For all of the progress we as a society have made in bringing mental illness out of the shadows, a stubborn stigma persists. That stigma prevents us from talking openly about mental health issues and prevents those who need help the most from seeking it. The cost to business and society is high.
The good news is that businesses that strive for a stigma-free workplace will not only save in healthcare and other costs—they will become better places to work. Unaddressed mental health issues hold back your entire organization, not just those directly affected. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Moreover, untreated mental health conditions cost the economy $200 billion every year.
The impact of severe depression, or major depressive disorder (MDD), is particularly critical. The Center for Workplace Health estimates that as much as seven percent of full-time workers experience major depression. Half of the cost of major depression is borne not by the healthcare system but by the employer—in the form of absenteeism and presenteeism.
Presenteeism (dramatically reduced productivity on the job) due to depression is rising much more sharply than absenteeism—suggesting that many are showing up but keeping their problems to themselves. Indeed, NAMI finds that eight of ten people suffering from mental illness report shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. There is no better time than the present to recommit to bringing mental health issues out into the open.
Mindsets and misconceptions
We will never make significant headway against mental illness unless we remove the stigma surrounding it. Doing so requires that we change the way we think and talk about mental health.
Language is critical. Mental illness is often discussed in a way that dismisses how serious it is—describing it as “a phase” someone is going through, for example. Language can also inadvertently blame the victim by implying that mental illness is due to weakness or a lack of willpower.
Those with mental health issues are not only held back by the misconceptions of others but by their own limiting beliefs as well. Stressed executives who come to me for coaching often suffer from anxiety and self-doubt, regardless of whether or not they describe that as a mental health issue. Working to replace limiting beliefs with empowered ones is beneficial for any business leader.
When we are mindful about our language and willing to talk about mental health openly, workplaces can help employees think about mental illness as they would any other disease. NAMI offers a set of resources supervisors can tap in order to create a stigma-free workplace. The Center for Workplace Health has employer resources, including a customizable tool for calculating the cost of mental illness.
From stigma to authenticity
Removing the stigma around mental health issues is more than addition by subtraction. The same organizational culture that allows those with mental health issues to thrive will unleash the productivity and creative energy of all of your employees. Conversely, the Harvard Business Review reports that those with serious mental illness are often skilled at “faking wellness.” A workplace where some employees feel compelled to fake it is not one where all feel free to be authentic.
Overcoming mental health stigma is only one part of a larger effort to foster an organizational culture of psychological safety—where employees feel free to voice their opinions, to share ideas, to take chances, to be their authentic selves. There is a substantial body of research showing that organizations with strong psychological safety exhibit better performance, engagement, employee retention, and overall wellbeing.
An environment where vulnerability is an asset is one where emotional intelligence is high and valued as a leadership trait. An executive comfortable with their own anxiety will be more compassionate with a struggling employee. All organizations exist to solve the problems of their customers or clients. Empathetic business leaders are skilled at putting themselves in their customer’s shoes, and at anticipating issues before they arise. A compassionate organizational culture produces aware (and self-aware) leaders and agents of change.
Making mental health stigmas a thing of the past is ultimately about refusing to put people in neat little boxes—with those clinically diagnosed with a mental health condition in one box, and the rest of us in another. The common human condition we share is more important than what separates us. We all struggle with doubt and anxiety. Empathy allows us to see that common ground and build on it to create opportunity and hope for all.