mental health spelled out in tiles

Mental Health Discrimination in the Workplace

Stopping the Stigma and Increasing Support

By Kimberly Kafafian


If there was one good thing to come out of COVID, it was how it shone a light on mental health at work. Stress, fear, and anxiety pervaded our world. There is an epidemic of loneliness and sadness. The height of COVID served as the wake up call we needed to pay more attention to well being and how we can support it. While it did become a hot topic, especially in my world, I had hoped it would stem a much needed change in how mental health is viewed in the workplace. And though there has been some movement, there is room for more.

Recognizing how our workplaces play a significant role in our lives, in October of 2022, the U.S. Surgeon General released the Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. The insightful 30-page resource provides a strong foundation for how organizations can build workplaces that are the engines of well being, and I encourage all leaders to refer to it as they create strategies to strengthen their own mental health initiatives.

Although the framework’s release is encouraging, and many organizations have recognized the need to do more to support their workers’ mental health in the afterlight of the pandemic, the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America Survey indicates employers are not doing enough.

55% of the workers surveyed either strongly (21%) or somewhat (34%) agreed that their employer thinks their workplace environment is significantly mentally healthier than it actually is, and 43% said they were worried that telling their employer about a mental health condition would have a negative impact on them at work. The fear of discrimination is real and must be addressed.

The survey also indicates that workplace stress is still pervasive, with 77% of workers saying that they experienced work-related stress in the last month, and 57% reporting experiencing negative impacts of that stress that are sometimes related to burnout, including:

  • Emotional exhaustion (31%)
  • Not motivated to do their very best (26%)
  • Desire to keep to yourself (25%)
  • Desire to quit (23%)
  • Decreased productivity (20%)
  • Irritability or anger with coworkers and customers (19%)
  • Feeling ineffective (18%)

The Importance of a Mentally Healthy Workforce

Mental health conditions are not just damaging to employees, they also harm the organization. Such untreated conditions cost American companies billions of dollars every year. For example, untreated depression can cost $9,000+ per employee, per year in absenteeism and lost productivity. Mental health conditions are also tied to physical ailments, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which also result in lost work days and increased insurance costs.

Workplace stigma around mental health prevents many employees from seeking the help of co-workers or managers. They don’t want to be seen as lazy, unproductive, weak, or worse, be discriminated against. This can lead to decreased productivity and compound any mental health issues, leading to an endless cycle, as well as increased turnover.

How to Stop the Stigma and Increase Support

Create a Culture that Encourages Open Communication

Let employees know that you value their mental health and are taking steps to proactively support it. Devise initiatives that focus on the importance of well being and changing minds/behaviors around the stigma of mental health.

Offer Mental Health Resources

In addition to mental health benefits (according to the APA survey only 43% of employers do so), you can offer counseling services and support groups. Promote a better work-life balance with flexible work schedules and more paid time off.

Train Leadership

Teach managers and supervisors how to recognize signs of mental health issues, provide support, and direct employees to resources.

Develop Mental Health Policies

Outline how you focus on mental health in your workplace, support employees struggling with mental health challenges, and address mental health discrimination. It is important to note that the EEOC is coming down on companies who are discriminating against workers because they have a mental health condition

A mentally healthy workplace can help reduce absenteeism, bolster productivity, and increase retention, as well as attract top talent. With workplace mental health and the bottom line being so intertwined, employers need to make it a priority. The stigma and discrimination around mental health must end.

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