The first step towards supporting our colleagues in the workplace is understanding mental health stigma and how it can show up at work.
Mental health challenges are common in the workplace today. However, many organizations still struggle to support their employees and combat the stigma associated with mental health issues. Data from the 2022 Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the Canadian Income Survey found that of those employed during the first four months of 2021, more than one in five (21.5 per cent) had a physical, mental health, cognitive or other disability. Compared to data from 2019, this was an increase of 2.7 percentage points, demonstrating the pandemic’s impact on mental health in the workplace. What’s more, Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, in partnership with Qualtrics and ServiceNow, showed that 76 per cent of survey respondents reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in 2021, compared to just 59 per cent in 2019.
In this article featuring insights from psychotherapist Edward Marshall, Ph.D., RP, we’ll explore mental health stigma in the workplace and how you can advocate for better allyship for yourself and your colleagues.
First things first, what exactly is mental health stigma? Marshall describes it as anything contributing to a negative bias regarding mental health issues. “Mental health stigma is about discrimination and misconceptions surrounding mental health,” he says. “So there are a lot of myths, and the media often negatively portrays mental health. And that is one of the sources of biases towards people with mental health issues.”
Despite worldwide efforts to raise awareness and educate people about mental health, Marshall says that some people can be more challenging to reach, particularly if they're not directly affected by mental health issues within their own lives. "One of the problems is that if a person is not affected by mental health issues, then it's not on their radar. And even though resources are available, if there is no dialogue on mental health, it requires a lot of clarification. People don't have a clear idea of what we are talking about, and there can be a lot of misconceptions," Marshall says.
In the workplace specifically, mental health stigma can appear in various ways. Whether it’s through discrimination, being passed over for a promotion, or not having your opinion taken seriously during meetings, the stigma surrounding mental health issues can be a significant roadblock when climbing the career ladder.
"Specifically, it's not just in theory, but in practice that people suffer because of this stigma," Marshall says. "So things that can happen, for instance, can be discrimination in terms of a promotion, how people talk to them, people being marginalized or ostracized, the language that is used, people not feeling safe to speak up, or not feeling a sense of safety at work."
Mental health stigma can be present in interpersonal relationships in the workplace and the leadership team's policies and procedures. In many cases, Marshall says, these factors can contribute to a toxic work environment.
If you've experienced mental health stigma in the workplace, whether directly or indirectly, there are steps you can take to cope. First, Edward notes that active participation in creating more positive workplaces is essential by taking the initiative and speaking up if something doesn't feel right. "It's important to take some initiative. So first of all, it's about education, and there are a lot of resources out there, from the Mental Health Commission of Canada to Bell Let's Talk, that can help with talking about mental health," he says.
Marshall also suggests seeking support from people you trust in the workplace. Starting a dialogue with the HR department or upper management can go a long way in advocating for a stigma-free environment. You can also access tools, resources and counselling support using your Inkblot EAP.
Below are some other tips from Marshall for advocating in the workplace and reducing mental health stigma.
Try not to over-generalize and make sweeping statements about the workplace. Instead, reference tangible examples of mental health stigma showing up at work and how the team can work together to improve them in the future.
When raising concerns in the workplace, try to avoid pointing fingers. It’s best to come from a place of positivity, support and understanding by providing constructive ideas and suggestions for improvement.
Living with mental health challenges can be an isolating experience. Whenever possible, Edward suggests finding other sensitive and supportive colleagues you can trust and lean on for help when you need it.
Overall, Marshall believes mental health stigma will improve if we continue emphasizing education, support and allyship strongly. With a more integrated system of resources, information and better health and wellness support options, we’ll all be better equipped to end mental health stigma at work.