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Move Past Stigmatizing Mental Health

Bill Howatt Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance

This op-ed was originally published in Halifax's The Chronicle Herald on January 30, 2019.

When the stigma associated with mental health is eliminated in the workplace, we’ll all know it, because having a mental health challenge will be viewed the same as suffering from the flu.

Thousands of employees die each year due to the flu, as well as thousands as a result of mental illness. The difference is that the average employee who becomes ill with the flu feels safe to tell their manager. They will rest at home and, if needed, seek medical attention. Those who come to work feeling ill due to a mental health challenge, however, may be concerned about stigma and may not feel comfortable talking to their manager to explore their options — perhaps using a sick day or seeing a mental-health professional.

As more senior leaders educate their employees on mental health, this stigma will begin to leave our workplaces. That will help to normalize that an employee suffering a mental health challenges or illness for six months can be similar to someone dealing with cancer. They both can recover and come back to work healthy, with all their skills and abilities. Until this happens, the barriers of stigma will continue.

We need to continue to educate employees about the different factors that influence mental health, such as challenges keeping up with life demands, time exposed to toxic work stress and traumatic events.

Other factors may include divorce, a sick child, financial challenges, physical and mental injuries, physical illness or genetics. Employees should also be made aware of what they can do to support their own mental health — for example developing their resiliency and coping skills — and those of their colleagues.

Mental health falls on a continuum from healthy to at-risk. We all move back and forth on this continuum each day. How far and how long we stay on the at-risk side influences our ability to function and perform and our quality of life at home and at work, along with the degree of risk for developing a mental illness.

One of the primary goals of anti-stigma campaigns, such as Bell Let’s Talk, is to create a national conversation and forum to facilitate dialogue that it’s OK to have a mental-health challenge. It doesn’t mean that we’re weak. It means that it’s OK to ask for help, to talk about our mental health and that, with support, people who have mental-health challenges can live normal, healthy lives.

It’s beneficial for organizations to ensure that they have a game plan and strategy in place focused on eliminating stigma from the workplace.

One important step for organizations implementing mental health strategies is learning what they can do to eliminate all three types of stigma.

  •  Self-stigma is what a person experiencing a mental health challenge thinks about themselves and their level of comfort to talk with another person about how they’re feeling. What stops many is fear of what others may think, say or do.

  •  Peer stigma — Employees notice how their work culture rejects or accepts peers with a mental health challenge. These observations influence how a person with a mental health challenge believes they may be treated by peers.

  •  Organization stigma — Employees observe how senior leaders, managers and human resource professionals promote and support mental health and invest in creating a psychologically safe workplace and programs. Employees are also aware of their level of confidence that having a mental health challenge would not impact their career progression or job security.

Each of the above requires attention, measurement, designing a strategy and implementation plan that monitors impact. To eliminate stigma, words matter, as do actions and follow through.

The quest to eliminate stigma sets the expectation that no employee with a mental health challenge should ever feel bad about asking for help. Anything less is not acceptable.

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