Workers reluctant to speak up about mental health

Fears of stigma, repercussions holding people back: survey

Workers reluctant to speak up about mental health
Three-quarters of workers say they would either be reluctant to admit (48 per cent) or would not admit (27 per cent) to a boss or co-worker that they were suffering from a mental illness. Shutterstock

While there’s been plenty of talk about the costs and challenges of mental health problems, employers have one big challenge: Few Canadians are willing to speak up, according to a new survey.

Three-quarters of workers say they would either be reluctant to admit (48 per cent) or would not admit (27 per cent) to a boss or co-worker that they were suffering from a mental illness.

Many employers have merely paid lip service to the problem, says Michael Stroh, founder and director of Starts With Me, a workplace mental health consultancy in Toronto. 

“Actions speak louder than words. We have been good about talking about all this stuff, but I don’t think people really have a thorough understanding of what it actually would take to change the dial on this whole workplace mental health stuff because it’s difficult. It’s not easy to change people’s behaviour… everybody just wants to say things to make themselves feel better and to make themselves think they’re part of this nice movement to create more acceptance. But when confronted with it in their own lives or with a co-worker, that’s a whole other story,” he says.

Stigma a barrier

The top reasons why? The public stigma (45 per cent), not wanting to be treated differently (44 per cent) or judged (40 per cent) and fear of negative consequences, such as losing their job (36 per cent), found the RBC survey of 1,501 Canadians.

“Canadians fear repercussions if they admit to a mental illness, which may prevent them from getting the help they need,” says Maria Winslow, senior director of life and health at RBC Insurance in Mississauga, Ont. 

This will take years, if not generations, to overcome, says Ellen Choi, assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management Ryerson University in Toronto.

“When you think about how reluctant people are even to report their own errors at work, then to reveal something so vulnerable and so deeply intimate and part of your own identity and character, I think we’re asking a lot of people,” she says. “As human beings, we spend a lot of time protecting our image and, if you propel that into the workplace, how you’re appraised depends on how you manage the perceptions of others.”

There’s still a lot of stigma out there around stereotypes, says Bob Acton, consulting psychologist at Obair Leadership and Falcongate in Calgary.

“People are trivialized or belittled if they have a mental health condition. People are insulted because they have the condition. Or, sometimes, people are patronized. There’s still a ton of stigma and people just don’t want to talk about it — they’re afraid,” he says. 

Too much talk?

While people have the desire and the willingness to talk, “we’re naively assuming that just by talking about things, we’re going to make it better,” says Stroh.

“The main barrier is the individual’s fear of saying it out loud. For people in substance-abuse recovery, the hardest thing is admitting that you have a problem and it plays into the stigma of one reason you won’t do that because the people around you may not contribute to an open environment where you feel comfortable doing that,” he says.

“I just think the whole conversation is much more complicated than the general discourse has alluded to up to this point.” 

However, the fact that more attention is being paid to the issue is a good thing, says Acton. 

“People are talking about it more as a legitimate issue and communicating about it more. For example, the World Health Organization recognizes that depression is now the leading cause of disability,” he says. “Businesses are finally starting to get their head around the whole cost to their organization for people when they’re ill.”

Adding up the costs

Three-quarters (75 per cent) of respondents said not disclosing they have a mental illness would have a negative impact on their personal well-being, found RBC.

At least six in 10 said it would have a negative impact on their relationships with family (66 per cent), productivity at work (65 per cent), relationships with friends (64 per cent) and relationships with co-workers (64 per cent). 

More than half (57 per cent) believe it would negatively impact how quickly they can return to work following a leave.

And 53 per cent of those asked recognize depression as a disability — compared to 47 per cent last year — while 41 per cent view anxiety the same way — up from 36 per cent in 2018.

“It’s encouraging to see that Canadians are making the connection between mental illness and disability, most likely because of educational efforts and the openness of those who are willing to share their personal struggles,” says Winslow. “However, it’s apparent that the perception of stigma still exists, which impedes some people’s ability or willingness to speak up and seek help.”

For managers and HR professionals, even more education is needed to address the issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s good for the bottom line, says Allan Stordy, president and CEO of Arete HR in Calgary.

“Of course, organizations need to do this. They should be doing it because it’s a good, human-centred thing to do. But organizations should be doing it because there’s definitely a payback. There’s lots of lost productivity due to [poor] mental health, which manifests itself in absenteeism and, of course, the more costly presenteeism, where people are there and they’re not necessarily working but they’re dealing with issues that are causing them not to be productive.”

Finding support

Encouragingly, when asked how they would react if a co-worker or boss admitted that they were suffering from a mental illness, 76 per cent of respondents said they would be completely comfortable and supportive.

“We tend to judge people based on how they appear and compare that with how we feel. We compare how we feel to how somebody looks, and that’s bit of an unfair comparison to make,” says Stordy. 

“But when someone tells us how they feel and how they’re doing, it sort of equals things out and I think that’s the reason why there tends to be more trust when a manager or supervisor talks about their own personal experience.”

“Even talking casually in conversations, there’s lots of opportunities that managers and business leaders can talk about mental health that shows an attitude of openness towards mental health,” he says. 

And how bosses manage this message matters a lot, says Stroh. 

“If you get an email from your boss saying, ‘Morning, our new company values mental health [and] we’re going to be supportive and accepting’ or if you get an email from your boss saying, ‘I had a panic attack over the weekend, I’m really struggling. This has been an issue for me over a long period of time, I’m going to get help,’ that is a way more powerful way of proving to your employees that you care.”

HR professionals and managers should do better at understanding on a human level, according to Choi.

“Any kind of empathy, emotional intelligence that can start happening at an interpersonal level would be wildly beneficial. People share when they have a trusted other, like a genuine, deep, high-quality relationship — this is when sharing occurs. So, for all the engagement surveys that ask, ‘Do you have a work best friend?’ how trite that might sound [but] it’s incredibly important and indicative of the extent to which social support could have enhanced resilience.”

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