Despite the increasing conversations around mental illness, its challenges and its importance, the stigma around this topic still remains in various social environments. For New Zealanders, local research suggests that nearly 9 out of 10 adults may meet the criteria for a mental disorder by the time they reach middle age. Mental health is not the stigmatising stereotypes we often hear about but our everyday experiences. This may include someone you know with an eating disorder, your colleague with a drinking problem, or your friend’s worries turning into anxiety after hearing their family member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In the workplace, employees experiencing such common conditions (whether minor or severe) often hide behind a mask out of fear that they will face discrimination from their colleagues or bosses. Or, worse still, they fail to find employment in the first place due to discrimination. In turn, this stigma around mental ill-health, especially at work, can be one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from reaching out and getting whatever support they need to continue to thrive at work, while also managing their diagnosis. 

Fortunately, recent international research suggests that public attitudes towards mental illness are becoming less stigmatising, particularly towards depression and among younger people. This is a hopeful step in the right direction; however, there is work still to be done to ensure that workplaces remain a safe place for all employees to thrive. 

Defining stigma 

So, what is stigma? Stigma refers to the labelling, disapproval, or discrimination which results in an individual facing prejudice against them and being excluded from particular social groups. 

The effects of stigma can show up when you feel like you’re struggling with your mental health and day-to-day work tasks become increasingly difficult to get through – but you decide to soldier on, fearing the consequences if you look for support. It’s the unspoken rules in your workplace about whether it’s safe to disclose your struggles to (appropriate) others and whether there’s a culture of safety that allows you to say when you’re not feeling 100%.

One scenario we hear regularly in our mental health workshops relates to how comfortable employees are to talk with their manager and/or their team about the support they’d like. Simple things might include more regular breaks during the day, for example, to manage fatigue (tiredness might be related to an episode of depression they’re coming through or particular medications they’re taking for a while) or someone needing a bit of extra encouragement to manage anxiety around group presentations. Feeling safe to share their needs – rather than fearing discrimination or backlash – makes all the difference. 

What contributes to stigma and discrimination? 

Stigma often arises from a lack of awareness of mental ill-health, including negative attitudes and beliefs that some people hold towards those living with a diagnosis. Aside from the more obvious ways people can add to this stigma, such as making overtly negative comments about another person’s mental illness or treatment, discrimination can also show itself in subtle ways. This may include:

  • Emphasising inaccurate stereotypes associated with mental distress, such as viewing people living with mental health conditions as “others” or perceiving people with mental health conditions as unpredictable or dangerous.
  • Sensationalising situations, without providing context that explains why and how the specific experience occurred. An apparent “overreaction” to something seemingly benign at work (“frozen” or shaking or having to flee) could relate to memories of very painful traumatic situations that have triggered a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, that the person mostly manages fine, except in this moment.
  • Excluding people from work opportunities on the basis of their history with mental distress. Just because he attempted suicide before, in the face of an overwhelming loss, doesn’t mean he will again, given his work on understanding and changing what caused his past reliance on alcohol to cope, and his demonstration of more balanced coping skills. 
  • Focusing on labels and assuming these represent what people need and what they have been through. In reality, not all people with the same label or diagnoses will have the same needs, histories, or experiences of distress. For example, one person may gain weight when managing their eating disorder, another may lose weight; un-informed comments on either won’t be helpful. 

The harmful effects of stigma 

A lot of the time, stigma and its negative impacts can be considered an invisible beast, making it difficult to identify and target. Because of this, it’s important to try our best to be aware of the consequences that stigma can have on us and those around us and take active steps to eliminate it in the workplace.

The harmful effects of mental health stigma can, unfortunately, range from feelings of shame, hopelessness and reduced self-esteem to social isolation, presenteeism, bullying, and fewer employment opportunities. Regardless of where you are across the mental health continuum, from thriving to languishing or somewhere in-between, or whether you are living with mental illness or not, dealing with the effects of stigma and discrimination can make it harder for us to overcome our personal challenges.

Perhaps the biggest issue with stigmatisation in the workplace is that it prevents people living with mental ill-health from safely disclosing how they feel and seeking treatment or support from their colleagues or employer, at appropriate times and in appropriate ways to maximise their continued engagement at work. Stigma can make managers fear they will have to deal with endlessly listening to people’s “troubles” or having to “save” them, instead of respecting privacy and competence in people asking only for what is effective for them. 

Strategies to reduce stigma in the workplace 

To reduce and overcome this ongoing issue of mental illness stigma at work, we have compiled the recent research on stigma into bite-sized strategies and recommendations that you can start to implement today. 

  • Train your people leaders in mental health. Learn more about mental health, and mental ill-health, and how best to respond in the workplace. This education is best when it comes from credible sources (i.e., registered psychologists and mental health professionals) and should be especially targeted to all management staff to ensure that support channels and workplace accommodations are in place to support employees who need them.
  • Encourage open conversations. Talk openly about mental health on a regular basis and check in on each other’s wellbeing to provide reassurance that it’s OK to have discussions about mental health at work and that support is available. 
  • Use respectful language. Be mindful about the words you use when describing yourself or others, and be wary of using language that generalises or defines a person by their current state of mental wellbeing.
  • Build psychological safety. Psychological safety is the shared belief among teams that it is safe to speak up, take risks, admit to mistakes, and learn from failures. Umbrella’s Leading High Performing Teams workshop helps leaders set the tone for psychological safety by giving them clarity on the behaviours that help and hinder effective teamwork while suggesting a range of practical skills to put into action immediately.
  • Create a culture of wellbeing. Foster a positive working environment by promoting good mental health practices. For example, try making your colleagues feel more comfortable discussing mental health ups and downs for them and their families by strengthening social ties. After you’ve had the “shout” for a team-mate with a new baby, remember to also acknowledge the struggles he might later be having with sleepless nights or his partner’s postnatal depression.
  • Hear from people who have experienced mental illness. A social contact” programme is a tried and tested intervention for reducing stigma. It’s where those with experiences of mental illness talk openly about their stories, allowing those without a diagnosis to learn about how differently we might experience the same label, whether the “condition” is depression, anxiety, substance use disorder or psychosis. Hearing personal testimonies is helpful for challenging stereotypes and increasing help-seeking behaviour. This may be especially impactful if managers or senior leaders are able to come forward with their own stories of distress, helping to destigmatise mental ill-health from the top down.

Umbrella Wellbeing offers psychosocial risks and wellbeing assessments, mental health training and provides guidance for developing and implementing wellbeing strategies. To book an initial free consultation, please email [email protected] or speak to our team on 0800 643 000.