Beyond Stigma: Supporting employees with mental illness

By Dr. Bill Howatt

Whether it is self-imposed, felt from peers, or is part of an organization’s culture, stigma can prevent employees in the workplace from asking for support and perpetuate negative attitudes and discrimination towards individuals with mental illness.

On any given day before the pandemic, one in five employees experienced a mental health concern of some type. Research undertaken through the crisis shows that this number has continued to grow. If we can’t begin to move beyond stigma in our workplaces, two-thirds of people with a mental health concern will continue to suffer and won’t ask for support or help.

We are chipping away at stigma with more focus and increased investment in workplace mental health, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Begin with the basics

Moving beyond stigma begins with having conversations and building awareness of basic facts about mental illness and how it can impact peers’ behaviour and responses.

  • Individuals with mental health concerns or mental illness can appear to be doing okay in one moment, and then, in another moment, react very differently to the same workplace stressors.
  • A mental illness is a disability. It does not imply a person is not capable; it means that how they are experiencing the world depends on how they are managing their disability.
  • An employee with a clinically diagnosed mental illness has an impairment that may, on occasion, impede and negatively impact their ability to function and interact with others.
  • Regardless of their education level or subject matter expertise, a person with a mental illness in the workplace has a high potential of being triggered by stress. For example, an ADHD employee may wrestle with impulse control under stress, regardless of their treatment plan. They may talk more than others in team meetings, interrupt, and struggle to stay calm under pressure.
  • When under stress, a person with a mental illness is at risk of experiencing unpleasant emotions such as irritability that may cause them to lose emotional composure in a group meeting.
  • Mental illness is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. An employee well enough to show up for work is accountable for their behaviour. To move beyond stigma means employees must learn how to support peers during challenging moments.

Moving beyond stigma

While open and authentic conversations are important in eliminating misperceptions and reducing fear, talking isn’t enough. Senior leaders can reduce the impact of stigma and increase the number of employees who get the help they need by making sure employees at all levels are equipped with the skills to support one another.

While some mental illnesses have formal accommodations, many employees with mental health concerns or illnesses may not be diagnosed or may be unsure about the support they need. And conversely, many employees are unsure what is expected of them when they discover a peer has a mental health concern or feel ill-equipped when they find themselves in a highly-charged situation.

In the article, “Mental Health First Aid: How to respond to a mental health emergency,” Krista Schmid, Specialized Services Lead at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services points out that most people know how to respond in a situation that threatens another person’s physical safety, but the same is not necessarily true of psychological safety. Stigma often comes from fear. People don't understand or know what to do.”

The right training can give people the tools and confidence to assist and to help their peers feel included, understood and respected when they are having challenging emotional moments.

Provide all employees with basic training on how mental health concerns or illnesses can show up in the workplace and how they can ask for support when needed or provide support when needed. This disability in the workplace often may only require micro-supports like helping a blind person get through a doorway. Employees do not need to learn how to be therapists. They can be trained how to have safe and soft conversations that can support a person having a challenging emotional moment to move away from maladaptive coping (e.g., frustration) to adaptive coping (e.g., asking questions).

Peer support programs are also growing in popularity. They can help break down the walls that stigma creates by fostering connections between peers who have had similar experiences and can assist one another.

On their website, Peer Support Canada notes, “Peer support is emotional and practical support between two people who share a common experience, such as a mental health challenge or illness. A Peer Supporter has lived through that similar experience, and is trained to support others.”

Learning more about mental illness, engaging in open dialogue, and undergoing training to understand how it manifests and how to recognize when someone needs assistance can go a long way toward building tolerance and empathy and eliminating stigma in your workplace.

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