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Mental Health in the Workplace

Breaking down stigma and changing workplace culture


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With more than 1 million Coloradans living with mental health conditions, companies are beginning to recognize  wellness as a crucial component for workforce success. While mental health is coming into the fold of normal health-care conversations, it remains one of the final workplace taboos. As a physician, I understand the stigma that surrounds mental health is a major barrier to seeking treatment, and that’s a problem for businesses and employees alike.

As an employer, you have a unique opportunity to start the conversation and help end the stigma at work.

WHAT STIGMA LOOKS LIKE + WHY IT'S A PROBLEM

Some may be surprised to learn mental health conditions are common – and treatable. But because of stigma, negative stereotypes about mental illness persist both in and out of the office. What I hear from my patients with mental health conditions is they are frequently perceived as irresponsible, lazy or dangerous. This means, among other things, they may face rejection of a job offer, bullying from colleagues and discrimination.

Contrary to negative stereotypes, many people living with mental health conditions are productive, reliable employees and leaders who live full and satisfying lives. But even in the most progressive workplaces, many employees keep their conditions secret. They may be afraid that being open about them will hurt their reputation, compromise work relationships or even jeopardize their job.

In fact, eight out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment. That’s why it’s so important to talk about mental health at work and create a culture of acceptance.

THE COST OF STAYING SILENT

Stigma drives silence, which can prevent employees from seeking help and getting better. As an employer, you can’t afford to stay silent about mental health in the workplace, because the wellbeing of your workforce and your company’s bottom line are inextricably linked.

  • Mental illness is the single greatest cause of worker disability in the U.S.
  • 62 percent of missed work days can be attributed to mental health conditions.
  • Employees with untreated mental health conditions use non-psychiatric health care services three times more than those who do get treatment.
  • Depressed employees are 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to become unemployed because of their condition

Empathy alone is a strong reason to address mental health and wellness in the workplace — but you may not realize the impact it can have on the overall health of your employees. The mind and body are connected and people with untreated mental health conditions tend to have more health issues in general. For example, people with depression have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Many companies have made progress supporting the physical health of their employees. It’s time to do the same for mental health.

BREAKING DOWN STIGMA AND CHANGING WORKPLACE CULTURE

In a healthy professional culture, disclosing a mental health condition isn’t considered a sign of weakness — and getting help is celebrated as a sign of strength.

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

  • Using the right language when talking about mental illness
  • Seeing the whole person, not just their condition
  • Being supportive and inclusive

As important as it is to address stigma in the workplace, it 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 help make it easier for employers to tackle this tough subject, the National Alliance on Mental Illness developed a program to help companies become stigma-free.

MOVING TOWARD A STIGMA-FREE FUTURE

Taking a stance against stigma shows all employees — not just those living with a mental health condition — that the organization values and cares about them as people. It also demonstrates true interest in helping employees and their families live happy and healthy lives. This can help foster employee loyalty and retention — in addition to promoting awareness and acceptance outside company walls. And that sends a positive message to consumers that can help your business thrive.

More and more companies are taking action to improve workforce mental health. High-profile leaders and influencers are talking openly about their own mental health issues to help normalize the conversation. Slowly but surely, we’re changing the way we think about mental illness — replacing silence and stigma with acceptance and support. As an employer, you’re in the position to join the movement and help lead the way.


Jennifer Ziouras is a primary care physician and vice president of care delivery with the Colorado Permanente Medical Group which services more than 650,000 members of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

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