Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace

Taboos surrounding mental health challenges are weakening — but there’s still a long way to go.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Jan. 28, 2022
Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace
Alyssa Rhoda | Jul 18, 2022

The Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso stars Jason Sudekis as a soccer coach who wins people over with relentless optimism and folksy kindness. But deep pain roils beneath Ted’s aw-shucks affability. He keeps decades of unprocessed grief hidden behind his smile, which leaks out over the course of the show’s first two seasons.

The secret of Ted’s mental health struggles comes out when a newspaper article reveals that he left in the middle of an important match due to a panic attack, not a stomachache, which is the reason he gave because he was embarrassed about the truth.

While many people close to Ted rally to his side with love and support, several others question his coaching abilities and doubt his professionalism. One naysayer goes so far as to say, “If my father had a panic attack at Normandy, we’d all be speaking German.” So it’s little wonder why Ted felt like he had to keep a lid on his troubles.

What Is Mental Health Stigma?

When someone is treated or perceived negatively as a result of their mental health condition. Stigma manifests in three main ways: self-stigma (someone’s internalized negative feelings about themselves), public stigma (the attitudes and actions of other people) and structural stigma (embodied in institutions, laws and policies).

As Ted Lasso illustrates, mental health challenges often come with stigma attached, even — perhaps especially — in the workplace.

And while the conversation around mental health at work has come a long way in recent years, people leaders and managers still have their work cut out for them if they want employees to feel supported, rather than stigmatized.

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Mental Health Conditions Are Common …

Chances are high that the average office worker either deals with a mental health condition of their own or, at the very least, works closely with someone who does.

In a 2021 report published by Mind Share Partners, a mental health awareness non-profit organization, 76 percent of 1,500 respondents reported having at least one symptom of a mental health condition. 

And it appears the past two years of pandemic-related stress and social unrest have taken their toll: For comparison, in the Mind Share Partners’ 2019 report, published just two years prior, that number was 60 percent.

Mental health challenges may also be related to work stress. A 2021 survey of over 5,000 employees conducted by Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy organization, found nearly 83 percent of respondents felt emotionally drained from their jobs. And 99 percent of the people who felt this way also said that workplace stress affects their mental health.

This upward trend is not without its costs when it comes to the workplace.

Research shows that mental health conditions — which include but aren’t limited to the more commonly diagnosed anxiety and mood disorders — generally make it more difficult for people to do their jobs.

This is expensive for employers, both in healthcare expenditures and losses in productivity.

So it makes sense that organizations are focusing on what they can do to improve the mental health of their employees.

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… But So Is Stigma

Perhaps the biggest hurdle standing in the way of people getting necessary treatment for their mental health conditions is the surrounding stigma.

Stigma can manifest in three ways: Self-stigma deals with people’s negative feelings about themselves, which often leads to lower self-esteem and self-efficacy. Public stigma deals with acquaintances, co-workers, friends and family members who think people with mental health disorders are, for example, incompetent or to blame for the challenges they face, and this sometimes leads to outright discrimination. Structural stigma shows up in the social policies and practices that make life difficult for people with mental health conditions.

People often fear the stigmatized labels that sometimes come with seeking mental health treatment, so they avoid it. And the vicious cycle continues.

In a 2014 journal article, scholars from Illinois Institute of Technology, Emory University and New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital observed that “the prejudice and discrimination that comprise the stigma of mental illness is one important reason for the disconnect between effect treatments and care seeking.”

This stigma extends to the workplace as well, where there is a yawning gap between what organizations say about their mental health efforts and how workers on the ground actually feel about how the issue is being addressed.

According to Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits Study, which polled more than a thousand employees from over 600 different organizations, 80 percent of employers said their company culture has been more accepting of mental health challenges in the past year.

“[The] official company line says, ‘Take time off.’ But when [people] look at [their] manager, they’re working nights, evenings, weekends...”

Problem is, the same survey also revealed that only 59 percent of workers agree with that statement.

“You hear from employees often that there’s this doublespeak,” Joe Grasso, senior director of workforce mental health at Lyra Health, told Built In. “[The] official company line says, ‘Take time off.’ But when [people] look at [their] manager, they’re working nights, evenings, weekends, and never taking time off.”

More companies have started to advocate for mental health in the past few years, but their cultures are still often laced with subtle cues of prejudice that make it difficult for workers to truly prioritize it.

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The Stigma Is Lessening, However

Maridee ODay became aware of her bipolar disorder while working in retail in the 1990s. Her depression became so severe at one point that she had to work with HR to arrange for extended time off. As a result, some of her co-workers doubted her illness, she said — they thought she was using it as an excuse. Other coworkers completely ignored her absence, which made ODay feel isolated and alone, wondering why nobody asked her how she was feeling.

