Banishing the mental health stigma in the workplace

woman being comforted by colleague, mental ill health

As many as one in four people will experience poor mental health each year, according to mental health charity Mind. This can have a huge impact on employers, with mental-health related issues costing businesses a whopping £26 billion a year.*

Staff with mental health conditions can lead to lower productivity, absenteeism, higher turnover and even conflict with colleagues. Not surprisingly, mental wellbeing has soared to the top of the agenda for many workplaces as a result.

However, despite the big push on normalising conversations around mental health, there’s still a stigma attached to it. Bupa found that 94% of UK businesses admitted there’s prejudice in their organisation towards people who suffer from mental health issues.

It’s this kind of attitude that businesses need to get a grip on. For employees suffering from poor mental health, worrying what others may think about them can be seriously damaging. And it only adds to a culture of silence where staff are too afraid to tell anyone they’re struggling.

With depression estimated to be the biggest cause of illness on the planet by 2030, it’s key that businesses tackle this challenge head on.

Banish the stigma

Most employees would have no problem telling their boss about a physical complaint. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for a mental health condition. Three quarters of employees said they wouldn’t be likely to seek support from their manager if they were experiencing a mental health problem, according to Mind.

A lack of knowledge, staff training and knowing how to offer support can all be big stumbling blocks to getting people to open up. And the fear of being judged or misunderstood by their colleagues doesn’t help either.

Business should start off by educating their staff about using negative language. There’s no point in trying to ban or police words, but it’s important that business leaders send out a message about what kind of language is considered unacceptable, so people suffering don’t feel offended or embarrassed by insensitive terms or remarks.

Building a more positive way of talking about mental health goes hand in hand with creating a more positive and open work culture. And communication is key. Employers need to show that they’re understanding and sensitive when it comes to supporting their staff and that mental health is taken just as seriously as physical health. That way, they’ll encourage more people to come forward if they’re struggling or to share their stories with others.

The balance between interfering too much and not doing enough can be a tough one to strike. But making sure that employees know they can have a confidential chat with their manager at any time, and being supportive of individual needs like working from home to ease stress, can make a world of difference in breaking down any taboos. 

Supporting employees

Flying the flag for mental health and making sure employees get the all the help and support they need can seem like a daunting prospect. But starting off small can lead to bigger changes that transform the company culture. 

Businesses may already be playing a part in promoting good mental health without even knowing it. According to the World Health Organisation, there are lots of mental positives about going to work. These include giving people a time structure, the chance to have social contact, be part of a collective effort and purpose, a social identity and a regular activity to focus on.

Delivering on those points is already a great start in helping people improve their mental health. However, there will always be opportunities to do even better. This can range from having more team projects to highlighting the importance of someone’s role in the business and helping them to structure their day so they have a bigger sense of purpose.

Despite the usual grumbles about the morning commute and not getting a lie-in, most people do believe going to work is good for their mental health. Figures from the Mental Health Foundation show that as many as 86% of employees think their job and being in the workplace is important in protecting and maintaining their mental health.

Even so, we need to remember that people of different ages, gender and position will have a different way of thinking about mental health. Employers therefore need to encourage open, two-way communication right across the board, while still offering confidential support.

For example, if employees need time away from work to get better, employers need to be understanding before, during and after. It’s not about treading on eggshells or being too scared to broach the subject. It’s about being caring, showing understanding and educating colleagues on how to act when someone returns to work so they don’t feel uncomfortable.

And that’s where giving staff the right tools to spot the signs of poor mental health, knowing what to do next and how to be supportive can make a big difference. If businesses can’t afford professional training, Mind offers lots of free resources to help when it comes to staff wellbeing.

The main thing to remember is that employers shouldn’t fear mental health. Being honest and open with staff and putting structures in place to support mental wellbeing is vital. The more that businesses talk openly about mental health, the better chance they have of breaking down the stigma. And that is key if we’re going to give mental health the attention it deserves.

* City Mental Health Alliance

About the author

Iain Thomson, Director of Incentives and RecognitionIain Thomson, Director of Incentives and Recognition, joined the business in 2014 and is responsible for defining the overall strategy, sales growth and retention of the client portfolio for the Incentives and Recognition segment. He has an extensive background in channel marketing, consumer loyalty and incentive and recognition solutions within the hospitality, automotive, telecommunications, FMCG and financial industries.


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