Mental Health and Stigma in the Workplace

Kim LaMontagne WL New England Lead

Kim shares her personal story of being a high functioning business woman balancing a career and family while fighting (and hiding) major depression, anxiety and persistent suicidal thoughts. By sharing her story, she helps individuals find the courage, power and strength to accept and love who they are and rise above the fear, stigma and shame of mental illness and talk openly about it. Kim fought her battle alone because she was afraid of stigma. Especially in the workplace. No one should suffer alone.

Mental Health and Stigma in the Workplace

Stigma refers to the negative internal attitudes and beliefs people hold toward something. Stigma can also be an amalgamation of ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. Discrimination is the external effect of stigma that results in the denial of individual their rights and social inclusion. Stigma and discrimination can be more detrimental to the individual than the actual mental illness. This is due to withdrawal of support from loved ones and colleagues in addition to shunning and exclusion. Numerous misconceptions still exist about mental illness which leads stigma and shame.

Stigma is disrespectful and is the number one barrier to treating mental health conditions.

Stigma and shame in the workplace play a large role in the under treatment of mental illness. Stigma plays a role in the decreased speed of employee outreach and treatment. The national average of organizations that offer an EAP is 75%, yet the usage rate is of EAP’s 3.5-5%. This is due in large part to stigma.

Stigma is also responsible for developing a strong tendency toward placing a stereotype on a person with mental illness, resulting in bulling, harassment, potential loss of employment and workplace intimidation. Stigma may also contribute to severe financial consequences and can be detrimental to an organization if left unchallenged.

Often, employees suffering from mental illness stay silent and suffer alone. Lack of disclosure of the mental illness from the employee to the employer limits the employer’s ability to accommodate the worker. This is a challenge that can lead to decreased concentration, productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism, workplace accidents and mistakes.

Fear, shame and stigma are large barriers for employees to overcome to be able to take the first step to seek help.

In 2007, the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health in the United States, conducted a survey of HR Managers. In the survey, 8 in 10 respondents revealed that shame, stigma and fear of ramifications may be the cause of employees not seeking treatment for mental illness. A more recent study done by the Disability Management Employer Coalition suggests the degree of stigma associated with mental illness has not waned.

Society also plays large role in the negative perception of mental illness. The risk factors and symptoms of common illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure are widely known. On the contrary, there are gaps in lack of knowledge of the risk factors and symptoms associated with mental illness. Consequently, many myths, fears and stigma still exist around mental illness.

To combat this in the workplace, organizations can choose to engage in a mental health literacy program. A mental health literacy program provides the education to organizations that can aid in recognition and management of disorders associated with mental illness. Increased mental health literacy increases the dissemination of more accurate information and can be a catalyst to lessening the stigma around mental health in the workplace.

Commitment to employee wellness is a topic of organizational discussion that is gaining increased interest in research. Towers Watson 2013, global Staying @ Work survey found that “establishing a culture of health is a top priority for organizations” (Garrow, 2016). Research conducted by Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO), shows organizational support to be an “important mediator in presenteeism” (Garrow, 2016). Specifically support from the top leadership that cascades throughout the culture of the organization.

Business leaders have a duty to implement a mental health strategy and consider mental health as an ongoing educational process. Leaders should feel empowered to make the changes required to build and sustain a mentally healthy workforce capable of increased productivity due to positive mental health.

It’s good for the bottom line…

Kim LaMontagne

My next blog will discuss CEO’s Against Stigma (CAS).

CAS was a grant funded program implemented by NAMI MA. For my MBA capstone project, I analyzed the outcome of the grant funded anti-stigma campaign to determine the effectiveness of the program.

Garrow, V. (2016) Presenteeism A review of current thinking, Institute for Employment Studies, Feb 2016, Report 507, Available at: (Accessed: 1 February 2017).

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