Removing the Stigma: Addressing Mental Health In The Workplace

Depression Workplace

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“It’s the CEO and his wife!”

As the ambulance pulled up to the hospital emergency room, my husband says he could hear the whispers from the staff, but none of their comments were registering with him or me. He was concentrating on whether or not I would live.

My suicide attempt in 2015 guaranteed we could no longer hide my mental illness from the hospitals where he worked, though we had done just that for over 20 years.

We hid my mental illness for the same reasons many others keep the truth hidden, the stigmas. The shame not only affects the person but the whole family. None of our friends, church members, or co-workers knew I was bipolar. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be discharged from a psychiatric hospital and the next day go to church with my family sitting in a pew looking the part of having a perfect life.

Anytime a person at a social event would tell a joke or a horror story about someone with a mental illness it only reinforced the idea that I needed to keep quiet. When I worked at a retail clothing store, my boss shared stories about her mother-in-law ending with each one, “She’s crazy!” Then she informed me her mother-in-law was bipolar. Immediately, my hands started to shake and I worried she would find out I was bipolar and fire me.

In a 2019 international study on workplace mental health commissioned by Teladoc Health, researchers found that 82 percent of employees diagnosed with a mental health condition said they didn’t tell their bosses. And 40 percent lied about why they used their time off when it was for mental health issues. I have done this many times, as likely millions of Americans have as well.

An estimated 45 million Americans experienced a mental illness in 2020, according to Mental Health America. Nearly 19 percent of adults are experiencing a mental health illness,, with 4.38 percent experiencing a severe mental health illness.

The day after my suicide attempt, my husband went to work where people chose not to acknowledge that his wife was lying in the ICU five floors above them.

When I was released from the hospital and went home, I saw my neighbors socializing at the end of our block. Now that my secret was out, I decided to be brave and go talk with them. As I approached the group the conversation instantly stopped. Their silence was heartbreaking, and their discomfort all too visible.


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If people don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health with people in their social circle, we cannot expect them to discuss these topics in the workplace.

In a recent survey, 84 percent of employees reported having experienced poor mental health at work.  Of those, 69 percent said they hid their mental health condition from others due to stigmas.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 80 percent of those who are treated for mental illness report improved satisfaction and functioning. Businesses benefit from lower medical and disability costs, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity, while employees benefit from improved well-being and emotional health.

When I started my company and began my career as a mental health advocate, speaker, and author, I called a public relations firm to hire them. They said they had concerns because I was bipolar and questioned my ability to do the amount of travel required to be a national mental health speaker.


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Many people are not comfortable and don’t know how to talk about mental health in the workplace. Even though my husband has spent his career in the healthcare industry, we were no different. An estimated 50 percent of employees want executives to help normalize the mental health conversation in the workplace.

COVID-19 has accelerated the need for people to openly discuss mental health in the workplace as its impact on mental health including work-related stress may reach staggering levels.

“There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic will be the most psychologically toxic disaster in anyone’s lifetime,” George Everly, who teaches disaster mental health and resilience at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently told Pew Research Center.

The pandemic has brought disparities in access to mental health care center stage. The American Psychiatric Association reports that minority groups in the U.S. are less likely to have access to mental health services and the care they do receive is not on par with other offerings.

Companies need to create and maintain an inclusive,  focused and deliberate effort on creating a safe culture of mental wellness, support, and services for everyone in the workplace.

Some organizations, such as Prudential Financial, offer programs to end stigma and support mental health for both employees and their families. Their senior leaders speak candidly about mental health in the workplace, including their own challenges during townhalls or workshops.

In a recent survey, 50 percent of employees stated that when leaders talk openly about their mental health it encourages them to feel comfortable talking about their own mental health. And 45 percent of employees said they would be more likely to seek mental health support if there were more open conversations in their workplace.


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As businesses start to open back up in the U.S. it’s imperative that companies continue to prepare and support the mental health of their employees and leaders to be successful.

Employee resource groups are an effective way to create a culture of mental wellness.  They have been used for years by companies to foster inclusion and support for previously marginalized groups, including veterans, women, multi-cultural community members, LGBTQIA persons and more.

Adding questions about employees’ mental wellness to the employee survey can be powerful in fostering a culture of mental wellness. By having year over year data, senior leaders and employees can measure their progress as an organization to foster a mentally sustainable work environment. It is also good for business.

2019 World Health Organization study estimated that anxiety and depression cost the world’s economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity, absenteeism, difficulty completing tasks, and lost hours through additional required supervision. The good news is that investing in mental health pays strong dividends. The WHO estimates a $4 return in improved productivity and health for every $1 spent on the treatment of common mental health disorders.

As I have managed my own mental health issues and continued working as an advocate professionally, traveling to over 42 states meeting with government officials and mental health groups, I know that creating a culture of mental wellness is crucial.

I am proof that those with mental health challenges can thrive in the workforce when they access resources and services; medication, therapies, and skills, as I did. Mental health stigmas need not keep employees from unleashing their potential. Disparities in mental health care need to change. No one needs to feel inferior because of their truth.

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Sonja Wasden has a BA in humanities from Brigham Young University and is a mental health advocate, keynote speaker and co-author of An Impossible Life.