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Stigma of mental health in workplace: Breaking down barriers

Srabani Banerjee
Wednesday, December 20, 2023, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

Mental health is a critical part of the overall well-being of every individual, however, it is often stigmatized at the workplace. In today's fast-paced and competitive work environment, it is often overlooked over performance and productivity. This stigma can prevent employees from proactively seeking the timely help they often need, which can catapult burnout, decreased efficiency at work, low productivity, increased absenteeism, and even job losses.

Understanding the mental health stigma
Mental health stigma can have immense negative ramifications at the workplace, especially for those who are experiencing these conditions. It can manifest in many ways like misconstructions or fears about mental illness, besides others such as:

Discrimination and unfair treatment: People with mental health conditions may be denied employment, passed over for promotions, or treated unfairly at work. For instance, an employee with bipolar disorder may face discrimination when requesting reasonable accommodations to manage their condition, such as a flexible work schedule or a quieter workspace.

Social isolation: People with mental health conditions tend to be excluded from important decision-making meetings at the workplace or even office social activities, and often end up experiencing biased treatment by their colleagues. For example, team members might exclude someone with social anxiety from after-work social gatherings, believing they are not interested, while in reality, the individual avoids such events due to their condition.

Shame and guilt: People with mental health conditions may feel ashamed or guilty about their condition, and they may be afraid to tell anyone about it, even their closest friends and family members.

Why is mental health stigma harmful?
Mental health stigma can have a devastating impact on people's lives. It can prevent them from seeking the help they need, which can lead to worsening of their symptoms and a decline in their overall well-being. At workplace, mental health stigma can have a spiralling impact on key business metrics. It can lead to:

Decreased productivity: Employees who are struggling with mental health challenges may have difficulty in concentrating, meeting deadlines, and completing their work to a high standard.

Increased workplace errors: Mental health issues can lead to decreased attention to detail and impaired decision-making. Employees dealing with conditions like anxiety or depression may be more prone to making errors, which can have serious financial implications for both the individual and the organization.

Increased absenteeism: Employees with mental health conditions may take more time off in terms of sick days than their colleagues.

Increased turnover: Employees with mental health conditions are more likely to leave their jobs owing to unfair treatment at work or under-performance if not managed well by their superiors.

A hostile work environment: Employees who experience stigma may feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work. This can lead to decreased morale, productivity and a sense of detachment from work.

Mental health issues are a pervasive and often underestimated concern in today's society. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), depression stands out as the leading cause of disability on a global scale. This alarming statistic highlights the widespread impact of mental health conditions, affecting individuals from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender, or socio-economic status. However, depression is just the tip of the iceberg, as anxiety disorders alone impact more than 260 million people worldwide. These numbers shed light on the magnitude of the problem, emphasizing that mental health issues are not isolated incidents but a global public health challenge. The workplace, in particular, is a breeding ground of ever growing mental health challenges stemming from tremendous work pressures, tight deadlines, heavy and unbalanced workloads and increasing demands of the digital age. These factors are leading to exacerbation of mental health conditions, in the form of anxiety, depression, severe burnout and stress-related health issues and mental disorders.

Addressing employee mental health issues at the workplace is not just a matter of corporate responsibility; it's a business necessity for maintaining a healthy and productive workforce. Employers and employees alike bear a shared responsibility in tackling these mental health challenges. Open and proactive discussions about mental health must become a cornerstone of workplace culture. Employers should provide resources and support systems that promote mental well-being, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), access to mental health professionals, and flexible work arrangements. Employees, in turn, should feel empowered to speak up about their mental health concerns without fear of stigma or reprisal.

Role of employers to break down stigma of mental health in  workplace
Employers can play a leading role in breaking down the stigma of mental health in the workplace such as:

Educate employees about mental health: Organizations must offer workshops and seminars that educate employees about mental health, its prevalence, and how to recognize and address it. They should encourage open conversations about mental health. Share success stories of employees who have sought help and thrived in their careers. This can help to dispel myths and misconceptions about mental illness.

Create a safe and supportive workplace culture: This can be done by providing confidential employee assistance programs, flexible work arrangements, and creating an open, inclusive culture of respect and understanding, wherein employees feel comfortable to approach their managers and peers to share their concerns and issues.

Implement mental health policies and programs: This could include providing access to mental health counselling and introducing policies like paid time off for mental health treatments and rebounds.

Encourage self-care and promote work-life balance: Organisations should encourage employees to prioritize self-care, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and take regular breaks. Implementing wellness programs that focus on physical and mental health, such as fitness classes, mindfulness sessions, and stress management workshops is also important.

Role modelling by Leadership: Leaders can play a pivotal role in breaking the barriers by openly acknowledging the importance of mental health and prioritising it in their actions and decisions. By discussing their own experiences of mental health challenges openly and emphasizing that seeking help for mental health issue is a sign of strength, not weakness, they should walk the talk.

Furthermore, employees can also play a role in breaking down the stigma of mental health at the workplace. Here are a few things they can do:

Be open about their own mental health challenges: If they are comfortable doing so, they can share their own stories about their mental health challenges with their colleagues. This can help normalize mental illness and show others that it is okay to seek help.

Support their colleagues: If they know a colleague who is struggling with mental health challenges, offer them proactive help. Let them know that they have their unconditional support and care. This will promote an environment that is non-judgmental and deeply rooted in trust and will go a long way in significantly reducing the stigma associated with mental health.

The road to a ‘Stigma-Free Workplace’, is not only a moral imperative but also essential for the well-being and productivity of employees and organizations as a whole. When individuals feel safe and encouraged to discuss their mental health concerns openly, they are more likely to seek help when needed. This leads to timely interventions and faster recovery for those grappling with mental health issues. It's time to challenge the stigma and prioritize mental health at the workplace, by building a more compassionate, inclusive, and supportive working world, where mental health is valued as highly as physical health.

(Author is Head of Healthy Workplaces Program, Arogya World)

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