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Breaking the stigma of mental health in workplaces

By: | June 19, 2024 22 min read

mental health at workplace

Mental health. It’s something we all have, and it impacts everything from how we feel to how we function in our daily life. Yet, for far too many, getting the help they need remains out of reach.  

Here’s the reality: 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness each year. That’s over 50 million people (about twice the population of Texas), shockingly, only about half of them receive the treatment. The reasons for this gap are complex, but health care costs often play a major role. Nearly a third of the adults reported that they couldn’t afford necessary care. This problem is even more concerning for youth – nearly 60% with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment. 

The United States is better equipped than most countries to address mental health issues, but despite progress, there’s still a significant gap between need and access to care. There’s a shortage of mental health professionals, especially in rural areas or for those with co-occurring disorders. Copays and deductibles make treatment difficult, even with insurance. Moreover, minority communities often face greater barriers to accessing quality mental health care.  

Tragically, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-14 in the US. This statistic alone highlights the urgency of prioritizing mental health support for our youth, and people of all ages. To build a society where everyone can get the support they require, we need to raise awareness about mental health and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. 

First, let’s understand the meaning of mental health awareness. 

What is mental health awareness? 

Mental health awareness is a movement focused on educating the public to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health issues. It aims to increase the public’s understanding of mental health conditions, including their signs, symptoms, and treatments. By raising awareness on mental health and challenging misconceptions around it, the movement aims to encourage people to seek help and feel comfortable talking about mental health while getting help without fear of judgement. 

Have you heard about the national movement to raise awareness of mental health? 

The fight for mental health awareness has a long history. In the past, mental illness was misunderstood, and people were treated poorly. Thankfully, pioneers like Dorothea Dix and Clifford Beers championed better treatment and understanding of mental health.In 1949, Mental Health America (MHA) established May as Mental Health Awareness Month. However, conversations on mental health are important year-round and creating a space for supporting mental health is an ongoing effort.

 

Unfortunately, mental health is often mistakenly defined by the presence of mental illness. It’s a much broader concept encompassing emotional, psychological, and social aspects. Imagine it as a spectrum, with well-being on one end and mental illness on the other. Most people fall somewhere in between, with mental health fluctuating throughout their lives. 

Life throws a multitude of challenges our way, inevitably impacting our mental health. But there’s another factor – work, which is a big part of life. What role does it play in our mental health? Read below. 

Workplace: A supportive or a detrimental force for mental health?  

cause of stress

Around 84% of US workers experienced at least one mental health challenge over the last year. Stress is prevalent, with 71% of working adults reporting symptoms. This is greatly impacting job security, with 68% of millennials and 81% of GenZs leaving their jobs due to it. Despite resources being available, there’s a gap in utilization. Only 38% of employees feel comfortable using their company’s mental health services.  

Some common mental health issues in the workplace are: 

  • Stress  
  • Anxiety 
  • Burnout  
  • Substance abuse 
  • Depression 

The impact of poor mental health on employees and businesses is undeniable. Then why do you think health issues are still such a pervasive and unaddressed problem in the workplace? 

The answer lies in a deeply ingrained cultural silence. Workplaces still don’t talk about mental health. This lack of open conversation breeds stigma, fear of judgment, job insecurity, and much more.  

From an early age, many of us are conditioned to view mental health struggles as weaknesses – leading to deep-rooted societal stigma that carries over into the professional sphere. Employees may fear judgment and discrimination from colleagues and superiors, concerned that admitting to mental health concerns will paint them as incapable or unreliable. Moreover, some individuals still hold onto outdated beliefs and fail to view mental health concerns as a medical condition with well-defined treatments. Even when employees are open to discussing mental health, the silence can be deafening if leadership remains quiet. 

Without active conversations about mental well-being from the top, a subtle message is conveyed: it’s not okay to talk about these issues at work.  

Ultimately, creating a workplace that prioritizes mental health requires a shift in perspective, both from the leadership and workforce. Mental well-being isn’t a weakness; it’s a cornerstone of a productive and healthy work environment. Such environments boost employee mental wellness, being a source of: 

  • Purpose, confidence, and achievement  
  • Livelihood  
  • Belonging  

When employees struggle, businesses suffer! Impact of poor employee mental health on business 

Think about it, work occupies a significant part of our lives, shaping our routines, social interactions, and even self-worth. Considering this deep impact, it’s no surprise that employee mental wellbeing directly affects business performance. In fact, mental health and substance abuse cost US businesses between $80 and $100 billion annually.  

For instance, imagine an employee battling anxiety and stress. Focusing on complex tasks becomes a challenge, leading to increased errors and missed deadlines. Social interactions become a hurdle, impacting collaboration and innovation. This isn’t just a hypothetical scenario, 84% of the US workforce struggle with such issues on a regular basis. Mental health issues like these significantly decrease performance. 

Here are some consequences of ignoring this reality: 

  • Decline in performance 

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that if one employee is less productive for 20 hours each week, an employer could lose $495 per week. With almost half of the US workforce experiencing mental health issues, the numbers show a significant impact on the business revenue. 

