Mental Health Awareness – Stigma in the Workplace
May is Mental Health Awareness Month! According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed to raise awareness about mental health, fight stigma, provide support, educate, and advocate for policies that support the millions of people in the U.S. affected by mental illness.
1 in 5 people live with a mental health condition and mental illness is more common than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, COMBINED. We speak openly and ask for accommodations for our physical health, so why are we still afraid to talk about mental health?
1 word…2 syllables…6 letters…Stigma.
Stigma is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” Stigma is also the #1 barrier that prevents people from asking for help. Stigma is disrespectful, unkind, and thrives on lack of knowledge and understanding.
Many people avoid talking about mental health because they fear, being seen as weak or incapable. Additionally, they fear judgment, misconceptions, labels, retribution, and job loss. When people fear judgement and misconceptions about a condition they live with, it decreases their willingness to speak openly about it. That is stigma in full force.
For those that don’t ask for help, they run the risk of further declining mental health (at home and in the workplace). Unaddressed mental health in the workplace leads to decrease concentration, and productivity and increased absenteeism, presenteeism, accidents, errors, and turnover.
Let’s take a look at stigma.
There are 7 types of stigma and the most harmful is label avoidance.
Label Avoidance is when a person chooses not to seek mental health treatment to avoid being assigned a stigmatizing label. Label avoidance is dangerous because it’s a barrier that prevents people from seeking (and receiving) the help they need.
6 other types of stigma include:
Public Stigma: When the public endorses negative stereotypes and prejudices.
Self-Stigma: When a person with a mental health condition or substance misuse disorder internalizes public stigma.
Perceived Stigma: The belief that others have negative thoughts about people with mental health conditions.
Stigma By Association: When the effects of stigma are extended to someone linked to a person with a mental health condition. This is also called Courtesy Stigma or Associative Stigma.
Structural Stigma: Institutional policies or other societal structures that result in decreased opportunities for people with mental health conditions.
Health Practitioner Stigma: When a health professional allows stereotypes and prejudices about mental health to negatively affect a patient’s care.
Consider stigma in the workplace and how it works.
Public Stigma: Public stigma in the workplace is the foundation from which all stigma flourishes. The direct consequences are fear, shame, silence, and discrimination against people with mental health conditions.
Self-Stigma: “There is something wrong with me. I am worthless and a failure. I am weak….” (internalized public stigma)
Perceived Stigma: “There is something wrong with me, people must not like me or want to be around me. (public stigma internalized as self stigma)
Stigma by Association: “I have mental illness. No one wants to risk their reputation by being associated with me.” or “that person has mental illness and I dont want to associate with them.” (public stigma mixed with self stigma and perceived stigma)
Structural Stigma: a combination of unaddressed public stigma, self stigma, perceived stigma, and stigma by association.
Four Key Ways We Can Reduce Stigma In The Workplace
- Education – Train leaders on mental health (signs, symptoms, person centered language, safe conversations, and safe workplace cultures).
- Peer Support – Establish a peer support network. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the most effective antidote to stigma in the workplace is contact between peers. Sharing our stories brings the human connection to mental health.
When people step forward, to disclose they have a mental health condition, they pave the way for others to follow. When we talk openly about mental illness and share our stories, it illustrates that we are not alone. Talking about mental health also reinforces that it’s ok to not be ok and it’s ok to ask for help.
- Embrace person centered language – Person centered language focuses on the person first and not the illness they live with. Shifting from words like crazy, nuts, psycho, alcoholic, junkie, or lunatic, to a “Person” living with a mental health condition, “Person” living with alcohol misuse, “Person” living with substance misuse, is an integral part of decreasing stigma. Words matter.
Embracing person centered language also applies to your personal life. Consider the thousands of words and phrases that are part of your internal dialog. Your internal dialog is what speaks to you every day. Be mindful of not using stigmatizing phrases such as I’m crazy, weak, bipolar, nuts, an alcoholic or I’m worthless, or an imposter.
You are a person first and you are doing the best you can.
Be kind to your mind. You matter and your words matter.
- Adopt a culture of safety – A culture of safety is one where everyone feels safe asking for help, without fear of judgment, retribution, or job loss. When leaders understand and recognize the importance of adressing mental health, remove stigma, create peer support networks, and embrace person centered language, the conversation about mental health flows easier.
When people feel safe, seen, heard, and understood, they are more empowered to speak openly, ask for accommodations, be open to receiving support, engage in treatment (if needed), and become a healthier, more engaged, and productive employee.
Stigma loses power when we drag it out of its dark corner and confront it, shame dies when we speak our truth, and people thrive when they share stories and recognize they are a person first. Many people feel stigmatized and ostracized in the workplace. With 1 in 5 people living (and working) with a mental health condition, this must change.
Leaders have the power to transform the workplace and the most powerful organizations have a safe culture that empowers employees to ask for help.
Lives depend on it. Your mental health matters and You matter.
For more resources on stigma and person centered language, visit https://www.hrflorida.org/page/Wellness
Kim LaMontagne, MBA is President/CEO of Kim LaMontagne, LLC, Corporate Mental Health Trainer, International Speaker, and Author. She is also the Wellbeing Director for HR Florida State Council. Her mission is to share her lived experience and train leaders to create a culture of safety in the workplace where everyone feels safe asking for help. Lives depend on it.