Absence Matters: Eliminating Stigma in the Workplace

DMEC Staff@Work

Eliminating StigmaBy Bryon Bass

SVP, Disability and Absence Practice & Compliance

While there is still a sizeable gap in understanding, more organizations are beginning to recognize the importance that mental health plays in the workplace. They have come to realize that creating and fostering an environment that supports mental health can also lead to many organizational benefits such as increased productivity, lower claims costs, and improved rates of employee retention. While significant strides have been made, one related topic still warrants much more attention: stigma and social prejudice toward employees with mental health challenges.

The statistics and research findings related to mental health issues are compelling. Approximately one in five people is dealing with a mental health situation on a daily basis, and studies show that people with depression have a 2.5 times higher risk of on-the-job injury.1 Mental health challenges, regardless of whether they are situational or chronic, are fraught with societal stigma. This stifles diagnosis, treatment, open dialogue, awareness of mental health, and caring for those impacted.

The workplace is no different, and some argue even greater stigma occurs at work among peers and leadership. This, in turn, can impact absence and productivity. In fact, the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that just over 35% of respondents cite social concerns as reasons for not receiving mental health services. This was second only to the cost of care. Even more surprising, 9.5% indicated getting care might create a negative image of them in the workplace.2

Fortunately, employers have begun to address cultures of health and well-being in a variety of ways. The common goals of these initiatives are to improve workforce and employee health, impact health and disability costs, and improve employee engagement and experience. Eliminating mental health stigma and social prejudice is just one facet of these broader programs. Increased education and awareness in the workplace can help eliminate labeling and misconceptions that create barriers to those seeking mental health treatment or other accommodations.

An employer can take steps to assess its workplace culture and begin the process of eliminating ill-conceived notions. Three initial steps include:

Integrate physical and mental well-being.

Separate silos for physical and mental health are dissolving as benefit managers and risk managers alike are promoting a culture of health and tapping prevention-oriented strategies commonly available in group health plans. Education campaigns are raising awareness and putting mental wellness on equal footing with physical health.

Educate managers and supervisors.

Organizations are training managers and supervisors to better understand mental health conditions and to identify and address behaviors warranting early outreach. This training can educate managers about the damage caused by stigma.

Provide workplace supports.

Employees need to feel that requests for help will not be penalized and will produce real benefits. Some organizations are implementing peer support programs such as the ICU Program, a workplace awareness campaign designed to decrease the stigma associated with mental health that is available at no cost through the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health.3 Some organizations offer mental health champions who have overcome stigma, societal prejudice, and other challenges who can inspire and support their co-workers.

Take the first step in understanding and minimizing stigma in the workplace by downloading the DMEC executive summary, Mental Health in the Workplace, a DMEC member benefit available at http://dmec.org/2016/12/21/mental-health-workplace-executive-summary/.


  1. A Mentally Healthy Workforce – It’s Good for Business. Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. 2006.
  2. 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2016.
  3. To learn more about ICU, visit http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/getattachment/70b4d0d8-e94d-468f-b6f9-ebe0ee09c135/ICU_Implementation_Guide_FINAL.pdf.