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No One is Alone: Combating Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace

November 14, 2023

Work is an integral part of our lives that has the potential to create meaning and fulfillment for all of us. But work can also create unhealthy amounts of stress and anxiety for employees, potentially contributing to mental health issues. While it is important to address employee mental health struggles when they arise, striving for prevention can be even more effective. Employers can take proactive steps to help ensure that their workers feel supported and safe speaking about issues before a crisis occurs.   

Do employees feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their employer?

A recent blog published by the Mental Health Commission of Canada suggests that 70% of employees are concerned about stress and psychological safety in the workplace. Despite that alarming figure, the blog also suggests that only 23% of Canadian employees feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their employer.  

There are several reasons why employees may be unwilling to tell their employer, manager or supervisor about their mental health issues. Many of those reasons revolve around stigma. For example, employees may not disclose their struggles because they:

  • are concerned that they will be deemed unfit for their jobs and be fired
  • believe there will be fewer opportunities for advancement based on the perception that they cannot handle current or increased responsibilities
  • fear being ostracized or treated differently by management and coworkers
  • fear being seen as “weak”

A survey conducted in 2022 found that stigma was a significant concern for Canadians living with mental health disorders. The study found that 95% of individuals with mental health and other disorders had experienced stigma within the past five years. Perhaps even more telling, 72% of participants experienced self-stigma or negative feelings about themselves. The survey also found that Canadians “expect individuals with mental health…. disorders to be devalued and discriminated against in their day-to-day lives.”

For these and other reasons, employees will suffer in silence in the hopes that things will improve on their own. But too often the opposite happens and their mental health continues to deteriorate until they experience a mental health crisis, leading to negative consequences for the employee, employer and others in the workplace. This is why it is important for employers to be proactive in addressing mental health issues in the workplace.

The employer’s role in creating a safe and healthy workplace

While an employee may have many legitimate personal reasons for keeping their mental health struggles to themselves, employees will be also be more reluctant to disclose if they do not feel that their concerns will be heard, acknowledged and respected.

Employers, managers and supervisors play an important role in creating a safe and healthy workplace where there is awareness, understanding and dialogue around mental health. They can do this by:

  • having ongoing discussions about mental health and not shying away from difficult issues, thus demonstrating that they are committed to supporting employees
  • building trust with employees by advising them that any disclosure of mental health issues will remain confidential (and following through by in fact protecting confidentiality)
  • discouraging resentment for employee accommodation for mental health reasons

When employers create a culture where mental health is acknowledged and valued, they allow employees to feel more comfortable and confident discussing their issues and struggles. This allows them to create an environment of openness and care where employees feel safe to discuss personal matters before they escalate.

So while employees experiencing mental health issues may be hesitant to disclose because of a perceived stigma, employers play an important role in removing that stigma from the workplace. While an employee’s mental health is always a serious matter, understanding and support go a long way in demonstrating that no one is alone in the workplace.

Join us for Module 2 of our Inclusive Workplace Series. Learn more.