Stamping out the stigma around workplace mental health

Mental health taboo
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We have been working with mental health charity Mind on a series of articles exploring mental health in the workplace. Take a look at the full content series today to get insight and advice on how to improve mental wellbeing throughout your organisation.

We all have mental health just as we have physical health – it moves up and down along a spectrum from good to poor.

Although attitudes are changing, mental health is still not acknowledged in the same way as physical health, particularly within the workplace.

A recent Mind survey found 90% of people who took time off work due to stress did not cite stress as the reason for their absence, with the majority telling their boss they had a physical health problem such as a headache.

Clearly most employees feel mental health is a taboo in their workplace. But it shouldn’t be this way.

Stigma can take the form of overt discrimination, including bullying, intimidation, unreasonable demands, unrealistic targets, excessive workload and exclusion.

It can also be as simple as staff being uncomfortable around someone who has, for example, returned to work after having time off due to a mental health problem or stress.

Although attitudes are changing, mental health is still not acknowledged in the same way as physical health, particularly within the workplace.

This can lead people to feel ostracised – if someone was off work due to an operation, people would be sure to check how they are, but unfortunately this is not always the case when someone is off sick due to a mental health problem.

Anyone experiencing a mental health problem should feel able to speak to their employer about it. But many people fear discrimination.

Mind has heard from individuals who have disclosed their mental health problem to their employer, and been discriminated against as a result, and even dismissed. Shockingly, in our recent poll, of those who’d told their boss they had a mental health problem, 6% said they were forced out and 2% said they were sacked.

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A scary example...

Sarah Mitchell, 27, from Gosport in Hampshire, has depression and anxiety disorder. She experienced stigma in the workplace after being off sick for a month.

Initially, Sarah had a panic attack at work, and was sent home to recover, but when she came in the next day, the same thing happened. Sarah’s GP prescribed medication and gave her a two-week sick note. Sarah tried to return to work early, as she felt pressured by her employer, only for it to happen again, resulting in being signed off for another two weeks.

Perceived stigma can be just as detrimental to the physical and mental wellbeing of staff as stigma itself.

This time, she ignored her phone and emails. She told her employer she was ready to gradually return to work, and was promised support and understanding.

When Sarah returned she felt excluded; and there were constant glances and whispers from colleagues she’d considered friends. She says: ‘I put up with this for two days, before walking out reduced to tears from the sheer cruelty, intentional or not, and exclusion making me feel so unwanted I didn't think I could carry on.’

Sarah was signed off again, culminating in hospitalisation. She realised on top of everything else she was dealing with, the thought of returning to such an unhealthy environment would stop her going back, and she handed in her notice.

"Perceived stigma"

Perceived stigma can be just as detrimental to the physical and mental wellbeing of staff as stigma itself.

If someone feels unable to talk about their mental health in the workplace because they fear being treated differently, they are more likely to bottle things up.

Staying silent about problems only makes things worse, so it’s vital HR managers nip this in the bud by creating an open and supportive environment so staff can feel confident that talking about their mental health will lead to support, not discrimination.

Think about the policies and practices you have that interact with staff wellbeing.

Many people with mental health problems face stigma and discrimination across all aspects of life, not just at work, but within healthcare settings, and even from friends and family.

Mind, together with Rethink Mental Illness, runs the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign.

Since its launch in 2007, the campaign has reached millions of people with the message that ‘It’s time to talk’ about mental health and has seen an 11.5% reduction in average levels of discrimination reported by people with mental health problems.

Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go and everyone must play their part. HR professionals have a vital role in ensuring we stamp out this stigma many face within work.

Top tips for HR professionals

  1. Think about the policies and practices you have that interact with staff wellbeing. Ensure your policies are joined up, inclusive of mental health, and identify any gaps. Consider your policies on recruitment, health and safety, bullying and harassment, working time, sickness absence and return-to-work, disciplinary action, redundancy, equality and diversity policy, stress/wellbeing, employee engagement, personal development and performance management.
  2. Think about how mental health and stress are talked about within the workplace. The twin goals of increasing employee engagement and creating a mentally healthy workplace are interdependent and both start with strong leadership and a positive, transparent and clear organisational culture which values staff. Open dialogue and staff involvement in decision-making are also vital.
  3. How is wellbeing promoted in your workplace? Raising awareness and promoting discussion of mental health and wellbeing drives engagement, helps to overcome prejudice and means that employees will be more likely to disclose issues sooner. Encouraging a good work/life balance, developing good communication, supporting flexible working practices, and promoting positive working relationships and social activities are also important.
  4. Take stock of your organisation’s mental health. Simply speaking with colleagues to get a sense of how they’re feeling is a good start. Running a staff satisfaction survey which covers mental wellbeing in the workplace is also a good idea. Managers should be regularly speaking with team members to check they’re coping and the appraisal process should cover mental wellbeing and stress. These steps can create a more open culture that supports employee engagement, as well as enabling you to understand and improve the factors affecting staff mental health.
  5. Support staff and managers. Managers’ behaviour can shape the impact work has on staff mental health. Ensuring line managers are trained, supported and confident about mental health makes a difference. Effective managers help employees manage their workloads, create opportunities for coaching and learning, and promote an open culture – all of which boost staff mental wellbeing and employee engagement levels. Managers should also be supported to work with staff to develop a personal action plan which identifies triggers and support needs.

About Emma Mamo

Emma Mamo

Emma Mamo is Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. Emma joined Mind in 2007 and, since 2010, has led Mind’s campaigning for mentally healthy workplaces - playing a pivotal role in thought leadership to position mental health in the workplace as a key priority for employers and Government.

Emma has led culture change through engagement with employers, health and safety professionals, HR audiences and Government on mental health in the workplace and back-to-work support for people with mental health problems. She also supports networks of employers and stakeholders to share best practice and develop business-to-business peer support. Emma has worked in the disability sector since 2005 and previously worked for Mencap, the learning disability charity.

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07th Sep 2013 18:46

Great article Emma! The more articles and advice like this out there the closer we can come to removing the stigma that does sadly still exist.

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18th Sep 2013 14:34

@sophiehaylockhr – thank you for your comment. You’re right - the more we can all raise awareness and have an open conversation about mental health, the more we can all help tackle the stigma out there. Coincidentally, our latest free guide, launching at the end of the month, has lots of practical tips to help employers do exactly that so look out for it! Our webinars in Oct/Nov will also have lots of good ideas for raising awareness and promoting open dialogue around mental health. Keep an eye on www.mind.org.uk/work to stay up-to-date...

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By zazaza
13th Oct 2014 06:29

Great article!!! Good job. It's really interesting, and informativeI'm hoping that you could post more article like this so that many people can learn more about this. -

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