Mental health stigma in workplace stops employees from getting help

Education needed to see mental illness in same light as other disorders
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/29/2010

Despite a better understanding in workplaces about mental illness, there is still a perception employees with mental health conditions aren’t pulling their weight, according to David Goldbloom, the senior medical advisor of education and public affairs at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.

This stigma, which sees people with a mental illness as a drag on the system, doesn’t exist for employees who have a physical illness, said Goldbloom, who attended the fifth annual Mental Health in the Workplace Forum organized by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business in October.

“Stigma compounds suffering. For somebody who has a mental illness, in addition to the symptoms of the illness itself that they have to contend with, they also have to contend with the negative attitudes of other people toward them when they’re already feeling badly,” said Goldbloom.

Often people with mental illness will buy into the stigma and feel like they shouldn’t be complaining or they should snap out of it on their own, which can prevent them from getting help when they need it most, he said.

In fact, 79 per cent of Canadian employees believe a colleague diagnosed with depression wouldn’t tell anyone for “fear of hurting their future opportunities,” according to a 2007 Ipsos Reid survey of 1,000 working Canadians.

Also, 45 per cent believe that if someone at their work is suffering from depression and missing work because of it, he would be more likely “to get into trouble and maybe even fired,” despite the fact 67 per cent think their president or CEO would be understanding if the employee told him he had depression.

This stigma is actually a form of discrimination, even if people aren’t willing to admit it, said Melanie Carr, a psychiatrist and adjunct professor at Rotman.

“We have lots of policies and procedures in place about discrimination in the workplace but somehow mental illness isn’t seen in the same light. We’re less likely to see it as discrimination, but it is,” she said.

If an employee has a heart attack, co-workers and managers expect him to take time off work and then return to work in a gradual way, said Carr. But an employee with a mental illness isn’t given the same kind of consideration.

“If we can see mental health problems in a similar light to how we see other illnesses, then we’ll be able to give people both the understanding they require and the accommodations,” she said.

To overcome this prejudice and discrimination, workplaces need to change their culture, which is incredibly complex, said Goldbloom.

“I remain hopeful it can happen,” he said. “Talking about it is often the first step to changing the culture in relation to stigma.”

And he sees that happening in many workplaces, as varied organizations, from oil and gas companies to financial firms, bring in experts from CAMH to talk about mental health in the workplace.

“The climate is changing in the sense that businesses, for both compassionate human reasons and hard-nosed economic reasons, realize they have to grapple with this better,” said Goldbloom.

More people are realizing how prevalent mental health disorders are and they are just as deserving of compassion as other illnesses, he said. Also, the costs to businesses of mental illness are becoming more apparent.

In any given year, about 20 per cent to 25 per cent of Canadian employees have a mental health condition, according to the global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health.

“There’s a very good chance that people who work for you, people who work alongside you, are already experiencing some of the common forms of mental illness,” said Goldbloom. “Most Canadians with mental illness are in the workforce, they’re not outside the workforce.”

Mental illness accounts for 30 per cent to 40 per cent of disability insurance claims, 35 million lost workdays a year and $35 billion in lost productivity, according to the Rotman roundtable.

The stigma of mental illness can make people feel ashamed, isolated and disempowered, according to Graham Lowe, president of The Graham Lowe Group in Kelowna, B.C., and one of the speakers at the Rotman forum.

There are workplace risk factors that contribute to mental illness, according to Lowe, including: bullying, harassment, role overload, work-life conflict, interpersonal conflict and perceived injustice.

But there are also factors in the workplace that can help employees achieve better mental health, he said. These include: trust, respect and fairness; two-way communication; autonomy and input; adequate resources; supportive supervisors; challenging, interesting work; recognition and rewards; and a safe and healthy environment.

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *