Is workplace stigma around mental health struggles changing?
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Employers are saying they’re more open than ever to helping employees with mental-health issues. But are workers happier speaking up?

In the pandemic era, mental health has been tenuous for many. Major stressors have come in quick succession, with little reprieve: a deadly virus and economic upheaval that led to job and income loss. Prolonged isolation, increased bereavement, limited access to mental healthcare and seismic socio-political events have compounded myriad pressures; across the board people have experienced heightened levels of fear and anxiety.  

The effects are widespread: 51% of respondents to a seven-country survey published by the International Committee of the Red Cross in October 2020 said the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health. Figures gathered by the US Census Bureau and published in April 2021 showed that adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36% in August 2020 to 42% in February 2021. Researchers are still collecting data on pandemic-related mental-health impacts as Covid-19 uncertainties and outcomes continue to affect our daily lives. 

Many employers have recognised the gravity of the strain, and responded intentionally. Some firms have introduced more benefits centered on psychological wellbeing and broadened options within employee assistance programs (EAPs) which enable workers to access free services to address mental-health conditions and substance-abuse issues. Many companies implemented preventative measures, too, like more holiday or staff training. 

For some workers, discussion of mental-health challenges have become more commonplace in the office. Among British workers, 32% feel more comfortable talking about their workplace mental health since the pandemic, compared to 14% in mid-2019, according to the social enterprise Mental Health First Aid England. It’s a similar story in the US, where the American Psychiatric Association found that 51% of workers were comfortable talking openly about mental health with their supervisor or co-workers in April 2019, which increased to 65% in September 2019. This indicates unprecedented progress for an unprecedented time. 

However, mental-health issues still remain stigmatised in almost all spheres of life. Has this increase in employer recognition, support and openness, combined with worker willingness to speak up, really moved the needle on judgements around mental-health struggles in work settings? Or are some biases too entrenched to dislodge – even after a collective global trauma? 

Fear and hesitancy 

In many cases, companies have responded swiftly to employee mental health issues linked to the pandemic by introducing or expanding assistance measures. In April 2020, of the American companies who already offered EAPs, some data shows 25% expanded what they covered to include services such as bereavement counselling, and 57% ramped up communication to ensure employees were aware of what they could access. 

Other companies introduced different types of support: in the US in 2021, more American companies offered extra paid time off (55% increase), mental-health days (41% increase) and mental-health training for executives or staff (33% increase) compared to 2019, according to Mind Share Partners, a non-profit organisation that provides mental-health training and strategy to global companies.

Many firms have bolstered support for workers - but that still doesn't mean people are willing to speak up about mental health (Credit: Getty)

Many firms have bolstered support for workers - but that still doesn't mean people are willing to speak up about mental health (Credit: Getty)

Although these services are more prolific, and employees are increasingly requesting them, it’s unclear whether employees are actually using them frequently. Some data shows that just more than a tenth of UK workers used their EAP in 2021. It’s a jump of several percentage points on the year before, yet barely touches the share of people struggling with mental-health issues. 

It’s possible the lack of uptake may be linked to the fear of being stigmatised at work, if employers know who is utilising these benefits, say experts. Employees worry these services are not truly confidential, says Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners. Research has long shown that workers have been reluctant to use available counselling services if they believed it would jeopardise future career opportunities

“Many employees and leaders believe that experiencing mental-health challenges and performing successfully at work are at odds with each other – that is, if you have mental health challenges, you cannot be as successful,” says Greenwood. This isn’t helped bymedia portrayals of mental-health challenges being consistently incapacitating. 

These stigmas can particularly affect people of colour. “Historically under-represented groups are already up against so many systemic barriers in the workplace, and may not want to other themselves further by saying they have a mental-health challenge,” says Greenwood. Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Report showed black, Latinx and LGBTQ workers are more likely to have left a role at least in part due to mental-health reasons, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islander respondents felt least comfortable talking about mental health at work.    

Men, too, are more likely to be grappling with their own internalised stigma. “We don’t often talk about men as a marginalised group, and they certainly aren’t in many ways,” says Greenwood. “But when it comes to mental-health stigma, there are so many outdated norms around masculinity, and how that impacts the ability to show or discuss your emotions, so we see a lot more men reluctant to talk about their own struggles.” In this way, men face a double bind as they shoulder their own prejudices about what is ‘manly’ and that of the people around them. 