  • Increased absenteeism and presenteeism 

As per Gallup, nearly 20% of U.S workers rate their mental health as poor, and these workers report about 4 times more unplanned absences due to poor mental health. Across the U.S workforce, this missed work is estimated to cost $47.6 billion annually. Harvard Business Review roughly estimated that presenteeism costs $150 billion a year in lost productivity, which far surpasses annual absenteeism costs. A significant portion of these costs results from employees struggling with anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health conditions in the United States. Anxious and depressed workers may find it challenging to complete day-to-day tasks. 

  • Increase in attrition 

In 2021, Harvard Business Review also reported that 68% of millennials and 81% of GenZs have left roles for mental health reasons. A mentally stressed workforce is more likely to seek new opportunities. Consequently, a constant cycle of recruiting, onboarding, and training new employees follows. 

As observed, poor employee mental health translates to a significant financial burden for businesses. But who shoulders this cost? Traditionally, the focus has been on individual responsibility, however, the growing conversation around mental health demands a shift in perspective. In fact, as per a report, 90% of employers agreed that they have a responsibility to support employees’ mental health.  

With 61% of employees missing work due to stress, anxiety, and burnout (which are highly likely to materialize due to workplace factors), employers should take responsibility for creating a positive work environment.  

Faced with the draining of billions of dollars annually, a critical question emerges: Can these costs be minimized or even overcome? Absolutely! But before we delve into solutions, let’s explore the very factors within the workplace that contribute to employee mental health struggles. Understanding these root causes is the first step towards creating a healthier workplace, after all. 

Identifying the genesis of work-related stressors: A crucial step for workplace mental wellbeing 

According to WHO, more than half of the world’s population are currently in work and 15% of working-age adults struggle with mental wellbeing. Each year, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion – predominantly from reduced productivity.  

For those already struggling with mental health challenges, the workplace can become a ground for increased stress and anxiety. Recognizing this potential for work to amplify mental health struggles is crucial for companies looking to create a supportive and healthy environment for their employees. Some work-related risk factors that amplify mental health issues are: 

1. Understaffing and excessive workloads may leave employees feeling stretched thin and pressured to meet unrealistic deadlines, leading to anxiety, burnout, and feelings of inadequacy.

2. Lack of flexibility and less work-life balance. When employees struggle to disconnect from work, it bleeds into their personal lives and causes mental exhaustion, frustration, and difficulties in managing stress.

3. Limited support and job insecurity. Feeling undervalued, unsupported, and uncertain about the future can create significant anxiety and adversely impact motivation.

4.  Poor working conditions and safety hazards. A physically or mentally unsafe work environment creates constant stress and anxiety, impacting overall well-being.

5. Violence, discrimination, and harassment. Experiencing any form of abuse or hostility at work can be incredibly damaging, leading to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression, and anxiety. 

Now that we have shed light on the workplace factors that can exacerbate or even trigger mental health struggles in employees, let’s shift gears and explore solutions. This isn’t about fixing a problem, but about creating a win-win situation where both employers and employees can thrive in workplaces.

Promoting mental well-being in the workplace: A collaborative approach  

mental wellbeing at workplace

Who is responsible for employee mental well-being, anyway? 

While the responsibility for managing one’s own physical, emotional and mental health lies with the individual, the workplace also plays a very significant role. This is where the concept of collaboration takes center stage.  

Employees have a right to expect a safe and supportive space free from excessive work-related stress. Employers, on the other hand, have a legal and ethical responsibility to contribute to employees’ mental well-being. By acknowledging this shared responsibility, both parties can create an environment that promotes mental health.  

1.  Employer responsibility  

Employees need a comfortable space where they can discuss their challenges with their managers. The workplace can trigger a range of emotions, from anxiety and frustration to loneliness and isolation. Employees require support with managing negative emotions, building resilience, and feeling valued. Employers can support in two aspects: 

  1. Legal  
  2. Ethical 

Legal responsibility 

Currently, there are no specific legal obligations upon an employer in terms of ensuring an employee’s ‘mental’ wellness in the employment context. However, mental illness is one of the specified categories of disabilities under the new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2017 (RPDA). One of the most important requirements for employers under the RPDA are: 

  • Prohibition of discrimination against employees with mental illnesses 
  • Investigation of complaints of discrimination and taking necessary actions  
  • Providing accommodations and assistance  

India has also enacted a new law called the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 (MHA). Although this law is not specific to employment, employers need to bear in mind this law’s principles. It lays down the rights of persons with mental illnesses: 

  • Right to dignity, privacy, to be a part of society 
  • Right to be treated equally to persons with physical illness in all provisions of healthcare  
  • Right to be protected from all forms of physical, emotional, sexual abuse, etc. 
  • Right to confidentiality of persons with mental illness 

Ethical responsibility  

While legal mandates regarding employee mental health in India are still evolving, there’s a crucial aspect that goes beyond legal requirements – ethical responsibility. It goes beyond simply following the law, and includes acting with fairness, honesty, and respect for the mental well-being of employees. Here are some initiatives employers can take to fulfill both ethical and legal obligations towards employee mental health: 

  • Keep discussions on mental health open 

By openly discussing mental health, employees feel more comfortable seeking help. Open conversations like this help everyone understand that mental health issues are common and treatable, not signs of weakness. Employers can organize educational sessions and encourage senior leaders to openly discuss mental health. This sends a powerful message that it’s okay to talk about these issues. 

