Absence Matters: Mental Health Stigma

DMEC Staff@Work

Stamp Out Mental Health Stigma

Mental Health StigmaBy Bryon Bass

SVP, Disability and Absence Practice & Compliance

It’s not fun to walk into the employee cafeteria to the sound of deafening whispers or piercing glares. And yet, this is what many employees feel after disclosing mental health challenges.

Whether real or perceived, this feeling of being shunned can deter many individuals from discussing their need and seeking assistance for what can be very treatable conditions. This unconscious discrimination or social bias can arise at the workplace due to ignorance or fear of mental health challenges.

“Stamp Out Stigma” has come to represent employers’ initiatives to reduce and eliminate the prejudice and social isolation experienced by those with mental health challenges. While society is comfortable talking about physical impairments such as a broken leg, psoriasis, or diabetes, a lack of understanding has often pushed aside the conversation around mental health challenges.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 25% of adults have a diagnosable mental illness and 50% will develop at least one mental health challenge during their lifetime.1 Further, a 2014 national survey on drug use and health identified the top three reasons that adults did not seek mental health services: they could not afford the cost; they thought they could handle the problem without treatment; or they did not know where to get services. 2

By deterring an individual from discussing or seeking needed treatment for mental health challenges, social prejudice and stigma negatively impact both the employer and employee. Employers can take the following steps to reduce or eliminate stigma in the workplace.

Organizational Culture

Management must understand the scope of the problem and provide necessary resources to all parties with a role to play in organizational mental health initiatives. Moreover, they need to understand the importance of creating a welcoming and supportive environment to those who face mental health challenges. Workplace culture must be driven from the top.

Manager and Supervisor Training

People often reject or ignore things they don’t understand, so managers and supervisors need education. As team leaders, they must be trained to recognize potential signs of distress, know the organizational resources to support individuals, and how to connect them with these resources. They must play an active role in creating a supporting environment where people can ask for help.

Peer Support Groups

When individuals realize that their peers in the organization have overcome depression, anxiety, or addiction, they may be more open to discuss their personal needs and reach out for assistance. Those who have succeeded in overcoming mental health challenges can provide invaluable hope to struggling peers, and lessen the feeling of isolation or exclusion.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Effective EAPs often staff high quality behavioral health specialists who can provide counseling and resources to help individuals overcome mental health challenges. It is important to have the right resources available when people take the difficult first step to resume a full and productive life.

As employers manage their businesses, they are encouraged to take an enlightened approach to every employee’s whole physical and mental health. A strong effort to “stamp out stigma” is an excellent place to start.


  1. CDC Report: Mental Illness Surveillance Among Adults in the United States, Updated Dec. 2, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealthsurveillance/fact_sheet.html
  2. Han B, SL Hedden, R Lipari, EAP Copello, LA Kroutil. Receipt of Services for Behavioral Health Problems: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, SAMHSA-NSDUH Data Review, September 2015. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DR-FRR3-2014/NSDUH-DR-FRR3-2014/NSDUH-DR-FRR3-2014.htm