Yet ultimately, workers of all stripes worry about workplace judgement: McKinsey & Company research showed more than half of survey respondents feared stigma if colleagues discovered their mental-health problems. Similarly, June 2022 data from human-resources company LifeWorks shows 91% of Britons, 92% of Americans and 90% of Australians believe people with mental-health conditions are treated differently, which is known to discourage individuals from seeking support and treatment in the workplace. 

Dislodging stigma? 

There has been some indication of positive movement, however. Some data shows stigma could be changing somewhat: in Mind Share Partners’ 2021 study, 58% of study respondents were willing to hire or work with someone with a mental-health condition, which is 26% more than in 2019 (46%). Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks, believes one of the best things that came from the pandemic was that no-one could ignore their own vulnerability and that of the people around them. “We had a bit more empathy at the start of it,” she says. “But that empathy was not fully sustained, and empathy alone is not enough to dislodge this kind of stigma.”

PQ: Since knowledge about how the brain works remains low, we still have assumptions about mental health, and these show up more significantly at work – Paula Allen

Stigma around mental health is so hard to dispel, Allen explains, partly because of a general lack of understanding around the issue. “Since knowledge about how the brain works remains low, we still have assumptions about mental health, and these show up more significantly at work,” she says. Behavioural norms which teach people affected by mental health issues to push through are also a factor, she adds. “Older behaviours are hard to change, and our society has a tendency to value struggling through; it makes no sense but it is our pattern – and it needs to change.” 

There are two different yet interlinked barriers to breach: the first is employer stigma towards workers with mental health issues, and the second is internalised stigma among workers with mental health issues that prevents them from speaking up. We may have made progress with the first, but many people still feel shame around their own mental health issues. Allen notes that this same barrier existed with cancer, but when the knowledge level and cultural attitudes changed, internalised stigmas also lessened. 

She believes the same must happen for mental health; companies need to address both the gaps in knowledge and the fears related to having mental health issues, as well as assumptions about their impact on a person’s ability to work. “It’s about on-going communication, training and organisational practices that help people feel safe and believe they will not be penalised or isolated for ups, downs or even significant issues with their mental health.”

Younger people are more willing to talk about mental health - which could help tackle stigma in the workplace (Credit: Getty)

Younger people are more willing to talk about mental health - which could help tackle stigma in the workplace (Credit: Getty)

More steps can be taken to build on progress made during the pandemic. Greenwood believes employers must focus on normalising the full spectrum of psychological issues. “To push the needle forward, folks with chronic conditions need to feel they’re able to talk without judgement,” says Greenwood. Leaders coming forward with their own struggles can help, she says, showing people who deal with these conditions are still highly functional and successful. 

Resources and communication regarding mental health are key, as is flexibility and workplace mental health training. Currently, only 43% of companies (down from 51% last year) specifically train line managers to support staff with mental ill health, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. The same data shows employees realise employers haven’t put adequate support mechanisms in place: although 77% of workers say their organisations actively promote good mental wellbeing, only half say companies effectively identify and manage struggling employees. Managers must be appropriately trained to spot, address and engage with struggling workers, and help them find the help they need within the company-wide provision, which can often be a labyrinth to navigate. In turn, this degree of constructive care and signposting would likely increase the use of EAPs. 

All this, however, will take work, since change needs to happen at the top, says Naeema Pasha, EMEA director of behavioural science at the digital coaching platform CoachHub. “All the constituent parts of workplace wellbeing, destigmatisation included, must be integrated at an executive-strategy level, and be a collective priority, not one that sits purely with HR teams,” she says.

Broader social change will likely play a role in bolstering employer engagement and best practices on mental health. Outside the workplace, conversations about mental health have been unlocked in the wake of the pandemic. Plus, as Gen Z enters the workforce, their openness-by-default might have a trickle-up effect. As the group most comfortable with expressing wellness struggles, they can influence what’s normal and appropriate in workplace conversations. “Although every generation has things they can teach other generations, the younger generation has more than a role in changing the dialogue around mental health – they have a responsibility,” says Allen. 

For now, though, as stigma is still omnipresent, workers may unfortunately be right to feel nervous about disclosing mental-health issues. “Ironically, we’ve heard from employees that the burden of trying to hide a mental health challenge can be even greater than experiencing the challenge itself,” says Greenwood. “That’s why normalising mental health is so important – even if someone never talks about their experiences at work, they can still feel accepted and not isolated.” 

The pandemic continues to evolve, as do its mental health outcomes, but there’s so much more to be done in both the workplace and wider society in the framing, discussing and judgement of all aspects of mental health. With the pandemic demonstrating the sort of change possible within a short timeframe, an even greater positive evolution could gradually increase the number of people willing to speak up and find the support they need.