  • Provide training to managers on mental health 

Equipping managers can help them recognize early signs of mental health concerns and allows for early intervention and support before issues escalate. It also encourages managers to have open and supportive discussions about mental health with their teams. 

  • Support employees with mental health conditions 

Employers can go beyond conversations and actively support employees, like providing: 

  1. Flexible work arrangements like remote work options, adjusted deadlines, or reduced workloads 
  2. Return-to-work programs 
  3. Comprehensive mental health insurance plans that include therapy and medication 
  4. Paid mental health days alongside sick leave  
  5. Employee-led support groups to connect and share experiences in a confidential space 
  • Provide mental health assistance programs 

Mental health assistance programs, often called Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), are confidential programs that support mental health and well-being. Many EAPs connect employees to mental health professionals and offer workshops on work-life balance and managing stress. 

  • Implement workplace wellness programs 

Workplace wellness programs can incorporate various activities and initiatives that target stress reduction and mood improvement. Some of these include: 

  1. Meditation classes  
  2. Walking or running groups  
  3. Healthy cooking demonstrations 
  4. Volunteer opportunities 
  5. Social events (picnics, game nights, etc.) 
  6. Team-building exercises  
  7. Workshops on healthy sleep, nutrition, or time management  
  • Frequent check-ins 

Frequent check-ins are excellent opportunities for managers and employees to connect and discuss well-being. It allows managers to identify potential issues early on and employees are more likely to reach out for help when needed. Both managers and employees are accountable for prioritizing well-being. One best way to do this is to schedule regular one-on-one meetings. 

2. Employee responsibility 

While employers have a growing ethical and legal responsibility to support employee mental well-being, employees also share the responsibility for their own mental health in the workplace. Employees are best positioned to identify early signs of stress, burnout, etc., and should advocate for themselves.  

  • Make mental health a priority 

As nobody would ignore a persistent physical health issue, one should not ignore signs of stress, anxiety, or burnout. Personal well-being should be the top priority, not a burden. In fact, it’s essential for being a productive and engaged employee. When healthy habits are prioritized, employees will have more energy and can focus on tackling work. 

  • Don’t suffer in silence 

If work is contributing to mental strain, it’s important to talk to the manager. It allows for support, adjusted workloads, or available resources (like EAPs).  

  • Speak up 

Set clear boundaries between work and personal life. One should not feel pressured to be constantly available or check emails outside of work hours. It’s okay to say no to extra tasks if your plate is full. A healthy work-life balance allows for time to recharge, ultimately leading to better well-being at work. 

  • Utilize available resources  

Don’t hesitate to take advantage of mental health resources like EAPs, wellness programs, or benefits. These resources help manage mental health proactively. 

  • Nurture relationships 

Studies show that social connection is crucial for mental well-being. By investing time in social activities, social events, or clubs, employees can nurture connections – ultimately fostering a sense of belonging and social connection. 

  • Take breaks and recharge  

Don’t underestimate the power of a break! If the company offers mental health days, they should be utilized. Even short breaks throughout the day can make a difference. This may include getting some fresh air, taking a walk – anything that can clear your head and help come back to work feeling refreshed. 

  • Support colleague  

A supportive work environment is key to mental well-being for everyone. Checking-in with colleagues and offering a listening ear can help create a caring environment.  

Taking the first step 

Making mental health a priority is a journey, but it starts with a single step. For employees, this might involve self-awareness, open communication with managers, and utilizing available resources. Employers can act by promoting existing support systems and understanding employee needs. HR departments can also leverage pulse surveys to gather employee feedback on stress levels, workload, and access to mental health resources. These surveys can be conducted regularly to track progress and identify areas where support is most needed. In addition to pulse surveys, providing readily available resources is crucial. This includes mental health hotlines for ongoing support and emergency helpline numbers for immediate crisis situations. 

Here are some resources that can be helpful: 

 

  • 988 Mental Health Emergency Hotline  

Number: 988 

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 

Number: 1-800-950-NAMI 

  • National suicide prevention lifeline 

Number: 1-800-273-TALK 

Number: 1-844-762-8483 

 

Table of Contents

    Meet the author

    Nikitha Joyce

    Content Writer

    Nikitha Joyce is a content writer at Keka Technologies. She loves exploring HR topics and turning them into thrilling tales. Nikitha is a dark fiction enthusiast who is a fan of anime, books, and horror tales.

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