In any month, about 18% of people in the workforce are experiencing a mental health condition. Depression and anxiety are the most common. Many of the most productive, creative people in your company are likely included in this statistic. Yet, mental health remains a stigmatized topic. If you’re a leader, you can influence mental health stigma through both policy and cultural change. Reducing mental health stigma is not only the right thing to do, it also helps people perform at their best. Here are some ways to ease mental health stigma at work:
1. Make it okay to take a mental health day.
Mental and physical health are treated differently, but they shouldn’t be. When people need to take a mental health day, they will often hide it by saying they had a migraine or gastro. The more people ditch the excuses, the more normal it will become to take a mental health day, and come back to work stronger.
One sick day isn’t enough to recover from all problems, whether physical or emotional. However, taking off work for a mental health day can work wonders.
Ideally, a company’s openness to employees taking mental health days should be covered during the on-boarding process. And, employees should be regularly reminded of all their options for accessing mental health care if needed.
2. Leaders and top performers should talk about their mental health challenges, if happy to.
A stereotype is that mental health conditions only affect average and low performers. When high performers talk about their mental health challenges, it can help bust this misconception.
No one should ever feel obligated to talk about their health at work. However, when people from senior leadership feel comfortable doing so, they should absolutely share a little of their story.
3. Recognize that mental health challenges are not the same as stress.
Companies sometimes think they are addressing mental health if they provide education and support to employees about managing stress. While stress can trigger or exacerbate mental health struggles, it’s not the same thing.
It’s important that stress is not used as a euphemism for anxiety or depression, etc.
We need to use the proper words to talk about mental health, not lump it in with stress management or mindfulness.
There is some overlap in recommended strategies (e.g., exercise) but it’s not 1:1.
4. People should be made aware of potential accommodations they could request.
The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that people experiencing mental health challenges be given needed accommodations if they ask for them (with a few exceptions.) Yet, many employees are not even aware of this option. Or, they’re fearful of experiencing negative consequences if they exercise these legal rights.
People with mental health difficulties aren’t a weak link in an organization. They don’t need accommodations out of pity or charity. They can be extremely valuable employees an organization wants to hang onto and wants at the top of their game.
Here are a few examples of accommodations:
- An adult who has ADHD may struggle to take in multiple instructions at once. Consequently, they may need to get written instructions and feedback rather than receive these only verbally.
- It’s typically important for someone with bipolar disorder to keep their schedule consistent, such as their sleeping schedule. They might need to fly out a day early for a conference rather than take a flight that requires them to get up at 4 a.m.
- Someone with a current or past eating disorder might be uncomfortable having lunch meetings. Their stress about the food aspect of the meeting might interfere with their ability to concentrate, do their best work, and make their best impression. Simply switching to a coffee meeting might solve that problem for them.
Anyone in a management role should have enough basic knowledge of how common mental health disorders work to understand potential accommodations. When mental health challenges affect 18% of the workforce, this isn’t just a nice skill to have as a manager. It’s essential.
Knowledge is the first step to sensitivity. For example, an employee bonding event that involves wearing a bathing suit might be extremely triggering for folks with histories of eating disorders or social anxiety. It’s exclusionary to tie social ease at these types of activities with someone’s networking opportunities or evaluations.
Why Destigmatize Mental Health Conditions
There are many advantages to destigmatizing mental health at work.
- When people don’t fear stigma or discrimination, they will ask for accommodations more. When they receive these, performance and retention will improve.
- When people fear getting a label of mental illness, they may be less willing to access treatment.
- People with mental health conditions sometimes feel imposter syndrome at work. People with a mental health diagnoses need role models who are leaders and high performers. This helps ensure folks don’t restrict themselves due to shame about their mental health challenges.
- Employees who are comfortable talking about mental health will share resources, and tips and tricks that have worked for them.
- The more people with mental health challenges reach positions of power in companies, the more that mental health support is likely to be prioritized.
All these benefits are within our grasp as a society and business community, if we put the effort in.