If you’re an employer and think the stigma of mental illness isn’t affecting your company, you’re likely wrong, and the impact of your misperception could be costly.
While surveys show most employers agree that behavioral health conditions like mental illness and substance use disorders should be treated with the same urgency, skill, and compassion as other medical conditions, most employees still fear prejudice or losing their jobs if they seek help for their mental health.
When nearly one in four Idahoans suffers from a behavioral health issue, we likely all work with someone with a mental illness diagnosis and/or substance use disorder or who cares for someone who does. Are they comfortable talking about what they need to be productive in your company?
Gallup employee engagement research shows that managers are overwhelmingly responsible for workplace culture. Mental illness can be hard for employers to address, but a manager sets the tone for psychological safety and trust in the workplace, and a competent leader can tackle stigma.
Think about how mental illness is addressed in your organization:
• Would your managers rally company support for colleagues undergoing cancer treatment, recovering from surgery, or caring for an ailing family member, and also organize a meal train in support of a parent caring for a child in a mental health crisis?
• Do your colleagues joke about mental illness? How about that guy in marketing who says he’s OCD because he likes a tidy desk? Or employees speculating whether their boss is going to “go psycho” over a missed deadline?
• Do your c-suite officers encourage a “hustle harder” mentality, or do they talk about work-life balance, setting boundaries, and avoiding burnout?
• Do your company leaders present an image of stoicism and strength, or are they open about their own mental health journeys, encouraging others to share as well?
It’s not uncommon for a person suffering a behavioral health issue to keep it quiet, worried about seeming lazy or morally deficient. Silence might seem safer in an organization with a culture of joking about or ignoring mental health issues. Stigma flourishes in silence, perpetuating the problem, leading to lost productivity and high turnover.
Conversely, a sense of belonging is not only empowering, it can drive employee engagement, bolstering retention. Employees are more likely to stay with a company that addresses their mental health needs and promotes an environment where they can openly discuss such issues. The reputation of such a culture will spread. Some of the most talented and potentially valuable employees in the world have a mental illness and seek out supportive employers.
Address mental health issues in the workplace and invest in mental health care, and you’ll increase productivity and employee retention. It isn’t difficult to do:
• Recognize mental illness exists. Encourage conversation and education, create a culture of acceptance. The once significant cancer stigma has diminished over time with awareness and conversation. We can do the same for mental illness.
• Change the conversation. Those who suffer from behavioral health issues are people, not punchlines. Mental illness is no joke. When you talk about mental illness, use people-first language. A colleague may have bipolar disorder, they aren’t bipolar.
• Educate and raise awareness. Organize lunch-and-learn presentations and invite professionals in your community to speak about living with mental illness, how to recognize the signs, and offer support. Organize company teams to be involved in events that support mental health.
• Implement benefits and policies that recognize mental illnesses as medical issues and treat them as such.
• Encourage employees with mental health issues to connect with others with similar issues. Creating an environment where people can discuss mental illness openly negates feelings of isolation.
It is possible to reduce and eliminate mental illness stigma, but only if we’re open about it. Discussing behavioral health issues in the workplace will benefit all of us (and in all parts of our lives), helping people become happier, confident, and more productive.
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Beth Markley, CFRE, is executive director of NAMI Idaho (National Alliance on Mental Illness).