How to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace

Article by Beth Lang, Head of Ops at User Conversion

team holding hands, mental healthMental health is something of a hot topic at the moment, with the 1 in 4 people will suffer with their mental health in any given year” statistic pretty much common knowledge by now.

While it is, of course, fantastic that more and more people are talking openly about their mental health, 9 out of 10 of those people say they’ve faced negative treatment or discrimination as a result. Not only that, 60% of people say that this treatment is actually as damaging, or more damaging, than the symptoms of their mental health problem itself.

Given these somewhat shocking numbers, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the trend of speaking openly about mental health start to reverse – why would anyone want to open up if there’s a 90% chance they’ll get a negative reaction, and end up suffering further?

In my eyes if you’re not actively supporting and championing those who speak up about mental health, you’re as good as contributing to the stigma problem. So I decided to look into what I could do to make a positive difference.

Given that 54% percent of people experiencing stigma say that their workplace is where they are impacted most, trying to tackle stigma at work seemed to be a logical starting point. So in December, User Conversion signed the Time to Change Employer Pledge; a commitment to changing the way we all think and act about mental health in the workplace.

Taking the pledge involves creating a 12 month action plan, which you submit for approval, and must include actions which address the 6 core standards set by Time to Change. This includes developing awareness, encouraging conversations, providing good working conditions, development opportunities, and effective people management.

Somewhat encouragingly, for me a lot of the writing of our plan involved simply documenting things we either already had in place, but weren’t formalised, or ideas we’d discussed but not yet actioned. For us it was less a process of making a plan and more about making a commitment.

We’re now 3 months in, and although we’re already seeing positive signs, I’ve learnt plenty along the way about how to make any actions you take or initiatives you run be the most impactful and engaging for your team.

Start at the top

As with most things at work, if you want to succeed, you need the backing of those at the top. I was very lucky in this respect, in that I didn’t even need to sell the idea into the business. Our MD was fully on board as soon as I mentioned the idea, and signed the pledge  in front of our entire team.

While getting this support and approval shows that it’s being taken seriously, it needs to be more than a token gesture. If you don’t have that support – and I mean really have it – you need to do a good job of selling it in (there’s some very persuasive statistics on the business benefits of investing in mental health here which will help).

Lead by example

If you want people to feel safe to talk about mental health, you need to start the conversations. This doesn’t mean you have to stand up in a meeting and start telling deeply personal stories. It just means be the change you want to see. Get yourself comfortable with talking about mental health, even if it is not something you experience problems with yourself. Start the conversations with others. Ask questions if you think someone may be struggling. Share and provide resources, articles and signposting to support.

Have internal champions

In reality, having your senior team lead on all activities and initiatives is not the way to get maximum engagement from your team. When we signed our pledge we asked for volunteers to take on the role of mental health champions – essentially team members who would help us to do all we had set out to with our action plan.

Both before signing the plan and sometimes even since, we’ve had low engagement from the wider team with many of our mental health-focused initiatives, and had feedback about certain efforts feeling contrived or forced. We’ve found that we get the most engagement when the mental health champions lead. Employees are simply much more likely to open up, be receptive to and engage with activities when it is introduced to them by a peer rather than a manager

Consistency is key

As I mentioned, we had low engagement with some of our mental health initiatives – this is to be expected, especially at first. There’s bound to be hesitation; reducing stigma won’t happen overnight and eradicating the fear of stigma will take even longer. Being consistent in talking about mental health is the only way to get the message through, so ensure your leaders and your champions are all giving the same message – that this is a safe space to talk about mental health.

While it’s undoubtedly a real positive that the “1 in 4” statistic is so widely known now, it does risk excluding ¾ of people from the conversation. However mental health is something we all have, something we should all feel comfortable talking about, and something we should all be aware of and take steps to look after.

The fact is, good mental health relies on conversations. I can tell by looking at a colleague if they are physically sick, or injured – I only really know if a colleague’s mental health is suffering if they feel they can tell me.

That’s why we all – whatever our mental health at this point – need to start normalising these conversations. We need to get to a place where talking about your mental health is as normal as talking about having the flu, or a sprained ankle.

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