of trauma or stress. Sometimes we just don’t know why. But regardless of the reason, mental illness is every bit as real as a physical illness like diabetes. So why are people with mental illness treated differently?

In a word: stigma.

What is stigma?

Stigma is a set of negative and often unfair beliefs about a group of people. It’s a negative stereotype. And it’s a reality for many people with mental illness. It can affect their lives and be a barrier to getting the help they need.

For someone with a mental health issue, it’s important to decrease the many types of barriers to getting help—like delays, finances and knowledge—and reduce the stigma. The message needs to be that it’s okay to not be okay.

Stephanie Ipavec-Levasseur

Product Director, Prevention, Absenteeism and Disability

Three kinds of mental health stigma

There are three different kinds of stigma. It doesn’t just come from one place. In fact, it doesn’t always come from the outside at all:

1.      Social stigma involves negative attitudes that family, friends, colleagues and bosses have about mental illness

2.      Self-stigma involves negative attitudes that people with mental illness have about their own condition, including internalized shame that can prevent people from seeking help, because to do so would mean admitting to the source of their shame

3.      Workplace stigma involves policies that limit opportunities for people with mental illness (for example, a group benefits plan that covers physical illnesses but doesn’t provide mental health supports)

How does mental health stigma in the workplace affect people?

People with mental illness often struggle to accomplish day-to-day tasks. If, on top of that, they feel the need to try and hide their symptoms because of shame or fear of being judged, it can make things even harder. This can be compounded if their colleagues question whether they’re really struggling or just slacking off. As a respondent to the Report on Mental Health, produced for Desjardins Insurance by Ad Hoc Research in September 2021, said, “People think or say that you are lying, exaggerating, trying to get out of doing something… lazy, weak, which makes you afraid to ask for help. Shame and stigma surround mental health and addiction.”

The costs of mental health stigma

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), mental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada:

  • Employees with mental health issues tend to miss work more often than other employees and tend to stay off work longer too
  • Mental health issues cost the Canadian economy around $51 billion a year
  • On top of direct costs related to decreased productivity, indirect costs include absenteeism, presenteeism and employee turnover

Four ways you can break through mental health stigma

Some aspects of mental illness are outside of your control. But there is one thing that is within your control: Breaking down the stigma around mental health issues.

Think before you speak

Stigmatizing language is all around. How many times have you heard comments like “She’s so OCD” or “He’s acting like a total schizo today”? Statements like that may seem lighthearted, but they can be damaging to someone living with mental illness and can make them less likely to open up. Avoiding this type of language can help open the door to people who might need help.

Stigma is a barrier

According to CAMH:

  • 64% of Ontario workers would worry about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness
  • 39% of Ontario workers wouldn’t tell their manager if they were experiencing a mental health problem

Create safe spaces

People need to be able to discuss their challenges without being afraid of being labelled “crazy” or “unstable,” or missing out on a promotion. Business leaders can set the tone by opening up about their own challenges or telling a mental health success story. In a related vein, it’s important to actively encourage employees to speak up when they’re feeling overwhelmed before things spiral out of control.

Believe it or not, there’s actually been a bright side to the pandemic. More people are talking about anxiety and about feeling overwhelmed. It’s less taboo because everyone’s in the same boat. People are opening up to each other and they’re checking in. What used to be a casual “How are you doing today?” is now a genuine “No, but how are you really?” People feel safe talking about their mental health.

Julie Asselin

Rehabilitation Specialist with Desjardins Insurance

Normalize mental health days

Jokes about mental health days abound, but what’s so funny about it? Nobody thinks twice about taking a day off with the flu, but if you’re overwhelmed and need a day or two to deal with the stress? That’s a different story.

Encouraging employees to take a sick day to deal with mental health issues can help reduce the fear of stigma and give employees the confidence they need to prioritize their own mental health.

Be proactive

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, but unmanageable chronic stress can lead to larger problems. To prevent burnout, you can connect employees to resources before things get serious. You can also partner with organizations such as Relief to create a work environment that’s conducive to good mental health.

The newly launched Relief for Business program is designed to provide business leadership with the tools they need to promote a bias-free work environment and encourage dialogue about mental health and burnout. It also helps everyone at all levels of the organization adopt behaviours that will improve work/life balance and quality of life. Programs like these support businesses that are serious about breaking the taboo of mental illness.

Normalize conversations about mental illness

Mental illness is largely invisible, but it can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, gender identity, race, income status or job. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to normalize conversations about mental illness.

Freedom from shame and fear can be liberating and can help people get the help they need sooner. Today, employees are looking for resources to help them cope, but they’re also looking for companies that walk the talk. Companies where it’s safe to admit you’re struggling. Companies that value mental health. And those companies that choose to invest in and be open about mental health are making a key strategic investment in their employees—and themselves.

* Desjardins Insurance refers to Desjardins Financial Security Life Assurance Company