Author: Sinduya Sivayoganathan
Growing up, mental health was a reality that was overlooked and thrown under the metaphorical rug. Part of it was due to the public stigma surrounding mental health – the stigma that viewed mental health and mental illness as weaknesses and signs of incompetency. And for the longest time, this stigma was a self-stigma of mine. I was scared that if I brought up mental health in the workplace, I would be excluded from conversations and opportunities. The continued fear and shame I felt about mental health in the workplace brought on a feeling like I would never belong.
Despite efforts to improve representations and visibility in the workplace, aspects of inclusion and belonging, including mental health, continue to fall short. Part of this is due to public stigma, the negative and discriminatory attitudes that people have about mental health or mental illness. It is also due to self-stigma which is an individual’s belief that the public will look at them differently and treat them differently as a result of their mental health or mental illness.
Oftentimes, self-stigma can prevent an individual from seeking opportunities, such as promotions or support in the workplace, as they fear they may face negative consequences for struggling with their mental health like judgement.
So how can employers help employees address both public and self-stigma about mental health in the workplace to build inclusive workplaces?
1. Understand the difference between mental health and mental illness.
In a 2019 survey of 1500 employees by Harvard Business Review, 50% of employees described conversations about mental health often confused mental health for mental illness. While mental health and mental illness can be interrelated concepts, the two are different. Mental health is a state of well-being and mind, everyone has mental health they need to look after just as they do physical health. Mental illness are disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that can affect day-to-day functioning. Mental illnesses are like physical illnesses in that they require treatment and professional attention. Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone can experience good or poor mental health.
Sometimes those struggling with self-stigma overlook the difference between mental health and illness, and assume that mental health is not a shared experience. If we overlook the intricacy of people’s everyday struggle with mental health and associate it with mental illness, we reduce our ability to distinguish between a temporary feeling of stress and the onset of a mental illness, which can make it difficult to seek support.
Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness can help reduce stigma and barriers to seeking help. An organization’s failure to understand this distinction can result in ineffective health care and wellbeing strategies that may address one but not the other. This can lead to unaddressed mental illness and poor mental health.
2. Raise Awareness About Mental Health Self-Stigma
Improving my awareness of my internalized stigma and how it impacted my attitudes and behaviors was crucial in helping me be more open about mental health in and out of the workplace. Stigma often derives from a gap in understanding that can be compounded by the media’s inaccurate or misleading representations of mental health and illness – but raising awareness can help tackle this.
A study by the University of Regina found a statistically significant relationship between stigma and knowledge, confirming that increased mental health knowledge is associated with lower public and self-stigma as well as an increased likelihood of seeking support. Increased awareness can also foster inclusive workplaces where employees can bring their whole selves to work and feel safe to discuss and seek mental health support.
At Lunaria, we help organizations raise awareness about mental health stigma in the workplace through 10-15 minute online micro-learning opportunities, where employees can learn about mental health at a pace most comfortable for them. Other ways organizations can help raise awareness is through other educational opportunities, sharing resources such as counseling and outreach support, mental health support, or starting a workplace mental health employee resource group.
In supporting learning and raising awareness, employees are provided with the opportunity to reflect on the stigma around them to understand how it impacts their attitudes towards others and themselves.
3. Normalize Mental Health
In the earlier mentioned survey by Harvard Business Review, 60% of respondents indicated that they have never discussed their mental health to anyone at work, citing the same “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality I had when I first started working. Reflecting on these findings and on my experience, I also realize how the “silence” around mental health and the treatment of it as abnormal informed my self-stigma and fear.
We know the importance of normalizing health at work – in fact, we saw organizations worldwide normalize it during the early 2000s with the influx of wellbeing strategies that focused on encouraging exercise at work and conversations about physical health at work. Like physical health, mental health is also experienced by everyone and requires the same prioritization as physical health. It needs to be communicated that taking care of our mental health is a part of our wellbeing, and like physical health, everyone needs to do it. If mental health is not normalized in the workplace, it can strengthen self-stigmas and build a climate of fear around mental health.
Organizations can take a formal approach to enact systemic change to normalize mental health in the workplace and help address self-stigma. This can be done by incorporating company-wide paid mental health days and inclusive mental health support coverage in employee benefits plans. It can also include developing policies and practices such as a workplace mental health policy that illustrates the difference between mental health and mental illness and how employees can access supports.
Organizations can facilitate conversations among team members that help normalize mental health through employee resource groups, anonymous communication channels and engagement surveys. These opportunities can provide great insights into what supports employees may need and reveal the barriers that need to be addressed to normalize mental health conversations in the workplace.
Supporting employee mental health it is critical to address stigma, especially self-stigma. Mental health and illness initiatives in the workplace are not standalone. Addressing both adequately requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses individuals and systems.
Interested in learning more about how you can address the stigma around mental health in the workplace? Chat with one of our associates by booking a meeting here!