CX Insight Magazine

July 2021

Eliminating Mental Health Stigmas in the Workplace

By: Execs In The Know

There is no question that mental health concerns have increased since the pandemic, but the truth is that mental illness and its devastating repercussions on individuals, families, society, and the economy was prevalent long before COVID-19. One of the reasons for the increase in mental health concerns is because of the stigma that continues to be associated with it. In fact, according to studies by the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Approximately 50% of workers are concerned about discussing mental health concerns at work
  • More than one in three workers are concerned about retaliation if they seek mental health care

Those two sobering statistics alone should be cause for concern among all leaders.

The good news is that every single person can make a difference in how mental illness is perceived and addressed. Our industry and its leaders have an opportunity to set the example in making meaningful and lasting change by:

  • Understanding mental illness and its impact on employees and families
  • Creating a culture and support for those who suffer from it
  • Actively working to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness

This takes real work, commitment, and courage to face the problem head-on. But those who are up to the challenge will be rewarded professionally and personally while making a difference in the lives of employees and their families.

This article seeks to shine a light on the scope of this global and growing issue, providing leaders with a foundation to help stamp out the stigma of mental illness at your own organizations.


First, let’s further frame up the scope of the problem that directly impacts every one of us. You do not have to look far to find statistics that clearly show the scope of the problem, including the following reported by the National Alliance on Mental IllnessThe American Psychiatric Association (APA), and Indeed:

  • One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year

Think about these statistics for a moment in the context of your own organization. In your next meeting, look around the room. The likelihood of someone in that group experiencing mental and emotional challenges is high. Given this and the statistics mentioned above, you can be assured that your organization and the people you care about are being affected. The human implications are huge in addition to economic implications, yet over half of employees are reluctant to seek help at work.

What is mental health stigma?

As indicated above, more than half of people with mental illness do not receive help for their mental health challenges. Additionally, the average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years. Think about that – 11 years! Can you imagine going 11 years without treating cancer or diabetes? The consequences of waiting to treat mental illness are just as severe. And one of the main reasons for either a delay in treatment or receiving no treatment at all is fear of being treated differently, discrimination, and/or losing their jobs.

U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.

U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.

of adults with mental illness received no treatment.

of workers say their mental health affects their productivity.

Mental health disorders and
substance abuse issues cost U.S. employers between $79 and $105 BILLION a year in direct costs.

Mental illness costs the economy about $200 BILLION in lost earnings each year.

Before you can begin to take steps to reduce stigma in your organization, it is important to understand what it is and where it comes from.

In short, any stigma means a person is viewed negatively because of a particular characteristic. This could be race, gender, sexuality, nationality, disability, or in this case, mental illness. And when anyone is treated in a negative way for any of these reasons, that is discrimination. People with mental illness can experience stigma in many ways – within their own families, in society, and in the workplace. And the impact can be unbelievably harmful. The social stigma and discrimination they experience can make the problem even worse by causing them to avoid getting the help they so desperately need to recover.

Mental illness stereotypes and the stigma associated with it is not something new. They have persisted over time, even viewed as religious punishment in early civilizations. The mentally ill have also been institutionalized over the course of history, often in unhealthy, dangerous, and inhumane ways. Thankfully, treatment over time for the mentally ill has evolved, but the stigma associated with it persists.

Mental health stigma (like all stigmas) originates from a lack of knowledge, fear, and misperceptions. So, how might you know if your own organization is perpetuating this stigma and the issues surrounding it? Some indicators include:

  • Careless comments about mental health, such as calling someone “crazy”, or saying “they must not have taken their meds today.” These kinds of comments may be said with no ill intentions per se, but imagine if someone struggling heard these comments? It can be very damaging.
  • The perception by staff that those experiencing decreased productivity or other performance issues have made a “choice” and could “fix” their issues if they really wanted to or had the desire to “just power through.” Of course, you may have staff with performance issues which are not related to any mental health challenges. But if you hear these types of comments for those who are experiencing challenges, you likely have an issue.
  • Those who seek counseling or take medication cover it up (or avoid it) due to fear that they will be treated differently.

Why should you focus on reducing mental health stigma?

Because this is still a prevalent issue among most organizations, you may likely find that this stigma persists at some level within your organization. And if so, the impact is far and wide. Not only does the business suffer in terms of decreased productivity and engagement, but the human toll is even more severe, resulting in:

  • Sustained feelings of shame, hopelessness, and isolation
  • Reluctance to ask for help or to get treatment
  • Fewer opportunities for employment or social interactions
  • Bullying, physical violence, or harassment
  • Self-doubt or the belief that the person cannot overcome the illness to achieve their goals
  • Self-harm and suicide

This does not just affect the person experiencing mental health issues, but everyone in their lives – family, friends, acquaintances, society, and colleagues.

