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Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness in the Modern Workplace


Workplaces are no longer the same as 10 years ago. Collaboration tools such as Zoom, Asana, and Google Workspace allow employees to work remotely and efficiently. Many companies have also opted for open workspaces to dismantle hierarchies and improve employee productivity and camaraderie.

Much has changed with workplace attitudes as well. A 2022 Gallup study found that 61% of employees value work-life balance and better personal well-being, while 42% seek diversity and inclusion in the workplace. These attitudes have pushed employers to prioritize employee wellness—particularly mental health—in the workplace.

Despite this change, mental illness stigma persists in some workplaces due to individual beliefs and specific work structures. This article will discuss mental illness stigma and how you can create a safe workplace for all your employees.

Forms of Mental Illness Stigma

The National Academy of Medicine cited three primary forms of stigma and their harmful effects:

1. Self-stigma

Self-stigma happens when people with mental illness feel ashamed of themselves. They often feel worthless, unlovable, and inferior because of their condition. People with self-stigma cannot move forward with their careers, relationships, and overall health because of these negative beliefs. They also exhibit low self-worth and self-esteem and detract from self-efficacy.

2. Public or social stigma

Public stigma occurs when society shows negative attitudes or discriminates against people with mental illness.

For instance, many people think that depression is simply a deeper form of sadness instead of a mental health disorder that requires proper treatment and medication. They also find people with ADHD inefficient because they struggle to complete tasks. These prejudices cause people with mental illness to internalize those negative beliefs and delay or forgo treatment.

3. Structural stigma

Structural stigma happens when cultures, laws, and institutional policies hinder people from proper treatment and livelihood opportunities due to their mental condition. Workplace discrimination falls under this type of stigma. Examples include discrediting employees for work, preventing them from seeking professional help, and enabling other employees to ostracize them.

7 Ways to Eliminate Mental Illness Stigma in the Workplace

Companies risk losing their employees or worsening their condition if they continue to enable discrimination against mental illness in the workplace. Here is a wellness guide to mental health in the workplace if you want to retain your employees and make them feel safe and heard.

1. Use appropriate language

Teach employees to avoid using derogatory terms such as “nuts,” “psycho,” or “screw loose” to describe their colleagues. Educate them about the harm of using mental health disorders to describe others or their feelings.

These comments can downplay and worsen the mental and emotional well-being of employees with mental illness. It’s important to recognize these people as a whole and focus on their strengths and abilities over their issues.

2. Offer FFlexible Work Arrangements 

Mental illnesses are invisible but still affect the body in many ways. For instance, when triggered, people with anxiety disorders experience physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, lightheadedness, and abdominal pain. These responses may prevent them from working and affect their physical and mental health.

Flexible arrangements such as remote or hybrid work, condensed work weeks, or customized work hours can help employees with mental illnesses manage their conditions. It can also help them allot time for treatment while fulfilling their job responsibilities.

Consider offering paid mental health days or increasing sick leave credits to ensure employees prioritize their well-being and return to work well and refreshed.

3. Provide Mental Health Literacy Training 

People have individual beliefs about mental health due to their upbringing and environment. While those factors are out of your control, you can at least educate them through mental health literacy training. This initiative should be open to any type of employee and taught by mental health professionals.

Additionally, this training should cover mental and substance-use disorders, prevention, early intervention, treatment, and recovery support.


4. Encourage Leaders to Prioritize Mental Health 

It’s your responsibility as a business leader to promote a culture of empathy and inclusion in the workplace.

As such, initiate mental health initiatives, improve work policies, watch out for behavioral health issues, and manage workloads to help employees achieve work-life balance and make them feel seen and heard.

You can also share your mental health struggles to assure employees with mental illnesses that they are not alone. Lastly, remember that new generations of employees come with unique needs and work expectations. You should consistently create a psychologically safe space for them.

5. Promote Open Communication 

Sometimes, people with mental illnesses only want to be heard without judgment. It would help to schedule weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with them where they can freely share their work experiences, challenges, and personal concerns. Ask specific questions and listen intently to assure them that your organization’s priority is employee well-being.

You can also send out a company-wide survey if they are hesitant to open up verbally. Ensure that their answers are confidential, so they feel safe to share their thoughts and emotions.

6. Implement Proactive Measures 

As healthcare professionals always say: prevention is better than cure. Ensure employees have 24/7 access to resources and programs to help them deal with triggers or prevent emotional buildups that can worsen their condition. Allow them to be vulnerable because repressing their emotions may affect their mental and physical health.

On the management level, encourage supervisors to use supportive language and provide helpful feedback, so employees know how to work better. They should also set self-care practices and healthy boundaries to help advance the company’s mental health efforts.

The earlier you intervene in mental health issues, the safer your employees will feel in the workplace.

7. Employ Employee Wellness Solutions 

Using wellness apps can supplement mental health-related programs. Recommend to employees Headspace for daily meditation, Moodfit for mood tracking and management, or Talkspace for online therapy.

Other wellness solutions such as Modern Health, Hero, and The Pip can help you track and understand employee well-being.

Treat Everyone with Kindness and Compassion

Some employees treat their workplaces as a second home because they are there most of the day, while others treat their colleagues as families. Companies are responsible for creating a psychologically safe workplace and inclusive culture to make employees feel secure and motivated at work.

Follow the tips above to reduce or eliminate mental illness stigma in your organization and train employees to empathize with and respect their colleagues.

workplace flexibility

About the Author: Jeffrey is a writer by profession and an artist at heart. He is currently a content strategist and consultant for Shegerian & Associates and aims to make employee rights information more accessible. When he's not writing, Jeff can be found working on abstract pieces in his art room.

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