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Overcoming the mental health stigma at work

From the wreckage of the pandemic, one of the bright spots to emerge has been that workers’ emotional wellbeing is now discussed more openly than ever before. Individuals and employers have learned that mental health conditions are common, treatable, and important to address.

And yet, in this supposed age of mental health acceptance, it appears that a problem persists: The looming shadow of stigma. In spite of all the open discussion and progressive rhetoric around the subject, workers still worry that coming forward with a mental health condition will have a negative impact on their career.

Is there really stigma?

A recent survey by health benefits provider Aetna International found that 27% of employees were worried about HR or managers finding out about the state of their mental health if they used corporate wellbeing services. Worries about the potential impact on their career progression prevented 29% from accessing health and wellbeing benefits, while 20% were concerned about how colleagues would perceive them. That’s really sad.

Even more starkly, recent research by Priory research discovered that 71% of the people they interviewed would worry about telling their employer if they had a mental health condition, for fear of getting a negative response. For many, the desire to keep their condition hidden led to them ringing work with a made-up illness rather than admit they were experiencing a mental health issue.

Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, said: “Sadly, Priory’s research findings are indicative of the stigma that continues to shroud mental health and the impact it has on those who are experiencing a mental health issue. We already know that one in six British workers will experience a mental health problem at some point in their career, but the fear of discrimination often prevents them from accessing help and support early on.”

In the Aetna International survey, when asked what might encourage them to use the wellbeing services their employer offered, 36% would feel more comfortable using support if they knew colleagues were using the services too and 31% felt their employer could help to destigmatise mental health issues by discussing them more openly.

Why does it matter?

At a time when people are at their most vulnerable and most in need of help, stigma prevents them from asking for help. This terrible paradox can deepen an illness that is often invisible to others. Stigma creates a cloud of shame and uncertainty that obscures what could be a clear path to recovery.

Stigma comes, largely, in two forms: Employer stigma towards workers with mental health issues, and self-stigma and shame among workers with mental health issues. Both can be reversed, but both require an effort on the part of the employer, and progress in this area is frustratingly slow. A McKinsey survey indicated that while 80% of employees believed that an anti-stigma or awareness campaign would be useful, only 23 percent of employers reported having implemented such a program. Further, when employers were asked to prioritise 11 potential behavioural-health-focused initiatives, they ranked stigma reduction last.

This is hugely unfortunate, because employers are missing what could be an easy win. They can’t solve every aspect of mental illness in the workplace, but stigma and prevailing attitudes are things that they actually can change. And once the stigma is removed, recovery becomes a more tangible and likely outcome, as sufferers feel more supported and able to seek treatment.

So what can employers do to tackle stigma?

Workplaces need to facilitate an open conversation about mental health. The McKinsey report emphasises the importance of “allowing individuals with stigmatised conditions to humanise them by sharing their stories.” Even better, is if business leaders themselves come forward with their own struggles, showing that people who deal with these conditions are still highly functional and successful.

This is where a workplace wellbeing engagement platform like BuddyBoost can play a crucial role. With BuddyBoost, colleagues build healthy habits by buddying-up and supporting each other through fun, month-long challenges, to do with exercise, nutrition, and taking time for themselves to destress. They then record how much the activities have boosted their mood.

There are three major benefits the BuddyBoost platform offers in the battle to end stigma. The first is simply that, by introducing a workplace wellbeing programme with a focus on mood, employers are indicating that the mental health of their workers is important to them, and a subject they take seriously.

The second is that it’s a wellbeing programme designed for all – it’s not exclusively for those with mental health issues, or those that already like to exercise, but is, instead, a mass-participation exercise. So participants can feel very natural in taking part.

The third benefit is more profound and far-reaching. Participants communicate and support each other on the BuddyBoost community feed, posting photos, video, and text about their experiences of the challenge, and how it’s made them feel. And, we find the community is relentlessly positive.

This invariably facilitates a discussion about mental health. On every community feed of every challenge, people feel able to discuss their mental health, and any struggles they may face. This helps to create a culture of openness and understanding, and facilitates an ongoing discussion about mental health.

Conversation and communication are key tools in the battle against the two types of stigma. In a workplace environment where people are openly discussing their conditions and struggles, it becomes clear to employees that theirs is an employer who values them and their wellbeing, and that a mental health condition will not negatively impact their career.

But perhaps more importantly, it will also go some way to addressing self-stigma. As people are able to see colleagues, and even better leaders, who have their own mental health issues to attend to, they begin to address their own feelings of shame, and understand that mental illness is not a character failing, but a common condition that they do not need to keep hidden.

Undoubtedly, huge progress has been made in the realms of mental health in the workplace over recent months and years, and employers are taking a more progressive approach to the subject. But what’s clear is that it’s not enough for employers to feel this way – they have to communicate it to their workers, and foster a working environment where everyone can be open about the challenges they face. Only then can we truly say that the stigma around mental health is a thing of the past.


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