Besides the obvious reasons all leaders should focus on reducing the stigma, there is a disconnect between what employers and employees believe is being done to address the issue. This is evident in a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, which can be found below.

The most notable insights from this study are:

  • Less than a quarter of employers reported they had implemented an anti-stigma awareness campaign, yet almost 80% of employees report this would be valuable.
  • A small percentage of employers report that they are focused on improving access to substance use disorders (20%) and mental illness treatment (31%). Not surprisingly, most employees state that it is challenging to access care.
  • The majority of employers (71%) believe they support mental health well among frontline employees, but only 27% of employees agree.

How can you reduce mental illness stigma in your organization?

We can probably all agree that this should be a priority, and reducing the stigma associated with mental illness starts at the top. It should not be “the focus of the month,” or something you say is important, but the company’s actions do not align with the words. It takes a concerted and sustainable approach at all levels to create a culture that eliminates the stigma attached to mental illness. Below are seven specific ways you can begin to alter the perception in your organization:

  • Conduct leadership training – Mental illness is complex, and the ability for leaders at all levels to recognize it and sensitively approach it requires education in areas such as:
    • Identifying warning signs and appropriately responding to them
    • Understanding potential workplace triggers and how to avoid them
    • Creating a safe environment that promotes open dialogue for staff
    • Being aware of how words and language matter
    • Talking openly about one’s own struggles and feelings
  • Provide employee training – Similarly, all staff should also receive training to:
    • Identify warning signs among peers (and themselves) and know appropriate actions to take
    • Be aware of how words and language matter
    • Understand the resources and support available to them
    • Be comfortable talking to their managers about any struggles or stressors they encounter
  • Change the conversation – Foundational to all efforts leaders can take is to normalize the conversation about mental illness. Encourage leaders to openly discuss their own struggles and how they have coped with them. Ensure language used in the workplace does not unintentionally further contribute to the stigma. Phrases such as “she is really acting psycho today…”; or “his split personality is showing today – tread lightly!” can have catastrophic impacts on people who are struggling. Words matter and when one hears others speaking in this manner, even if jest, it further prevents them from seeking help.
  • Seek feedback – When trying to change or improve the culture related to mental illness, leaders should seek input from staff – in other words, do not implement actions in a bubble. Conduct focus groups or offer employees the ability to provide anonymous feedback. As an organization, it is important for you to know how your employees feel about how you approach mental health and the processes and policies you have in place that drive unnecessary stress and anxiety.  Most importantly, hear directly from staff what you can do to further reduce the stigma surrounding it. You might be surprised at what you hear – perhaps it is something as simple as offering more flexible work schedules to reduce stress, or maybe it is more break time to handle personal issues while working at home. Or it might be something you have not even thought of that could make a difference. The most important thing to remember is if you seek feedback – act on it and communicate what you are doing as a result.
  • Offer and promote robust resources and support – We have heard countless stories of employees who did not seek help from available resources – not only because they were afraid of how they would be perceived, but also because they were not aware they existed, or they had to jump through a lot of hoops to access them. Talk about the resources available often – encourage the use of all available support and make it easy for employees to access them. Also, think creatively about the type of resources you offer, beyond insurance benefits. For example, offer internal support groups, or provide information and access to external support.
  • Create safe spaces for people to share and get support – In remote environments, this is even more important. But regardless of where employees are located, they need to feel like there are safe spaces for conversations, and that they can trust those participating in or leading those efforts. Think outside the box – again, are there support groups for various challenges you can offer? Or links and connections to external support?
  • Recognize, reward, and celebrate successes – This should go without saying, but all employees want to feel their work is valued, that what they do matters, and the company cares about their future. So, structured recognition programs and true development plans are essential to contributing to a positive work environment overall and indirectly to reducing the stigma associated with mental health. If you care about their future, it is an indicator that you care about their general well-being.

Teamwork Power Successful Meeting Workplace Concept


Mental illness and the stigma associated with it is a global crisis. While progress has been made in recent years, we still have a long way to go. As leaders, we have a responsibility and opportunity to make a significant difference in how these challenges are perceived and addressed. It can start with us, and the positive impact we can have will cascade not only through our companies, but in our families, among friends, and throughout society. It is up to us to challenge our organizations and make stamping out the stigma a priority that is reflected in everything we do.










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