The stigma of mental health is pervasive – it can negatively affect how an employee chooses to deal with a problem of this kind. Mental health expert Mark Winwood explains why.
According to Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work report, 77 per cent of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some point, and 29 per cent have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
The mental health problems experienced included psychological symptoms such as depression or anxiety (57 per cent), behavioural symptoms such as irritability and mood swings (55 per cent) and physical symptoms such as migraines and dizziness (53 per cent). Two per cent of respondents selected “prefer not to say”.
This study is very telling – mental health effects such large proportions of the workforce, and yet two per cent still do not feel able to disclose whether or not they have been affected by it.
Businesses in the UK have come a long way in recent years to reduce the stigma of mental health, but it is clearly still present.
Where does stigma come from?
When it comes to stigma associated with mental health, it’s not limited to the workplace – it’s everywhere.
“You need to think about stigma in three ways,” said Dr Mark Winwood, a mental health expert who serves as Director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare. “There’s self-stigma, negative associations that we carry round when we believe we will be looked at negatively if we disclose that we’re experiencing any difficulty.
“Then there’s societal stigma, labels that society gives to individuals experiencing mental health concerns – we get this from the way mental health is spoken about on TV or in the media.
“Then there’s institutional stigma, which can stem from an organisation’s treatment of individuals with mental health concerns or is indicated in the way the state provides less funding to mental health services than physical health services – these behaviours are stigmatising.”
When you look at the bigger picture, it’s not hard to see why someone dealing with mental health issues might not want to come forward and ask for help from their boss.
How do businesses approach mental health?
Mental health issues can affect a person’s performance at work just as physical health can, and therefore it makes good business sense as an employer to do what you can to alleviate the strain employees are under. Bosses should aim to foster a culture of understanding so employees feel able to approach them with any issues.
“Stigma doesn’t help anyone, because all it does is perpetuate fear. We need to chip away at stigma as much as we possibly can, because by chipping away at stigma we have the opportunity normalise this very human vulnerability” said Winwood.
“If we chip away at stigma, people will be more willing to get support and help earlier, which can prevent all sorts of absence and presenteeism problems in the workplace.”
Businesses need to ensure they have more open policies, make sure managers are educated on mental health issues so that they understand their own unconscious biases, and make information and support available so that employees understand their options and know where to turn to when they have a concern.
“The way managers talk about mental health can really set the tone for their department and their team’s view on stigma.
“Training can be very helpful to break down stigma but awareness across an organisation is the key way to start breaking down stigma and allow more openness and acceptance of mental health issues within organisations.”