Normalising Mental Health and Reducing Stigma in the Workplace

Despite such a large number of people living and working with mental health difficulties, there is still a natural reluctance in the workplace to talk about the subject. Look closer behind the formal protocol and official standards and there is a stigma attached to mental health that just doesn’t exist for physical health.

Whether it’s down to the media, the generation gap or long-held fixed beliefs, this unconscious bias amongst employers not only reinforces negative stereotypes, it makes those with mental health difficulties reluctant to seek help, for fear that talking about it might have a negative impact on their career and prospects.

The Mental Health Taboo & discrimination in the workplace

They’re not wrong either. According to a Mental Health Stigma Reduction charity, 4 in 10 people in Ireland and 46% of under 35 year olds would conceal a mental health difficulty from family, friends or colleagues, with stigma one of the main reasons for not seeking help. Treating mental health as a burden instead of an essential asset for a business is definitely cause for concern – not least because the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission have clearly set out that mental health is a protected ground within the disability category.

Employers are therefore bound to meet the requirements of the Employment Equality and Equal Status Acts. If discrimination and stigma are the key barriers to finding and keeping work for people suffering from mental health difficulties, then for the sake of reduced absenteeism, productivity, performance and economic gains, organisations must ensure that such disclosure brings about effective support and a positive outcome. However, in order to do this, they must find effective and innovative ways to start normalising mental health in the workplace.

Treat Mental Health as Important as Physical Health

Instead of treating it as an illness to cure, organisations should promote mental health as something to manage like physical health. This means that in addition to making a public commitment to mental health and including a relevant statement in their policies, organisations go beyond one-off disjointed initiatives and introduce a Mental Health Programme to make it a routine part of everyday health care. Whether it’s recommending the necessary adjustments having spotted signs of difficulty, or putting support into practice while recovery takes place, working within a clearly defined framework that treats mental health in the same way as a physical assessment – as in offering full support with the most appropriate care pathways – achieves a parity of esteem.

Make Mental Health a Part of Induction & Training

In order that maintaining mental health feels like a normal and everyday process, organisations need to ensure those in charge of workplace wellbeing have a foundation of reasonable knowledge about what good mental health is. For while employees are most likely to disclose difficulties to a line manager, there are still not enough general team members and senior leaders taking part in training to be able to build mental health awareness across their teams.

Managers must not only be confident and clear as to the internal mental health protocols and processes, but the (ever-changing) legal and regulatory responsibilities of what is a complex and traditionally intimidating subject. Attending a Manager Mental Health Workshop as part of a comprehensive Mental Health Programme can help employees have enough of an understanding of mental health best practice, to learn how to be approachable, effectively respond to difficulties and address employee needs. Whatever the level, department or site, adequate mental health education across the entire team is a must.

Create an Open Culture

To make it easier for employees to share their mental health experiences and create an inclusive, supportive and open work culture – and vice versa – wellbeing must be embedded into every aspect of the workplace, so that employees at all levels have the same approach to mental health across the organisation. One effective option is to have a Mental Health Programme that regularly and widely publicises the events, training and services available to employees.

In addition, organisations can make sure individual checks are just a normal part of the working day, whether this means encouraging employees to look out for their fellow colleagues, having a designated mental health space complete with fact boards signposting employees, educational resources and information, or even appointing Mental Health First Responders – the latter being employees that are trained to better understand common mental health problems and what helpful, immediate interventions look like.

After Mental Health Disclosure, Take Proper Action

Encouraging employees to be open and honest about mental health should translate into direct and positive action from the employer. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the workplace often mirrors issues in today’s society – with concerns about personal job security and the state of the economy – the most common form of support offered after mental health disclosure is time off from work. This not only falls short of what is required by way of reasonable adjustments, it absolves the organisation of any responsibility, when in reality so many employees experiencing mental health difficulties say it’s work-related.

That’s why organisations must adopt a hands-on approach and a willingness to directly address any triggers caused by the work environment or individual workload. Only when employees feel they are able to safely disclose information and receive the appropriate preventative or reactive support, can they have an open conversation around protecting and improving mental health at work, without any stigma attached.

Read More: Making a business case for EAP 

Introduce Modern & Efficient Preventative Measures

Through transforming how organisations provide practical support to those with mental health difficulties, a comprehensive Mental Health Programme is an important work-life resource that can play a key role in normalising the subject of mental health in the workplace.  Employee Assistance Programme (‘EAP’) can also transform the way that organisations provide practical support to those with mental health difficulties. While a long-established workplace intervention tool, programmes that offer an integrated and whole workplace approach can be an important work-life resource for protecting and improving mental health. Not only does a good EAP provide 24/7 counselling and dedicated case managers in times of distress, but the broad range of digital and onsite support and services available also enables employees to act on expert-recommended self-care tips and become active participants in understanding and evaluating their own physical and mental wellbeing. More importantly, in focusing on the whole person, EAPs achieve parity of esteem between physical and mental health, normalising the subject of mental health in the process.

With such mental health support and resources out there, there’s never been a better time for organisations to start the conversation.