The early signs of stress and anxiety that affect our mental health can manifest in the simplest of tasks and routines. We may think of work often, take it home with us, check our emails before breakfast, and so on. If this is you, regardless of what role you may have in your organisation’s setup, it could be an early indicator of stress. And you’re not alone: in 2021, 822,000 workers reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain.

Our daily working lives are challenging enough without the added burden of a pandemic to deal with. In the UK, 65% of survey respondents said COVID-19 had a negative impact on the state of their mental health. Only 5% said it had a positive impact. It's fair to say we are up against it when it comes to multiple mental health impactors, which could come from seemingly anywhere.

And poor mental health doesn’t just affect those who suffer with it, as it costs UK employers up to £42bn a year, according to Money and Mental Health. It’s clear that there are issues to be tackled, voices to be heard and solutions to be created.

Let’s work through the main areas of mental health in the workplace. We will focus specifically on the role stigma plays in fortifying those behaviours that lead to poor mental health, and solutions to counter it.

What does mental health stigma look like?

Stigma and discrimination affects nearly nine in ten people with mental health problems, says the UK’s Mental Health Foundation. This is a phenomenally large number to wrap one’s head around. Having mental health as a personal issue should be burden enough without being judged for it. Yet, we are human, and we are slow to accept others’ differences and differentness.

Mental health is stigmatised because of the stereotypes we create, aided and abetted by media channels and outlets, and inherited social attitudes. For instance, a Centre for Mental Health survey revealed that ‘only 36% of respondents said they would be willing for someone showing symptoms of depression to marry into their family’.

Indeed’s 2022 report on mental health and wellness in the UK workplace found that being seen as a less capable employee was the biggest reason people said they would not be comfortable telling their line manager about poor mental health. Workplace stigma is sometimes shaped by attitudes towards things like flexible working. BITC research found that 50% of respondents wouldn’t feel comfortable asking about flexible working when applying for a job.

It’s not all doom and gloom

The light on the horizon is that we are, at least according to post-pandemic statistics, getting better at dealing with mental health in the workplace. For example, we feel more comfortable discussing our workplace mental health, with 32% saying they are more comfortable doing so since the pandemic.

There’s a lot of work to do to increase these numbers, but it’s a start. Let’s look at some of the ways organisations can improve to tackle the stigma that surrounds mental health.

The problems and the solutions

Imagine your employee has just confided in their line manager that they’re feeling stressed. They reply: ‘We’re all stressed. Just get on with it.’

It’s not the most supportive thing to hear, especially if someone is genuinely struggling with a task or is feeling overwhelmed for any reason. A more proactive approach would be to demonstrate care and assess what support that person might require. Organisations may find that encouraging people management and soft skills will help to ensure managers are up to speed with what is required of modern leaders. This should ensure employees have frequent conversations about health and wellbeing matters with line managers.

While mental health issues are often stigmatised by other people, we self-stigmatise too. We are, as The British Psychological Society (BPS) says, capable of labelling ourselves as ‘unacceptable because of having a mental health concern’.

Consistent reinforcement of loose terms such as ‘resilience’, and how important it is to be confident and ‘up for the challenge’, may contribute to self-stigma. The BPS lists esteem, regard and confidence as being threatened by our inability to seek psychological help. In other words, we stigmatise ourselves for having mental health issues in the first place.

Organisations could counter self-stigma by being more proactive in how mental health is discussed. For instance, developing a work plan that promotes everybody’s mental health could be a good start. By encouraging open conversations about mental health, and demonstrating commitment with available support when employees struggle, self-stigma may have little room to breathe.

Reacting to mental health issues means it’s too late. If employee wellbeing isn’t motivation enough, perhaps the business implications are: according to Money and Mental Health, 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition lose their job each year, leading to turnover costs for employers of an estimated £8bn a year.

The role of leaders in tackling mental health stigma

The key to a successful plan that attempts to tackle the stigma surrounding workplace mental health is communication. According to Mind, one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. It's not a topic that's going to go away any time soon.

Engage with people, ensure management training covers people skills, and provide an environment where mental health is openly discussed. It’s great to have strategies for finding a healthy work-life balance. But be mindful about relying on it to fix everything because it's only part of a wider toolset. Leaders should also use positive language when talking about mental health and engage with those who need support networks more than others.

Organisations often put significant effort into workplace health and safety initiatives. Mental health is no different.