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Mental health is often treated quite differently than other areas of wellness. For example, while employees are likely to feel free to talk about physical ailments (e.g., migraines, the common cold, injuries, etc.), they may be less inclined to discuss anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns.
As rates of anxiety and depression rose dramatically throughout the pandemic, individuals and businesses couldn’t help but talk about mental health. The result was that mental health became a more normalized discussion topic and no longer as taboo. Despite this progress, mental health remains heavily stigmatized in certain work environments. According to a 2022 study from The Harris Poll, 58% of employees do not feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work.
Why This Matters
With pandemic-related stressors beginning to subside, one might think mental health stigma at the office is less of a pressing issue. However, several concerns suggest that companies must continue to destigmatize mental health discussions at work even as the factors that gave rise to the spike in mental illness and highlighted the importance of mental health fade away.
Mental Health Will Remain A Significant Post-Pandemic Concern
According to a survey conducted by Mental Health America, nearly 50 million Americans experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders one year before the pandemic, meaning a substantial number of adults were already dealing with mental illness for unrelated reasons.
Since then, rates of depression and anxiety have risen dramatically and may not return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon, as years of sustained stress and anxiety aren’t likely to go away overnight. Moreover, as employees come back into the workplace and cope with novel organizational challenges, they will experience new sources of stress and anxiety, replacing pandemic-related stressors with work-related ones.
Perceived Stigma Can Limit Use Of Mental Health Benefits
As employees continue to experience stress and anxiety, it is critical that they feel comfortable discussing their mental health at work. Employees who don’t believe their place of work is a safe space to discuss their mental health may be less likely to utilize their organization’s mental health benefits. In some cases, this may happen because employees don’t know about the benefits available to them since they don’t feel they can ask.
In other cases, employees may not address their mental health because they have internalized what they perceive to be a negative attitude toward mental health at work. A recent survey of over 45,000 individuals found that 22% were deterred from seeking help for clinical or subclinical mental health symptoms due to perceived social stigma, making it the fourth most commonly cited barrier among the 10 countries included in the study. For similar reasons, employees may not take time off when they feel stressed or overwhelmed, which is necessary to avoid burnout.
How To Destigmatize Mental Health At Work
Given the importance of creating a safe space for mental health discussions at the office, employers must implement strategies to improve their mental health cultures and destigmatize mental health at work.
#1 Lead By Example
To be comfortable talking about their mental health struggles, employees will need to feel confident that their employers won’t judge them for it. One highly effective way to inspire confidence is to have senior executives openly discuss their experiences with mental health. This sends a clear signal that leaders within the company feel there is no shame in having or discussing one’s mental health.
#2 Have Willing Employees Share How They Cope With Stress
Employees may be just as concerned with the views of their colleagues as their team leaders. By having willing employees at all levels share how they cope with stress and mental illness, workers will learn they can comfortably discuss their mental health with anyone they chose and pick up a few helpful tips in the process. They may also form new bonds and lines of social support which are critical resources in one’s mental health toolkit.
#3 Offer Mental Health Days
Taking time off can be just as essential to preserve and restore one’s mental health as it is physical health. Be sure to explicitly include mental health days in paid leave policies. It’s also important for leaders to regularly highlight the offering and utilize it themselves. If managers and team leaders never take time off for their mental health, the rest of the workforce may think the policy is only there for appearances and shouldn’t be used.
#4 Use Person-Centered Language
Leaders must be mindful of the language they use when discussing mental health. Avoid slang terms (e.g., crazy, insane, addict, disturbed, etc.). It’s also good to replace mental illness-centered language (e.g., mentally ill person) with person-centered language (e.g., a person with a mental illness). Putting the person first highlights the fact that people are more than their mental health.
#5 Launch A Myth Busting Mental Health Awareness Campaign
While the opinions and attitudes of executives toward mental health can have a significant effect on whether employees feel comfortable discussing it, the rest of the company must be on board. As a result, organizations must implement initiatives to educate their workers and correct any harmful misconceptions they may hold about individuals with mental illnesses. Offer an online course where they can learn about the various conditions that people manage or bring in an expert to talk about their experiences studying and treating mental illnesses.
#6 Provide Comprehensive, Accessible, And Affordable Mental Health Benefits
A lack of easy-to-use mental health benefits can send the message to employees that their company feels mental health isn’t important or that it’s not on them to offer solutions. In either case, workers are likely to believe that if they are experiencing any symptoms of mental illness, their company doesn’t want to hear about it and doesn’t have the resources to help even if they did. By providing comprehensive, accessible, and affordable mental health benefits, leaders can demonstrate that rather than trying to sweep mental health concerns under the rug, they want to help address them effectively as possible.