How to Combat Mental Health Stigma in Your Office

May 9, 2018

The month of May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, an observance that aims to increase awareness of and discussions surrounding mental health conditions. It’s also about combating stigma. At Elysian, we believe that everyone should be able to go to work as a whole person--not as part of a bottom line, or the means to an end in a creative project. Being a whole person with strengths, weaknesses, and talents also means being a person who may sometimes experience hardship that makes life and work more difficult. This month, we’re devoting our blog to talking about mental health and how it relates to work and the workplace.

What is stigma? It’s the behaviors and thoughts that attach shame to mental illness and mental health conditions, and ultimately labeling or dismissing people struggling with their mental health as weak, lazy, crazy, or incompetent. None of this is fair, but it does happen. Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) show that approximately 80% of workers with a mental health condition report that shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment. But no one should have to hide who they are, or go without treatment or support.

If you or someone you know experiences a mental health condition, whether it’s depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or maybe even seasonal depression, it’s actually more common than you think. However, the lack of acceptance and inability to openly talk about mental health publicly can contribute to a negative office culture. If you want to know how to improve your workplace, and combat mental health stigma, we have some ideas for how to get started. Standing up for yourself, creating a more open discussion so that people can learn about and respect different experiences, or supporting those you know who struggle with mental health can actually make a world of difference. So what do you do in a workplace that isn’t open or friendly about mental health?

Start with yourself
Educating yourself on various mental health conditions, as well as stigma, and how it might affect you or others in your office is the best first step you could take. It can help you to speak up for yourself when you need a mental health day, or it can help you to pass the knowledge onto others. Learning about mental health will also help you to become a more open and accepting person. It might even increase the likelihood that others in your office or workplace will feel comfortable coming to you or being open with you.

Advocate for mental health and physical health resources and benefits in your workplace
Many workplaces have built vacation days as well as sick days into contracts and benefit packages. However, sometimes that’s not enough. How welcoming is your office? Consider suggesting that the office puts together a “wellness corner” or “quiet corner.” Or take it into your own hands and turn a corner of the office, or maybe even your own desk, into that safe and comforting space. It can be as simple or as extravagant as you want. Putting together a generous supply of candies, tissue boxes, encouraging notes, or even a comfy chair or pillow to sit on can change your whole office environment. Maybe add in some stress putty for people to take to their desk when needed.

It’s also a great idea to suggest or implement no-questions-asked mental health day allowances, if you can have a conversation with managers about this. It’s important to make people feel welcome, taken care of, and supported in the office, but also to let them know there are options if coming into the workplace feels like too much sometimes.

Show support and compassion, always
Some people might be more open than others about dealing with a mental health issue, or difficult time in their life. That should be supported, and not shamed. If someone in your workplace is attempting to be open about who they are and what they’re going through, that’s no easy task. Overcoming stigma or internal struggles to talk about it takes a lot of courage. If coworkers in your workplace are being open about it in the office, it’s important to fully support them. This can mean just listening, affirming their experiences, and encouraging and supporting them to seek professional treatment if that feels right for them. You can also lead by example, and work to be more open in talking about your own mental health--which may encourage others to share, and feel less isolated.

Respectfully correct people who use harmful terms and language that adds to stigma
One of the most important and successful ways of combating stigma is by simply having conversations. If you hear a colleague discussing mental health in a shaming, stigmatizing way, you can speak up and correct them. You have the power to change culture from one that shames stress, openness about struggles, or calls people “crazy” for common, valid feelings. Changing workplace vocabulary can help to normalize mental illness, and help people to see it as just as valid as physical illness. If anyone is using language, even as a joke, that discourages and demonizes people with mental illness (i.e. “nut job” or “psycho”) it perpetuates the idea and feeling that it’s wrong to deal with mental illness, and that anyone who struggles with it is inherently wrong. Turning that conversation around can truly be as simple as telling the person using the language that it might really hurt someone.

At the end of the day, we all have the power to combat stigma, and treat and care for each other as whole people. Taking one or all of these steps in your workplace could make it an even better place to work, and can only positively affect your community and team. Check back in every week this month for more conversations about mental health. We’d also love for you to leave us a comment telling us how you promote positive conversations about mental health in your workplace!

All the best