With the World Health Organization’s official announcement of burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” it’s easy to talk about psychological stress and its consequences, but when it comes to people with mental health issues, many still feel the stigma attached to them — especially in the workplace.
In my work with managers and executives, I’ve found they commonly express fear for their jobs and reputations if word gets out that they have a mental health issue. They often believe others will assume that their performance will drop and that they will be less reliable. They further believe that treatment could impact their work lives, and therefore, they hope their problems might get better on their own, or they opt for strategies like self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, etc.
Such stigma is often based on wrong and distorted information and negative attitudes, and it often results in workplace discrimination and a lack of needed support.
Why Is It Important For Companies To Eliminate This Stigma?
It’s been estimated that “50% of the general population in middle- and high-income countries will suffer from at least one mental disorder at some point in their lives.” This can pose a challenge for many companies. Mental health problems can have an impact on employers and businesses directly through increased absenteeism, high staff turnover and poor performance; they also can have a negative impact on productivity and profits, as well as cause an increase in costs to deal with the issue.
Often, employees with mental health issues aren’t even aware that they might benefit from treatment. A study on the barriers to mental health treatment revealed that “low perceived need was reported by 44.8% of respondents with a issue who did not seek treatment.” It’s possible that they may think they’re just tired or overworked. Next to this, you often have managers who aren’t knowledgeable enough about how to spot underlying mental health issues in employees to react in time and offer support.
Creating An Inclusive Work Environment
I believe that eliminating the stigma around mental health issues in the workplace requires creating an inclusive work environment. Based on my experience implementing inclusion and cultural change programs, I think it’s important that this organizational change is embedded in three phases to build trust among employees and managers and to allow time to slowly change attitudes and behavior and monitor and evaluate the processes.
Let’s look at the three phases in detail.
Phase I: Reset The Organizational Framework
It’s important that overall health and mental health are integrated into all of an organization’s processes and strategies. Make sure that you’re recognizing mental health and well-being as part of your company’s health and safety strategy, in particular. At the beginning of this phase, clarify what mental health and well-being mean to your organization so that you’ll have a measurable quality indicator.
Next, assess potential psychological risk factors in your organization. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety published 13 psychological risk factors related to workload, leadership, support, involvement, recognition, etc. These indicators can be translated into questions, used as a checklist for direct workplace observations or processes, or used as an anonymous survey among employees. Part of this phase is also to revise existing policies on things like hiring and promoting to create a culture of trust that protects people with mental health issues from negative consequences.
Keep in mind that every individual reacts differently to psychological stress and that this is the norm.
Phase II: Create Awareness About Psychological Stress And Mental Health Issues
The goal of this phase is to educate employees and managers about psychological well-being, symptoms of major mental health issues (such as depression, generalized anxiety, etc.) and proven treatments.
Here are some ways to accomplish this:
• Collaborate with local mental health leaders to stay informed about developments in treatments and research, and invite them as guest speakers to deliver talks and host seminars for employees.
• Establish an employee assistance program with high-quality providers.
• Provide a mental health guide for employees and leaders that helps to identify symptoms and offers suggestions for work adjustments and referral options when the need arises.
• Form a health committee that assesses employees’ needs and addresses them in well-being and mental health campaigns.
• Use the company’s intranet and newsletter to share information about well-being.
Phase III: Normalize The Discussion
Initiate this phase once the attitudes of employees and leaders toward mental health issues have positively shifted and employees trust management’s commitment to creating an inclusive work environment.
Here are some ways to normalize discussion about mental health issues:
• Encourage employees and managers to openly talk about their own mental health issues or those of family members and friends, their treatment and their integration back to work. This can be in newsletters, videos shared on the intranet or talks.
• Encourage employees with a history of mental health issues to form a peer group to offer a safe space for others to talk and seek advice on how to cope with stress and other issues at work.
• Train leaders on how to recognize mental health issues in employees and how to approach them in an open and empathetic manner to offer support and necessary work adjustments.
Eliminating the stigma around mental health issues in the workplace involves modifying company culture by resetting the organizational framework and changing attitudes about mental health by sharing appropriate information. When you’re on the right track, you’ll notice that employees feel more comfortable talking openly about psychological stress and their mental health issues.