Written by
Emma Mamo

Published
25 Aug 2016

The stigma around mental health

25 Aug 2016 • by Emma Mamo

Breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health

We know that there is still a huge amount of stigma when it comes to talking about issues like stress at work. A 2014 poll by Mind and YouGov found 95% of workers who had taken time off work due to stress gave their employer a different reason for their absence, such as a headache or upset stomach. Only 5% of our survey respondents told their boss that their sickness was stress-related. Many staff worry about opening up if they’re under unmanageable stress or experiencing a mental health problem, often because they fear that their employer doesn’t treat mental health problems as seriously as a physical health problem like back pain when it comes to needing time off sick. 

Avoiding talking about an issue doesn’t make it go away. Stress is hugely prevalent in workplaces, with some research indicating it is now the number one cause of sickness absence, even more so than musculoskeletal problems. Work-related stress can seriously affect both physical and mental health, so it’s vital employers put in place measures to promote good wellbeing at work and tackle the causes of work-related stress and poor mental health among their staff. Employers that are proactive send the message to their staff that they will be supported if they are experiencing a problem. This should encourage people to seek help sooner, potentially minimising the need for time off.

Where do such stigmas exist?

Lots of people worry about the impact disclosing a mental health problem will have on their career prospects, and unfortunately we do still hear from people who have been bullied, demoted or even pushed out altogether upon opening up about their mental health. Whether or not someone decides to disclose their own experience of mental health problems will depend on a number of factors, including the culture of their organisation, their role and seniority. If you’ve seen colleagues treated badly upon admitting that they’re struggling with their mental health, you’re unlikely to put your head above the parapet. But thankfully, employers are beginning to take mental health more seriously as they recognise that this is an issue that affects all of their staff. Increasingly, employers are being proactive, and are putting in place measures to support all staff, including those living with a diagnosed mental health problem.

There are some examples of good practice when it comes to tackling this taboo and creating a culture where people feel able to talk about mental health at work, even in organisations you might not expect. For example, in the typically male-dominated world of finance, where frequently cited causes of stress include long hours, heavy workloads and unrealistic targets, we are seeing significant and important steps being taken to help shift attitudes towards mental health at work. October 2013 saw the launch of the City Mental Health Alliance - a coalition of City-based employers with the aim of breaking down the stigma attached to mental health and creating a culture where mental wellbeing is nurtured. 

Companies such as Deloitte, Zurich, Ernst & Young, RBS, Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Bank, Financial Conduct Authority and The Bank of England have demonstrated their commitment to promoting good mental health of their staff by signing up to the Time to Change organisational pledge. The pledge forms part of the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign, run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, and is calling on all employers to tackle mental health discrimination in the workplace.

The Lord Mayor’s Appeal and mental health organisations Mind and City Mental Health Alliance recently supported the launch of ‘This is Me – in the City’. This pioneering mental health campaign is based on an initiative Barclays carried out two years ago which saw 10 members of staff share their own stories, with a further 150 subsequently sharing their own stories and was seen by 50,000 Barclays employees in the UK. Over 50 city institutions have since registered their support in the initiative including Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) and The Bank of England and the scheme will involve over 200,000 employees across the UK.

We need to make mental health mainstream

We need to normalise mental health so it’s no longer the elephant in the room, and nowhere is this more important than in our workplaces. In the last five years, there has been a quiet revolution around the water cooler as employers begin to create a culture where staff can talk about the impact of work on their mental health. Mind now has a dedicated Workplace Wellbeing team to cope with the surge in demand from employers for our training, such as mental health awareness for line managers. But -when you consider how many of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year – it’s clear there are still nowhere near enough employers making mental health at work a priority. We need to see staff of all levels talking about their own experiences, and employers have a role to do in reassuring staff that if they do talk about this issue, they’ll be met with support, rather than stigma and discrimination. 

In recognition of some of the positive steps being made by employers, Mind has launched a Workplace Wellbeing Index. This benchmark of best policy and practice enables employers to celebrate the good work they’re doing to promote staff mental wellbeing and get the support they need to be able to do this even better, and encourage other organisations to follow suit. If you have responsibility for wellbeing initiatives you can register your interest on behalf of your employer by emailing index@mind.org.uk and all employees can find out more at www.mind.org.uk/index.

Advice for employees

Stigma (actual and perceived) can prevent employees coming forward when they’re experiencing poor mental health. It’s up to each individual employee whether or not to disclose, whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem or are struggling to cope with unmanageable stress. If you’re struggling with your mental health at work, it’s worth thinking carefully about the pros and cons of ‘coming out’ about your mental health and seeking legal advice before making a decision, for example from Mind’s legal advice line (email legal@mind.org.uk). If your mental health problem is considered a disability under the Equality Act and you want the protection of the legislation, you need to tell your employer (more information on our website).