Workplace Stigma is Bad For Business

Unaddressed mental health problems lead to low productivity for corporations, and worsening symptomology for employees

By Lauren O'Shaughnessy

Noteworthy

  • 94% of people recognize stigma in their own workplace, and 58% are not comfortable taking time off for a mental health reason.
  • Mental conditions are not synonymous with laziness. In fact, sufferers have the highest “want to work” rate, with 90% desiring a job.
  • Organizations that offer emotional and professional support to employees offset costs caused by absenteeism and presenteeism. In other words, care saves money.

In April 2017, UK-based teacher, Elisa May, wrote an article for IntrusiveThoughts.org about an overheard conversation in the leadership lounge at her school. There’d been a recent increase in teachers requesting time off for mental health reasons — a shift that wasn’t resonating with certain staff. “Another TA has been signed-off long term with anxiety and depression,” said one professional. “Yeah you have to be careful… mental health is big at the moment,” responded another.

May was upset, but not surprised. She’d battled her own demons for the better part of a decade and had no intention of making them known in her current work environment. That afternoon she was reminded of why.

Most of us have taken a “sick day” that had little to do with a fever or cough. Some days getting out of bed just feels impossible. According to one study, 62% of missed work days can be attributed to a mental health condition. But despite the prevalence of these issues, open conversations about mental health remain sparse in workplaces around the world.

At its core, work-related stigma revolves around two primary misconceptions — mental conditions make you a poor or erratic worker, and mental conditions are a financial burden for corporations. Let’s unpack the first.

Poor Work Ethic

Society has long cast judgement on mental health sufferers. This rings particularly true in the workplace. Requests for mental health support frequently damage a person’s standing as a competent, driven employee. Symptoms are seen as personal choices, rather than byproducts of a biological condition. If someone is struggling, it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough not to.

These beliefs have lead to decades of workplace discrimination. People have been passed up for jobs, fired from positions, or kept from promotions because of a diagnosis.

One Australian study from 2015, showed that the majority of sufferers surveyed experienced discrimination because of their mental disorder while job hunting. Over half said they had not been hired because of it. “Sometimes I think it’s worse than telling them you’ve been in jail,” said one respondent. “Their face changes and their body language changes and you know you won’t get the job.”

The same study revealed that those who do get hired, don’t escape judgement. Bosses often shame employees for requesting workplace accommodations or speaking openly about the aspects of their job made difficult by their condition. In response, sufferers choose to stay quiet rather than risking job stability. A 2018 survey run by IntrusiveThoughts.org, found that 94% of respondents recognized stigma in their own work environment with 58% saying they’d lied to their bosses about taking a mental health day, and 59% saying they’d be uncomfortable taking time off for a mental health reason. Another report from NAMI showed that 47% of employees with 5 or more symptoms of psychological difficulties did not tell their immediate superior.

At its core, work-related stigma revolves around two primary misconceptions — mental conditions make you a poor or erratic worker, and mental conditions are a financial burden for corporations.

Despite the shame surrounding mental health, there’s little proof that sufferers make poor workers. In fact, mental conditions have been linked with high intelligence, and employers who hire sufferers report good attendance, punctuality, motivation and job tenure. Unfortunately, those findings have done little to dismantle negative connotations.

Unemployment rates among individuals with mental health conditions remain higher than those of the general population. They also increase with the severity of a person’s condition, making people with schizophrenia, major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder at higher risk of unemployment than sufferers with more manageable conditions.

This isn’t a laziness issue. In fact, sufferers have the highest “want to work rate” of the unemployed population, with 90% desiring a job. Why then, if people are willing to work and often make great employees, does unemployment remain so high?

Bad for Business Debate

This is where the second misconception comes in — the bad for business argument. And to be fair, it’s a complicated debate. The problem is cyclical. Stigma makes it hard for people with mental conditions to get hired. It also makes workplaces less likely to prioritize employee accommodations because they see them as expensive and unnecessary. This lack of support means that issues caused by mental health problems go unaddressed, subsequently increasing rates of absenteeism (missing work because of mental distress) and presenteeism (lack of productivity due to working while sick), both of which are costly for businesses.

Organizations that support employees with mental conditions save money by doing so. Care also boosts morale, contributes to retention rates, and can support recruitment efforts.

According to NAMI, stigma is the single greatest barrier to treating mental disorders and lowering costs. Organizations that are dedicated to creating empathetic and supportive environments, are not only successful in increasing employee happiness, but in reducing costs related to mental distress. In a 2004 study, employees who received high quality care for depression over two years saw a 28% improvement in absenteeism and a 91% improvement in presenteeism. Even better, research shows that the cost of treatment is fully offset by the savings that come from increased efficiencies.

In short, what’s actually bad for business, is letting stigmatized misconceptions dictate the work environment. Organizations that support employees with mental conditions save money by doing so. Care also boosts morale, contributes to retention rates, and can support recruitment efforts. People want to work for places that put them first.

On a macroscale, employment is good for everyone’s health, not just those living with a mental condition. Staying busy builds self-esteem, companionship and a sense of purpose, in addition to providing financial stability. Societally, it leads to healthier economies, better quality of life, and lower rates of violent crime and drug abuse.

It should be everyone’s goal — employers, politicians, community leaders, activists — to decrease unemployment numbers and advocate for workplace policies that take marginalized communities into account. Work is a right, not a privilege, and until that is true for people of every condition and ability, we’ll continue to fight.

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