HR Florida


Florida State Council Affiliate of SHRM

Stigma in the workplace plays a large role in the under-treatment of mental health conditions

By Kim LaMontagne, MBA

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 (20%) people live with a mental health (invisible) condition. SHRM states that nearly half (47%) of workers with invisible disabilities have not disclosed for reasons that include fear of inequity, exclusion, and stigma. According to the National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago, “employers that support mental health see a return of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health treatment.”

These 3 statistics illustrate the need for organizations to create and sustain a mentally healthy workplace.

Often, employees living with a mental health condition stay silent and suffer alone. This is due to the ‘belief’ that living with a mental health condition is a moral failure. Another ‘belief’ is that an employee will face judgment, retribution, or job loss if they speak openly and ask for help.

These 2 beliefs lead to lack of disclosure.

Lack of disclosure limits the employer’s ability to accommodate the worker which can lead to decreased concentration, engagement, and productivity, and increased absenteeism, presenteeism (at work but not fully functioning), workplace accidents, and mistakes.

Consider the industry you are currently working in. What accidents and errors could occur, as a result of lack of concentration and increased presenteeism, and what is the potential outcome?

Effect of Stigma

Stigma refers to the negative internal attitudes and beliefs people hold toward something. Discrimination is the external effect of the stigma that results in the denial of individuals their rights and social inclusion.

Stigma plays a role in the decreased speed of employee outreach and treatment, and is responsible for developing a strong tendency toward placing a stereotype on a person with a mental health condition, resulting in bullying, harassment, potential loss of employment, and workplace intimidation. Stigma may also contribute to severe financial consequences and can be detrimental to an organization, if left unchallenged.

Stigma and discrimination can be more detrimental to the individual than the actual mental health condition, due to the withdrawal of support, from loved ones and colleagues, in addition to shunning and exclusion.

Numerous misconceptions still exist about mental health conditions, which lead to stigma and shame. Society also plays a large role in the negative perception of mental illness. The risk factors and symptoms of common illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure are widely known. On the contrary, there are gaps in the lack of knowledge of the risk factors and symptoms associated with mental illness. Consequently, many myths, fears, and stigma still exist around mental illness.

Addressing Stigma in the Workplace

Train leaders on mental health. Many leaders feel unprepared to navigate mental health in the workplace. Training and awareness gives leaders the tools and confidence to identify someone in distress, open a safe dialog, and crosswalk an employee to professional services.

Implement a mental health awareness program. Providing accurate information about mental illness is the first step in decreasing stigma. A mental health awareness program increases the dissemination of more accurate information and can be a catalyst to lessening the stigma around mental health in the workplace. It also provides education that can dispel myths and aid in the recognition and management of disorders associated with mental illness.

Shift to person centered language. Person centered language is when we focus on the person first and not the stigmatized condition they live with. Using person centered language and removing derrogatory words, such as alcoholic, nuts, junkie, and psycho, lessons a persons self stigma and could make them feel safe asking for help.

Below are 2 examples.

Organization #1 An employee living with undisclosed mental health challenges and alcohol misuse is involved in a conversation with co-workers. The conversation revolves around another employee who recently self-disclosed their mental health challenges. The words used to describe that co-worker were hurtful and demeaning and created an increased level of shame for the employee who has yet to self-disclose. Words like crazy, nuts, addict, and psycho were used in the conversation which propels the employee with undisclosed illness into a deeper level of shame and increases their fear of asking for help.

The result: the employee does not disclose, does not get help, and spirals out of control, which impacts productivity and engagement. This is a common scenario in a workplace culture that does not address stigma and the power of language in the workplace.

Organization #2 An employee living with undisclosed mental health challenges and alcohol use disorder engages in a conversation with a peer. The organization has embraced a culture of safety, shifted to person centered language, and made a commitment to eradicate stigma in the workplace. The organizational commitment is led by the CEO and top tier leaders. Company wide communications, education, peer support, and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) are fully supported.

The result: The employee is seen as a ‘person living with a mental health condition and alcohol misuse’ and feels safe to engage in a peer conversation. The peer conversation leads to a consult with the EAP. The employee commits to full time counseling, engages in work on a deeper and more meaningful level which contributes to the overall success of the organization.

Which organizaton would you be proud to lead?

In summary, stigma is still present in the workplace, and is a barrier for employees who want to seek help for their mental health. Lack of accommodation and treatment can lead to decreased engagement concentration, accidents and errors. We must decrease stigma and promote open conversations that lead to solutions and support for employees in need. When employees feel safe, seen, heard, and understood, difficult conversations happen naturally.

Words matter, safe conversations matter, and safe workplaces matter.

Business leaders have a duty to implement a mental health strategy and incorporate mental health as an ongoing educational process.It’s up to us, as leaders, to make the changes required to build and sustain a mentally healthy workforce, capable of increased productivity, due to positive mental health.

The most powerful organizations create a culture where employees feel safe removing the mask of fear and shame and speaking openly about mental health.

It’s good for humanity and it’s good for the bottom line.

Do you have a mental health strategy in place at your organization?

Kim LaMontagne

Kim LaMontagne, MBA is a Corporate Mental Health Trainer, International Speaker, Author, and President of Kim LaMontagne, LLC. She is also the Wellbeing Director for HR Florida State Council, State Trainer & Speaker for National Alliance on Mental Illness, and is a Certified Facilitator of Addiction Awareness Training through ICARE. Kim trains leaders to navigate the conversation about mental health in the workplace, and create a safe culture where everyone feels safe asking for help.

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