Reducing mental health stigma at work
At any given time 1 in 5 Australian employees are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition.
With so many people suffering in silence from the effects of anxiety, panic and depression – possibly even that person you talk to every day who always seems fine – why is there still such a stigma attached to talking about mental health?
Mental health stigma poses significant barriers to participation in the workforce, as well as many other areas of life. Eliminating this stigma while increasing mental health awareness can support employees to seek help sooner, recover faster and maintain productivity.
What is stigma?
When the word ‘stigma’ is used, it generally focuses on the uninformed and negative attitudes held by many in the general community based on distinguishing characteristics such as a mental illness, health conditions, or disability.
While stigma is not limited to just mental conditions, it’s been clear that attitudes towards psychiatric illnesses tend to be more negative than that toward medical conditions. A SANE Australia survey found that almost three-quarters of respondents living with a mental illness (74%) had experienced stigma.
Other research has shown that stigma is one of the leading risk factors contributing to poor mental health outcomes - leading to delays in treatment and reducing the chance that a person with mental illness will receive appropriate care.
Types of stigma
To truly debunk the myths around stigma, we need to understand that it comes in many shapes and forms. It is important to note that improving one component may not necessarily impact the others. These include:
- personal stigma ‐ a person’s stigmatising attitudes and beliefs about other people (“People with depression should snap out of it.”)
- perceived stigma ‐ a person’s beliefs about the negative and stigmatising views that other people hold (“Most people believe that a person with depression should snap out of it.”)
- self‐stigma ‐ the stigmatising views that individuals hold about themselves (“I should be able to snap out of my depression.”)
Elements of stigma
While people have become more informed about mental disorders in general, stigma continues to be a reality. Some elements of how stigma is perpetuated include:
- perceptions that a person is ‘weak, not sick’ – “My father and my sister don’t believe in mental illness. If you can’t cope with something it’s a weakness of character, not an actual illness.” Person with depression
- perceived danger – “All mentally ill are tainted by reports of the extremely unusual ‘crazy and dangerous’. As if at any time, they could become horrific mass murderers!” BeyondBlue blueVoices member
- beliefs that a person is responsible and can control his/her condition – “Most people seem to think depression is...something that is within your character to control.” Person with a mental health condition
- feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment – “You keep it to yourself because you’re ashamed of it.” Person with depression
- a reluctance to disclose a diagnosis, due to concerns about discrimination and harassment – “When he [husband] was looking at applying for jobs, his psychiatrist said, ‘I wouldn’t mention he’s got a mental illness. They don’t need to know’.” Carer
- a desire for social distance ‐ “I lost quite a few friends because they were scared of me or didn’t know how to treat me.” Person with depression and anxiety
(Beyond Blue, 2015)
The business case for reducing stigma
Workplaces can benefit by fostering an attitude of support for employees who are struggling with mental health concerns in the following ways:
- Reduced turnover and costs associated with recruitment and training
- Attraction of qualified talent that prefers a workplace that supports mental health
- Reduced sick leave as employees are supported to remain productive at work
- Corporate and social responsibility in providing a workplace that is supportive of all employees
- Improved performance by supporting employees to contribute their best work
Reducing stigma in the workplace
With concerns about mental health continually rising in Australia, it’s never been more important for organisations to know how to support their employees, while providing a positive work culture and environment for all staff.
Some effective strategies and good practices that protect and promote mental health in the workplace are as follows:
Communicating about mental illness across the whole organisation can help to reduce fear, stigma, and discrimination in the workplace.
Foster a healthy workplace environment
Establishing a culture that is conducive to supporting employees’ mental health can be achieved by raising awareness of workplace programs and policies that promote mental health and wellness.
Increasing awareness through online training
Mental health training equips employees with the skills and knowledge they need to manage their own mental health and support others in their workplace.
Online training also helps managers to identify the signs and symptoms of mental distress, and the available employee tools and supports available. By investing time into more learning, managers can feel more equipped and ready to help staff who may be experiencing the problems of low mental health.
Start at the top
Encourage senior executives to demonstrate leadership around mental health.
Providing access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other appropriate referral resources can help assist employees.
When it comes to reducing stigma and improving the lives of people affected by mental health issues, everyone has a role to play. Challenging the stigma associated with mental illness takes understanding, education and a closer look at our own attitudes toward health. Together we can build informed and inclusive workplaces that understand and openly address the subject of mental illness.
💡 Check out this free course by the Mental Health Movement - Mental Health Continuum: Checking in with Yourself
You may also be interested in:
Get a first-hand look at the challenges and triumphs associated with managing and recovering from mental illness as our speakers share their unique stories of recovery, support and resilience. [Register here]
Tackling Mental Health: A Conversation on Resilience with Dan Hunt and Jason Nightingale
Both former professional NRL players, Dan and Jason know a thing or two about resilience - on and off the field. They also share a passion for breaking down the stigma around mental health, and for helping to empower individuals with the skills and resilience they need to better support themselves. [Watch here]
Please remember, if you are experiencing significant distress, please reach out to Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636. If you, or anyone you know, is feeling suicidal you can also call the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 for immediate support.