How does “Harden up!” become “How are you doing?”

How are you getting rid of stigma at work?

Over the last few weeks, the problem of negative stigma associated with mental illness has come into focus on several occasions. All too often this has related to the way in which stigma has been a barrier to seeking help. However, today I choose to focus on the patch of bright, blue sky I saw emerge from the cloud.

Recently, I walked through an organisation that Umbrella has worked closely with for years. This is not an organisation one would associate with touchy-feely-psychology-type-stuff. Rather, one would expect to hear calls of “harden up” and “take a concrete pill” should a sliver of vulnerability be expressed. But on this day, instead of people averting eye contact with the approaching psychologist, I was warmly greeted. I saw another psychologist openly walking and talking with a member of staff she’d been supporting.  A senior member of staff told me they’d been struggling, so had spoken to their manager and had collaboratively and proactively identified some effective organisational solutions. Nothing was hidden; there was no sense of shame or secrecy. Stigma didn’t appear to be rearing its problematic head. It was heartening to see.

This of course led me to wonder what works when it comes to reducing stigma associated with mental ill-health? What had this organisation done to realise these positive attitudinal shifts? A 2016 review of research concluded that education and contact with people with mental illness helped to improve knowledge and attitudes to mental health in the short term but these gains were only about 50% maintained over time. Some studies resulted in people changing their behaviour immediately after the intervention, but these changes were not sustained.

When higher order research doesn’t provide answers, we have to start generating hypotheses and then testing them out. So here are a few of our guesses as to what might have helped:

  • (Informal) champions for wellbeing within the organisation
  • Providing lots of forums/means to access support
  • Educating managers on what to look for and how to support staff to access help
  • Water over rock – being visible, building relationships and being effective.

We’d love to hear what your organisation has been doing so we can start to build our understanding and work more quickly towards the World Health Organization’s 2013 Mental Health Action Plan vision of:

A world in which mental health is valued, promoted and protected, mental disorders are prevented and persons affected by these disorders are able to exercise the full range of human rights and to access high quality, culturally-appropriate health and social care in a timely way to promote recovery, all in order to attain the highest possible level of health and participate fully in society and at work free from stigmatisation and discrimination.

Anouk Kelling