“At that time, it wasn’t as acceptable to be suffering from mental illness, and people weren’t as comfortable with it,” ODay, now a director of business systems at an IT service management company, told Built In.

Over the years, ODay has noticed a gradual change in the public’s attitude toward mental health conditions. Today, she feels supported by her co-workers and is comfortable telling her supervisor how she’s feeling without fear of repercussions or judgment.

“The stigma has really been brought down,” ODay said. “There’s been such a huge change over time.”

The research bears this out. In fact, the amount of conversations about mental health happening between co-workers has changed dramatically in just the past two years.

“The pandemic has both highlighted the need for better access to mental healthcare and exacerbated the need for mental healthcare.”

The 2021 Mind Share Partners report showed that 35 percent of respondents reported they had never talked about their mental health to someone at work in the past year. That number was 60 percent in the 2019 report.

Despite this encouraging development, starting the conversation is only the beginning of what ultimately needs to be a long, robust process of prioritizing mental health in the workplace.

“We have come a long way, particularly in the past two years, but we can’t rest on that progress,”  Jill Santercier, senior director of people experience at Headspace, told Built In. “The pandemic has both highlighted the need for better access to mental healthcare and exacerbated the need for mental healthcare.”

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How Companies Can Reduce Mental Health Stigma

Experts in the field recommend a number of steps organizations can take to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions.


Train Managers to Recognize When People Are in Distress

According to Grasso, a clinical psychologist by training whose company Lyra Health creates mental health education content for employers, the most widely adopted program is something called Mental Health First Aid.

The aim of this training, and others like it, is to help both HR leaders and managers recognize mental health concerns in their workers and appropriately intervene, provide support and point them to additional resources. It’s a necessary but incomplete starting point for employers looking to effectively address this issue.


Talk About Mental Health During Onboarding

The perfect time to talk about mental health with employees is on their very first day, Tara Adams, a longtime corporate wellness manager who founded a workplace mental health consultancy, told Built In.

“The linchpin of workplace mental health is onboarding,” Adams said.

She suggests that managers set the tone out of the gate by establishing an environment where employees feel comfortable opening up about their struggles, and by letting them know what resources are available.

Managers can also create a welcoming environment by acknowledging that transitioning into a new job can be really stressful.

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Have Leaders Model Healthy Work-Life Boundaries

The number one way leaders can help reduce stigma is to share their own stories, according to Headspace’s Santercier.

“By first recognizing that everyone has some kind of struggle, we can then begin to create psychological safety and build trust,” she added.

“By first recognizing that everyone has some kind of struggle, we can then begin to create psychological safety and build trust.”

And leaders can take it a step further by modeling healthy work-life balance too. For example, they can post (and actually stick to) out-of-office messages and refrain from sending emails late in the evening.

When bosses advocate for mental health and work-life balance during all-hands meetings, but appear otherwise “invincible” — working late, never taking vacations — “I’m not getting the message [that] what’s important is [my] health,” Adams said.

“What does my boss think, say and do about mental health?” she continued. “That’s my cue.”

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Balance Big Programming With Small Touches

Hosting live educational events that focus on mental health conditions is a common — and effective — way to advance the conversation around mental health and help reduce the stigma.

But people leaders don’t have to wait for big yearly programming to make an impact on this issue. They can weave little signals that show they care into regular conversations.

It can be as easy as starting standing team meetings and one-on-ones with five-minute check-ins, just to establish that employees are cared about beyond the work they produce, Grasso said.

He even suggested that including a specific quote or a link to a resource in an email signature can be a way to show others that they are a mental health advocate and a safe person to talk to about these struggles.


Spotlight Mental Health Conditions Beyond Anxiety and Depression

In Grasso’s estimation, the next frontier of breaking down mental health stigma in the workplace is talking about — and addressing — what are often more severe conditions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidality and substance abuse disorder.

“It’s great that we can now openly acknowledge [when someone is] feeling a little depressed or anxious,” Grasso said, “but we don’t want to leave out those people with more significant concerns.”

Grasso suggests that employers hold more-targeted live events and workshops that highlight the more severe end of the mental health spectrum. The goal is to give people practical tools for how to talk about these more significant conditions with their co-workers, using person-first language and promoting benefits like mental health leave.

He also suggests holding what are called contact programs, in which people who struggle with more severe conditions are brought in to talk about their experience with it, to “put a face to these more stigmatized issues.”

Programs where people share their personal experience have been shown to be more effective in reducing workplace prejudice and discrimination against mental health conditions than other educational programming.

ODay has seen this type of event work. It’s why she partners with the Stability Network, a mental health advocacy group, to share her experience with bipolar disorder with other companies.

“That helps defeat the stigma,” she said.

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