According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in five adults worldwide is diagnosed with a mental health disorder yearly. In 2020, the pandemic catapulted already-common depression and anxiety conditions by more than 25% in its first year, the WHO also reported. As employers come to live and learn from the effects of the pandemic, one lesson is the importance of employee health and wellbeing. Ultimately, employee health requires balancing individuals’ physical, emotional and mental wellness.
At some time during their professional careers, employees will experience a mental health condition or encounter a stressor that will impact their mental health. Adults typically spend one-third of their life working, so employers can't expect employees to turn off these issues at work. How your organization prioritizes mental health can be the difference between employees feeling safe and supported or stigmatized and fearful while suffering in silence.
Risks associated with poor mental health
Mental health conditions remain a primary public health concern and economic cost burden. Individuals with mental health conditions are at higher risk of poor medical outcomes, including increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Patients with mental health conditions have medical costs approximately three times higher than the rest of the population. Those with depression had the highest healthcare costs in the three years following a health risk. All told, mental illness costs the U.S. economy $200 billion annually.
Perhaps most concerning, however, is the lethality of mental health conditions. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more people than homicides, car accidents and HIV/AIDS combined. Suicide accounts for more than one in every 100 deaths globally and is the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.
Mental health issues and stigma
Mental health issues can also take a social toll on people's lives. Stigma significantly impacts people with mental health conditions and leads to reduced hope, lower self-esteem, social isolation, difficulty at work and reluctance to seek treatment. Stigma, in ancient Greek, means a mark of "shame, punishment or disgrace." Disgrace creates fear: fear of discrimination, fear of not being accepted, fear of retribution and, perhaps, fear of the unknown. Fear and misunderstanding lead to prejudice against people with mental health issues. And fear prevents people from voicing their needs or concerns about their current situations, often causing delays in or failure to obtain appropriate treatment.
Mental health: Costs to businesses and people
Mental health stigma is a workplace problem with tangible costs to people and the business. Mental health stigma can result in higher reported stress, feelings of burnout and lost productivity. The CDC reports that mental illnesses are associated with higher rates of disability and unemployment. Mental health stigma creates challenges across an organization and negatively affects organizational culture. Left unaddressed, employers may face difficulty with talent retention, increased difficulty meeting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, lower job satisfaction and a lack of employee engagement.
Here are several steps and practices employers can consider to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace:
- Take a holistic approach to creating a mental health-friendly culture.
Overcoming mental health stigma is one part of a larger effort to foster a culture of psychological safety. Employees must feel confident they can show all dimensions of themselves without fear of consequences, negative career impact or shame. The benefits can be vast when mental health is meaningfully connected to overall health and wellbeing. Organizations with strong psychological safety exhibit better performance, engagement, employee retention and overall employee wellbeing.
Leaders and managers play a critical role in creating this culture that recognizes mental health as a key component of overall wellbeing. They should first have tools and resources to manage their own mental health to be in a good position to help others. Mental health information and toolkits should easily be accessible to employees. And health vendor partners should understand and align with the organization's commitment to mental health.
- Listen to your employees.
If you ask, employees will tell you everything you need to know about your organization. Employers can evaluate the presence and impact of stigma through employee surveys, reviews of external evaluation sites and confidential focus groups. These insights can help inform a strategic and actionable approach to addressing mental health stigma in your organization.
- Conduct regular mental health training for people managers.
Leaders and managers must be trained to recognize signs of emotional distress and how to support colleagues or their employees who are struggling. Expand training curricula to include general mental health information, empathy and communication training, and mental health crisis response. Mental health recognition should be a core competency and routinely refreshed among leaders within your organization.
- Provide education to address mental health stigma and bias.
Provide organization-wide training to educate employees on mental health facts, including unconscious bias related to mental health conditions. Training provides an opportunity to break down myths associated with mental health and allow for informed dialogue, a powerful way to address bias and destigmatize mental health.
- Engage leaders in open dialogue.
Leaders can be highly influential champions and models for healthy behaviors and positive mental health. They can be supported through resources such as toolkits and how-to guides on difficult conversations. They should also incorporate wellbeing objectives more broadly, setting transparent goals that lead to mental health inclusivity. Authentic leadership builds trust and improves employee performance.
- Link your organizational practices and policies to your organization's culture.
Review formal policies and practices that directly impact mental health. Use a mental health lens to assess flexible work arrangements, time off, leave policies and policies that support family caregivers and workplace safety. Implementing internal programs that address mental health escalation or crisis is even more critical since mental health conditions are increasing. Engage with local or state resources, partnering with non-profit organizations and participate in events addressing mental illness or recovery from substance use disorder.
- Use inclusive communications and language.
Words matter. Research shows that using affirming, "person first" language can help reduce the stigma associated with having, treating or being in recovery from a mental health condition or substance use disorder. Communicating with employees in an inclusive way leads by example, creating a non-stigmatizing approach to mental health and influencing a safe workplace.
- Provide empathy, support and compassion.
Showing compassion in the workplace can reduce job-related stress, decrease turnover and increase employee commitment. Leaders who demonstrate empathy and compassion help companies achieve positive change, trust, loyalty and increased productivity. Many employees leave jobs because their bosses lack empathy; coaching leaders and managers can help increase talent retention.
- Assess worksite design and preferences.
The physical workplace has historically not considered employee mental health needs, such as quiet spaces or areas free from distraction. Newer workplaces often offer little private space, which can be a particular challenge to neurodiverse employees. Hybrid work decreases workplace density, allowing more access to private or quiet office areas or room to decompress. Companies can consider camera and video policies during virtual meetings and balancing private and social spaces.
Mental health stigma hurts employees and employers and can pose many adverse risks. Organizations can best show they prioritize employee wellbeing by incorporating best practices in the workplace and working to create a stigma-free culture. This effort can drive a lasting competitive advantage, improve employee retention and productivity and, ultimately, normalize conversations around getting the proper care for mental health issues.