The Persistence of the Mental Health Stigma at Work

Mental health. It’s often been a topic talked about in hushed tones at work, but the pandemic has suddenly changed that. It’s become increasingly topical and unavoidable as home and work life meld into one. According to a recent study released by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 78% of the global workforce is reporting a negative impact of the pandemic on their mental health.   

So the question we must now ask is not why there is a stigma attached to mental health and the workplace — but why the stigma persists.

Lack of Priority 

The answer is both simple and frustrating: Many organizations, despite lip service or even genuine concern for employees’ wellbeing — nonetheless do not make it a priority. Worse, they perpetuate cultures that actively erode mental health and discourage their people from talking about it. 

In other words, a corporate understanding that employees’ mental health is important and taking actions to improve it are not the same.

Asking for, discussing, or receiving “help” is still seen as a weakness. Further, gender dynamics and societal expectations have often meant that men do not — even should not — discuss mental health concerns, symptoms, or treatments with friends, let alone with work colleagues or bosses. In stereotypical workplace culture, it is still a faux pas to discuss mental health in professional settings despite the fact that mental health conditions affect 1 in 5 adults.

Additionally, the startup world runs on a very strict timetable with the goal of reaching a billion-dollar valuation threshold as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. This means longer hours and more work delegated among fewer employees. Putting in 80-hour workweeks and burning the candle at both ends has somehow become equated with success. While there are times that this may be needed, no person, and therefore no business, can maintain that level of engagement. It should be the (rare) exception, not the rule.

Employee burnout is common, just like increased absenteeism and turnover, yet all are thought of as necessary evils and justifiable aspects of “the industry.” Indeed, 25% of workers worldwide report burnout, and 42% report a plummet in productivity.

These expectations persist because employees are casually discouraged from discussing any hardships or life changes. An employee’s wellbeing is often not prioritized in the workplace despite its relevance to performance and profit. Instead, it’s easier to work with a positive reinforcement model — the employees who are somehow unproblematic, unencumbered, and unrelenting are rewarded, while those who ask for any sort of assistance eventually learn to clam up or disappear entirely.

While common practice, this is also why so many businesses develop bad revolving-door reputations, lose their most valuable employees, and eventually fail. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that businesses are made up of individuals and that success of a business depends on the wellbeing of its people.

Creating Change

Studies have shown that having happier, healthier employees increases productivity. For example, the University of Oxford reported a 13% productivity increase when employees are happy and their basic emotional and mental health needs are met. Meanwhile, reports are consistently proving that toxic work cultures that lack mental health resources are more harmful not only for worker morale but for productivity and overall profit. 

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But again, just because the findings are out there, just because many companies know about them doesn’t mean that organizations are taking meaningful steps to create cultures that prioritize mental health.

While ping pong tables in the workroom and beer on tap are fun benefits, workplaces need to invest in more sustainable actions to help employees thrive, such as confidential crisis and mental wellness counseling services, as well as increased insurance coverage for psychiatrists, psychologists, and other trained mental health professionals and services.

We need to change company culture and create a space that encourages open dialogue, fairness, and support. This isn’t easy and it isn’t an overnight fix, but it’s non-negotiable when you consider the multitude of ways in which toxic masculinity, competitiveness, and outdated concepts of professionalism are negatively impacting the success of your employees and your company.

In other words, all the ping-pong balls and technology solutions in the world won’t create real change unless you work toward shifting people’s mindset around mental health at work.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that a pandemic is not the only cause of struggle in people’s lives. Everyone is going through their own battle on and off the clock. It’s critical to foster atmospheres in which employees can speak up about impossible expectations, critical environments, and general wellbeing. It’s vital to create and promote an environment without fear, which starts with offering assistance, time, help, and compassion.

The conversation might be difficult, but it can open the door to personal and professional growth that is sustainable, scalable, and sincere. 

Brett Kaufman is CEO and founder of Kaufman Development and an esteemed coach and mentor to over 100 entrepreneurs. He is an active venture capitalist with a focus on investing in women, minority, and LGBTQ-owned businesses. Brett is a member and participant in the Strategic Couch Gamechanger, Genius Network, Abundance 360, EOS, Conscious Capitalism, Summit Series, and Young Presidents’ Organization and a former adjunct professor at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. 

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