3 strategies to overcome mental health stigma in the workplace

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Mental illness costs the U.S. economy an estimated $201 billion annually. Employers do not escape the financial burden of mental illness. The combined financial impact of medical cost and productivity loss makes mental illness one of the most costly conditions among U.S. workers and a leading cause of disability absence. Many employers struggle to develop an effective strategy to enrich the mental health of their employees.

Employers often invest in services like an employee assistance program with the assumption that, if a quality resource is available, employees will use the resource. Unfortunately, that assumption is often untrue. Employees tend to avoid seeking help with mental illness due to stigma associated with mental illness. If employers hope to support their employees’ mental health, they must not only provide quality resources, but also address mental health-related stigma.

Below are three strategies advisers can help employers use to address stigma in the workplace.

1) Educate employees on mental health. Mental health education should focus on three areas: normalizing mental illness, confronting stereotypes and guiding employees to helpful resources.Normalizing mental illness occurs when people begin to see mental illness in the same light as physical illness, without any moral or character inferences about people with mental illness. To normalize mental illness, focus on changing workplace vocabulary. When employees use language, even jokingly, that disparages people with mental illness, it reinforces stigma and drives people away from help-seeking. For example, when employees use phrases like “nut job” or “wacko,” it reinforces the idea that there is something inherently wrong with anyone dealing with mental illness. As a result, employees with mental illness often feel further isolated and fearful of seeking help. Be careful not to use messages that sound “preachy” (i.e. messages that convey the idea, “Bad people stereotype. So, don’t stereotype.”). Moralistic messages may create an adverse response known as rebound effect. When people are told to suppress negative thoughts about a particular group of people, it can lead to dwelling on the issue or resisting the message.

To help mental illness be seen in the same light as physical illness, companies should also present them in the same light. For example, if your brokerage or your client’s company sends a monthly health-related newsletter, include topics related to both physical and mental health. If you have a monthly health awareness focus, devote at least one month to mental health.

Confronting stereotypes entails helping employees correct untrue perceptions of mental illness. There are a number of ways to do this. Hosting a mental health awareness month is a good opportunity to start changing perceptions. Other effective tactics include providing brief “did you know” communications that challenge stereotypes. One company shared a series of short videos of people with various mental illnesses discussing how they manage their illnesses at work. A manufacturing company in the Midwest began using resources from Heads Up, an Australian-based advocacy group, to provide meaningful education. Other companies have partnered with Time to Change to access education resources on mental health.

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When an employee is ready to seek help, it’s important that they know how to access relevant resources. Provide ongoing education for employees to know what resources are available and how to access them. Their path to help-seeking should be both easy (i.e. having access to quality mental health support and being able to access support with little hassle) and confidential (i.e. being able to access appropriate information and resources without employer or co-worker involvement).

An easy way to test for ease and confidentiality of access is to personally walk through the process of help-seeking. Imagine that you need help for a mental health issue. How would you determine what is covered by your clients’ health plans? Where would you go to access this information? You may want to call insurance carriers or EAPs and walk through the process to understand what you’re asking clients’ employees to do.

2) Create new associations with mental illness. While education is important, creating new associations with mental illness is widely believed to be the most effective way to overcome stigma. As previously stated, most people have untrue associations with mental illness. To create new, accurate associations with mental illness, consider ways to establish personal contact between your employees and people with mental illness.Personal contact allows people to see the inaccuracies of existing assumptions about people with mental illness and to replace those assumptions with true associations. In an ideal world, personal contact would be established with a co-worker who is managing a mental illness. However, while personal contact with a co-worker may be highly effective at establishing new associations with mental illness, it is not advisable for employers to pursue this strategy. Such a strategy would expose employers to liability related to protected health information. A good alternative is to work with local mental health advocacy groups. They often have a speaker’s bureau that could supply a presenter for a lunch and learn or webinar. Another option is to use video testimonials. As mentioned, Heads Up and Time to Change both offer online resources to help employees establish new associations relative to mental health. You may also check with clients’ EAPs for similar resources.

3) Host an anti-stigma campaign. You may combine several of the strategies referenced in this article to host an anti-stigma campaign. Launch the campaign with messages from senior leadership about your clients’ company commitment to employees’ mental health. Address the reality of stigma and encourage employees to be mindful of the stigma that they may, consciously or unconsciously, be perpetuating. Educate employees on mental health and inform them about the mental health resources available to them and how to find them. Use the campaign as an opportunity to provide managers with training initiatives to help them better care for their team’s mental wellbeing. No company has mastered a formula or technique to create a mentally healthy workplace. While providing quality resources like an EAP is important, the most effective engagement strategies will also address the stigma that often keeps people from seeking help. Keep up your efforts to promote the mental health of your clients’ workforces. Not only are employees worth the effort, it will likely benefit your bottom line.

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