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Mental health at work — creating a stigma-free culture

 

This is part of a series on workforce mental health. To learn more about what stigma is and why it’s a problem, read our previous article.

Millions of Americans live with a mental health condition — but most aren’t getting the treatment they need. One of the reasons is stigma — negative stereotypes about mental illness that persist both in and out of the workplace. In fact, stigma is one of the main reasons why people delay treatment for 8 to 10 years on average — and many never get help at all.¹

The benefits of a stigma-free workplace

Currently, fewer than 1 in 3 employees who struggle with a mental health condition get the help they need.² So it’s important to encourage more people to get help, because treatment works — reducing symptoms for 75% of those with common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.³ Plus, when employees start to feel better about their mental health, they also feel better about their jobs and are more engaged at work. In fact, more than 80% of employees who receive treatment report improved job satisfaction.4

Taking steps to eliminate stigma at work can also foster employee loyalty and retention. In one recent poll, 57% of employees said they would be more loyal, more productive, and take less time off work if their employer proactively supported workforce mental health.⁵ Addressing stigma can also help build awareness and acceptance outside company walls — and send a positive message to customers.

Stigma drives silence. Most people struggle with symptoms for 8 to 10 years before they seek help and treatment.

Consider this: Could ignoring mental health be undermining your other workforce wellness efforts?

Workforce wellness programs have become status quo. But many of these programs focus solely on physical health issues like preventing chronic conditions, maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, and quitting tobacco.

Leaving mental health out of the equation could compromise the effectiveness of these programs — because mental health plays a significant role in these same conditions and behaviors:

  • People with mental health conditions are more likely to smoke cigarettes than the general population, smoke more heavily and frequently, and are less likely to quit.⁶
  • People living with a mood disorder such as depression are twice as likely to be obese.⁷ And because many use food as a coping mechanism, they face additional challenges trying to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Employees with a mental health condition are more likely to develop the health problems that wellness programs are designed to prevent. For example, people living with depression have a higher risk for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, as well as strokes, heart attacks, and Alzheimer’s disease.⁸

By incorporating mental health into your workforce wellness strategy, you can help employees living with mental health conditions manage their symptoms better. That puts them in a position where they can take full advantage of your workforce wellness program — and become healthier and happier overall.

Breaking down stigma and changing workplace culture

Fighting stigma is about creating awareness, encouraging acceptance, and challenging false beliefs. It starts with breaking the silence around mental illness and education about things like:

  • Understanding the mental health benefits offered and knowing how to access them
  • Highlighting support and resources available through employee assistance programs
  • Proactive manager support for those who are open about living with a mental health condition
  • Awareness of language used throughout the organization and avoiding negative terms when talking about mental illness
  • Recognizing that mental health and physical health are equally important, and mental health conditions are common and treatable — just like most physical health conditions
  • Recognizing signs of emotional distress and what to do when team members may be struggling

Case study: DuPont’s ICU program

ICU is a workplace awareness campaign designed to reduce stigma and foster a culture that supports emotional health. This simple training program prepares employees to recognize signs of distress among coworkers, provide support, and encourage peers to use their company’s mental health resources.

 

Originally developed for DuPont employees, the ICU program was later donated to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, where it’s now available to employers everywhere for free. Today, ICU gives companies of all sizes the tools they need to start a conversation about mental health and stigma in the workplace.

Moving toward a stigma-free future

By addressing stigma in the workplace, employers have a unique opportunity to make it easier for their employees to get help. In a workplace culture where mental illness isn’t stigmatized, employees are more likely to be aware of available resources, start treatment sooner, and recover more quickly.

At the same time, this can be a hard conversation for employers to start. There are multiple factors at play — attitudes and beliefs about mental illness are shaped over time by various social, cultural, and economic environments. To make it easier for employers to tackle this tough subject, the National Alliance on Mental Illness developed a program to help companies like yours take meaningful steps to become stigma-free.

About our expert

Cosette Taillac, LCSW

Cosette Taillac is the strategic leader for mental health addiction and recovery. She has worked for Kaiser Permanente for 20 years. Cosette has a master’s degree in child and adolescent mental health from the University of California, Berkeley and is a licensed, board-certified psychiatric social worker. Since 2017, she’s been a board member of the One Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that implements evidence-based models for promoting resilience in children in the United States and Canada. She created a mind-body-spirit curriculum for empowering girls as part of One Circle’s Girls Circle program.