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Creating a stigma-free workplace is key to tackling the mental health crisis

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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 are not 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 11 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 It’s important to encourage more people to get help, because treatment works — reducing symptoms for 70% and 90% of those with mental health conditions.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

Illustration of a man working at his desk smiling, with caption: More than 80% of employees who receive treatment report improved job satisfaction

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.

Ignoring mental health could be undermining your other workforce wellness efforts

Workforce wellness programs are 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 it 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
Illustration of an older person having their blood pressure tested in a doctor's office with caption: People living with depression have a higher risk for chronic conditions

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
Illustration of a woman at her desk with a tea kettle speaking to two colleagues with caption: Providing mental health resources to employees supports employee wellness and can help make your business more resilient

Providing mental health resources to employees supports employee wellness and can help make your business more resilient. Resources, guidance. external link, and training are available to help employees recognize common mental health challenges, engage in practices that support emotional well-being, and foster a stigma-free culture.

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. external link .

About our expert

headshot of Simon Borger, LCSW
Simon Borger, LCSW

Simon Borger, LCSW, is the Vice President for Mental Health and Wellness at Kaiser Permanente. He has worked for Kaiser Permanente for more than 22 years. A licensed psychiatric social worker, he received his master’s degree from Tulane University. Simon leads the transformation of Kaiser Permanente’s delivery of evidence-based, outcomes-driven mental health and addiction care therapy and counseling services, in pursuit of a vision to be the model of mental health care in the nation.

Resources you may find helpful

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  • 1

    “Mental Health By the Numbers,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI.org, accessed September 21, 2022.

  • 2

    “Bad for Business: The Business Case for Overcoming Stigma in the Workplace,” National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts, 2015.

  • 3

    “About Mental Illness,” National Alliance on Mental Illness of California, NAMICA.org, accessed September 21, 2022.

  • 4

    “Investing in a Mentally Healthy Workforce Is Good for Business,” Center for Workplace Mental Health, workplacementalhealth.org, accessed February 1, 2019.

  • 5

    Health Shield Insights Twitter Poll, July 2018.

  • 6

    “Tobacco Use Among Adults With Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov, accessed February 14, 2019.

  • 7

    Jonikas et al., “Associations Between Gender and Obesity Among Adults With Mental Illnesses in a Community Health Screening Study,” Community Mental Health Journal, 2016.

  • 8

    “Chronic Illness & Mental Health,” National Institute of Mental Health, nimh.nih.gov, accessed February 14, 2019.