Mental Health Problems Need To Be Destigmatized In The Workplace—Here’s How To Do It

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Almost one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI). Today is World Mental Health Day, and it’s a good time to consider the tens of millions of people nationwide who deal with mental health issues and can face serious stigmatization on the job.

“Stigma in the workplace is still, unfortunately, an issue,” says David Ballard, senior director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of Applied Psychology, and director of its Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. Those who struggle with mental health concerns are likely to feel uncomfortable disclosing them, fearing that colleagues and supervisors may judge them negatively. They may fear getting passed over for promotions and desirable assignments and being viewed as less competent, Ballard says. They also may worry that they’ll be bullied, gossiped about or otherwise excluded socially, he adds.

Progress is being made, he says, but it’s impeded by the fact that “mental health is one of those issues that we usually just don’t talk about. It’s something that is very private.” He adds that people invest much time and energy in covering up their problems. “When mental health does get talked about,” he says, “it’s often siloed off, and we talk about it like it’s separate from all of our other health issues and functioning issues.” Organizations that do a good job regarding mental health do so by building it into their broader health and performance-related conversations, he says.

According to the APA, excessive stress in the workplace causes 120,000 deaths and leads to almost $190 billion in healthcare costs a year. Working to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace benefits not only employees and organizations but the economy as well. Depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization. Over 60% of workers believe their employers provide sufficient mental health resources and coverage, but 27% say they don’t and 13% are unsure, according to an APA study. Ballard says that when employers do make an effort, job satisfaction and motivation increase and stress and turnover diminish. “Employers really need to address this issue because, one, it’s the right thing to do to help support people,” he says, “but, two, it’s a good business strategy as well.”

He recommends having an employee assistance program that can be used anonymously and encouraging its utilization. He points out that everyone deals with big personal challenges, including financial, relationship, and caregiving stresses. Being able to handle such matters helps everyone perform at their best. Employees also need to be comfortable in their relationships with their bosses or supervisors, he says, and employers need to work with supervisors to train them in the best ways to support their employees.

A Mental Health America survey of nearly 10,000 employees found that 55% said they were afraid of taking a day off of work to attend to their mental health. Taking time off to recharge can reduce stress and restore a normal level of functioning, motivation and energy. “The key, though,” Ballard says, “is maintaining that when you come back.” As the work piles up, the benefits of a break can quickly diminish. Care must be taken to ensure that the person returning to work won’t be overwhelmed.

But what should a person do on their time off? They need to be not even thinking about work, Ballard says. That may mean disconnecting and doing a digital detox. They need to engage in relaxing activities, perhaps yoga or sports. They need to do things that not only relax but also stimulate them. “When we get stressed out, when we’re struggling with things, it’s really easy for those types of activities to go out the window, and we don’t have time to do them anymore,” he says. Last but not least, they need quality sleep. And of course, they need to make sure that they are getting the professional assistance they need.

If you or someone you know is having mental health issues, resources are available at Mental Health America at Or you can call 1-800-273-8255, a 24-hour crisis center.