Mental health stigma in the workplace is not a small problem in the UK, and it’s affecting more people than you might think.

  • One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year
  • It’s likely that we all work with someone who is experiencing a mental health issue
  • Nine out ten people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination
  • Nearly three in four young people fear the reactions of friends.

It’s hardly a problem reserved for the few and far between. Coping with mental health issues is challenge enough without the worsening impact of the stigma and discrimination from people surrounding them who are misinformed or ill equipped to treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Stigma itself has an isolating influence, cultivating shame and embarrassment when it comes to sharing problems or speaking up about suffering. It can exist in the following forms:

  • Self stigma – in which people dealing with mental health issues internalise existing prejudicial attitudes, and begin to believe the negative things that are publicly said about their condition. It can lead to withdrawal, damaged confidence and missed opportunities.
  • Prejudice – in which opinions are formed about mental health conditions and the people who experience them based on assumption rather than fact. These approaches to mental health are almost always incorrect, are often judgemental, and are frequently harmful. The notion that people with depression are “just lazy”, or that those with mental health problems can’t be trusted with responsibility can stir up anger and fear towards individuals living with these health issues.
  • Discrimination – in which someone’s opinions about your mental health affects the way they treat you. Holiday insurance can be more expensive for someone with a mental illness, for example, which is discriminatory. Similarly, healthcare professionals might fail to take a patient’s mental health seriously, or they could dismiss physical issues as symptomatic of poor mental health.

There are many ways in which mental health stigma can manifest in the workplace: refusing to interview someone for a job because their mental health is disclosed in their application, failing to make reasonable adjustments at work to accommodate an employee’s mental health issues, or instances of harassment; name-calling; humiliation; mockery or intimidation. There can also be less obviously discriminatory but equally insidious manifestations of stigma in situations where team members who are known to be experiencing mental health problems are gradually excluded from meetings, patronised or slowly stripped of major responsibilities.

But there are ways to tackle mental health stigma in workplace, and lots of resources out there to support you as you undertake such a challenge.

  • Familiarise yourself with the Equality Act, and get to know your rights and entitlements. Your employer is obliged to help support you, and to endeavour to make your return to work as healthy and happy as they reasonably can.
  • Seek advice. Talk to someone you trust (in or out of the workplace), try and speak to people who have had similar experiences (perhaps in online forums or on social media). Reach out to the organisations that there to help you, too.
  • Find out if your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme, and consider contacting them to see if they can help deal with person and/or work related problems. It’s also a good idea to check if your employer has a mental health policy, or one on bullying and harassment.
  • Speak to your boss about encouraging your organisation to bring in relevant training courses for your colleagues and HR staff.

Things are improving, it’s true. Time to Change’s campaign to reduce mental health stigma had improved attitudes in 3.4 million by 2014. But there’s still a long way to go, and fighting stigma in your own workplace is the best place to start.