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Reducing the stigma surrounding the mental health of workers

Mental health challenges have tested many workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the pandemic now two-and-a-half years old, experts say employers need to make employees’ mental health as high a priority as physical health.

“If you get a physical injury, you’ll go and take care of that,” said Jenny Nigam, a research psychologist at NIOSH. “If you twist your ankle and can’t walk, you will go to the doctor. We need to treat mental health issues the same way. We need to acknowledge that this happens to everyone.”

A big step in the process: confronting the stigma that often accompanies mental health disorders.

The stigma loomed heavily

The data reinforces the worrying situation: many mental health disorders are not treated by employers and by health professionals.

Of more than 11,000 respondents to a survey conducted by the nonprofit Mental Health America as part of the 2022 “Mind the Workplace” report, 66% disagreed with this statement: “My company’s leadership speaks openly about mental health in my workplace.”

Furthermore, although 59% indicated that their supervisor cared about their well-being, only 35% said they would feel comfortable requesting a mental health residency from a manager or from Human Resources. Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness have not received services or treatment within the past year.

Stigma looms without a doubt, says Rachel Cooper, co-director of the National Stigma Initiative at Shatterproof Defense Group.

Cooper notes that stigma comes in many forms, including the biases we apply to ourselves and those resulting from public and media portrayals of mental illness, and this affects our perceptions. Whatever the case, she said, “the biggest impact of stigma is to prevent people from seeking treatment and support.”

So, how can employers help reduce the stigma of starting a conversation in their workplace?

be friendly

The conversation at the start of a Toolbox talk or pre-work meeting will likely turn toward current events or the work completed the previous day.

As supervisors move on to the topic, Nigam recommends making informal check-ins by asking workers if they’ve recently experienced any work stress difficulties. Collect feedback and start a discussion, but don’t stop there. Use the conversation as a starting point so that workers know you are there to understand and provide support for issues that occur outside of the job as well, and relate your own struggles.

Hearing that others are mentally stressed – especially anyone who is highly respected – can help normalize the problem and open the door to more in-depth conversation.

“Seeing the supervisor as a human being can make one feel that it is okay to talk about how they feel,” Nigam said. “Hearing a manager ask with genuine concern about a worker’s performance really helps them feel appreciated.”

Normalize conversation and respectful attitudes about mental health concerns because, experts repeat, they won’t go away.

“We need to start the conversation before cultural change can happen,” said Timothy Irving, deputy director of OSHA’s Construction Directorate. “And we need a cultural shift, again, not just on construction sites, but workplaces in general.”

A study released in December offers hope: Researchers from Indiana University and Pennsylvania State University analyzed survey data from more than 4,100 adults included as part of the US National Stigma Studies. They found that in 1996, 46% of respondents said they would prefer not to work closely with someone with depression. In 2018, it fell to 29%.

Navigating the “Culture of Manhood”

Ensuring workers feel that they are in a safe place to share experiences is critical. “It is important to protect their privacy and reassure workers that talking about mental health will not negatively impact their work or any advancement opportunities,” Nigam said.

Joseph “Chip” Hughes, deputy assistant secretary for emergency and pandemic response at OSHA, acknowledges that there is a major communication challenge that is of particular concern to men: the “masculine culture” in construction and other industries. Disclosure of experiences may affect perceptions of workers’ potency or negatively affect their confidence. In a 2021 survey of nearly 1,200 workers with various supervisory or executive roles in construction, only 17% of respondents believed their workers would comfortably and frankly discuss mental health with a supervisor, while 18% thought workers would try to trust their co-workers.

Hughes said discussions between co-workers who have successfully managed mental health disorders and colleagues who are currently struggling can be an effective tool. “You want to start these workplace conversations before there is a problem, and we really know that workplace workers are the ones who know what the problem is,” Hughes said. “It often does not catch the attention of management. So the more we can educate the workforce about good mental health practices, as well as the possibility to intervene when necessary if you are a bystander, the better.”


Mental Health Cost Calculator

To help employers understand the role they play in supporting the mental health of their employees, the National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago created the Mental Health Cost Calculator for Employers, funded by Nationwide. This easy-to-use tool provides business leaders with data-driven insight into the costs of mental distress for employees in their workplace.

Access to the calculator

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes various recommendations for employers seeking to promote awareness of the importance of mental health and stress management, such as providing:

  • Free or subsidized clinical examinations for depression from a qualified mental health professional, followed by directed feedback and clinical referral where appropriate
  • Health insurance with no or low out-of-pocket costs for depression medications and mental health counseling
  • Free or subsidized training, counseling or self-management programs
  • Materials (brochures, flyers, videos) for all employees about signs and symptoms of poor mental health and treatment opportunities

The CDC also advises employers to provide training to managers to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of worker stress and depression, and to encourage workers to seek help from qualified mental health professionals.

“It only takes a moment to ask or say something that might make a difference in a person’s life,” said Scott Ketcham, director of OSHA’s Construction Directorate. “And it only takes a second for us to make a change there, and a lot of times that’s exactly what we should be doing.”

To this end, Cooper urges employers and managers not to feel intimidated or anxious about the process of monitoring workers who may need help with and dealing with mental health concerns.

Learn about resources available through your city, county, or state health department, as well as those available nationally by the National Mental Illness Alliance, the National Safety Council, the CDC, SAMHSA, MHA and other sources your organization may trust. Also, stay up-to-date with what your organization’s employee assistance program offers to workers, if possible, and advise workers to contact the human resources team for more information.

“It’s not about the diagnosis,” Cooper said. “It’s really just realizing that someone is struggling and knowing where to direct them for help.”