We often talk of stigma as the negative ways in which people are labelled or perceived. Stigma is an internal attitude and belief held by individuals, often about a minority group, such as people with mental illness. But we often only think of it in a general sense, not realizing that it can manifest in specific places, such as in the workplace.
My earlier blog related to workplace mental health provoked some thoughts about deeper issues that might be at play in the workplace. In many instances, outside of daily symptoms, individuals with mental health issues struggle with having to deal with their day-to-day tasks while trying to hide their symptoms. This can be quite challenging, especially when one is just trying to survive, get up every morning to go to work.
Problems can arise when someone is dealing with mental illness and their work culture is not forgiving, does not allow for the individual to express when they are having a bad day or need to take some time away from work. Instead of offering support to the individual, coworkers may question whether or not the individual is really struggling, or are just using it as an excuse to take some time off or shirk responsibilities. At times individuals are labelled with their mental illness instead of being seen as an individual who might just need some support or someone to talk to, and some understanding.
How to come forward to colleagues and supervisors when you are dealing with mental health concerns
There is still a great deal of stigma related to mental illness in the workplace, and even someone who believes themselves to be open and understanding may harbor different feelings subconsciously, within the workplace setting. Given that it is so difficult to combat this stigma and infiltrate the workplace culture, it might feel insurmountable to come out and say “I am dealing with mental illness.”
It is important to feel comfortable with a supportive manager or supervisor, to speak with to say “I haven’t been doing well over the past few weeks and I need some time off as I am suffering from anxiety.” Even starting the conversation with a trusted individual at work helps. But not all workplaces are created equal, and if there is already a sense that no one talks about mental illness because it is looked down upon,this conversation will be that much harder.
At the very least, it is important to be clear with your employer about what workplace situations cause stress, and how they can be addressed. For example, if you find long meetings difficult, tell your employer in advance that you may have to leave the room periodically.
How do we address stigma in the workplace, from a manager or supervisor’s point of view?
We have to first be aware that stigma exists in the workplace and individuals are not only suffering with mental illness, but also the associated stress of having to face colleagues who don’t understand. It is important to have ongoing and consistent education regarding mental health and mental illness, and to offer support to those who might be struggling. Letting employees know that it is not a weakness to admit to experiencing mental illness, but rather, a strength that benefits managers and employees.
Next, we need a strategy for the workplace that includes guidelines and policies that help to create a healthy workplace. Thankfully, these guidelines exist in the form of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Ensuring that managers and employees are aware of these standards is key in changing corporate culture for the better.
This will help those who are struggling to come forward to receive the help they need and deserve.
According to research, the economic burden of mental illness is $51 Billion per year, and on any given week, over 500,000 employed Canadians will be unable to work due to mental illness. Overall, employers and employees benefit from fostering a psychologically healthy and inclusive work environment.
There is a great deal of stigma in the workplace and it is important to acknowledge that it exists. It’s important that people who suffer with mental illness acknowledge this, identify any barriers and receive the support and help they need in order to excel in their profession while living balanced lives.