December 9, 2022
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Has It Also Reduced The Stigma Surrounding It?

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During Mental Health Awareness Month last year, I wrote that a possible silver lining of the pandemic is that it seemed we were seeing heightened awareness of the importance of mental health to overall well-being. Moreover, mental health was being discussed openly as a legitimate workplace issue—and not pushed into the shadows as a personal issue for people with mental illness to deal with.

A year later, the stigma surrounding mental health issues is, at least for now, decreasing. Business leaders have an opportunity to seize the moment and ensure that mental health is embraced as a central feature of workplace culture and their long-term vision for employee well-being.

Mental health and mental illness

Because many people have traditionally been fearful or hesitant to discuss mental illness openly, there is sometimes a tendency to reduce the larger question of mental health (a part of our well-being we must all tend to) to the narrower question of mental illness (having a diagnosed mental health condition). As the CDC reminds us, struggling with our mental health does not mean we suffer from mental illness. It is just part of the ebb and flow of being human.

It is worth quoting the CDC’s definition of mental health: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”

Nowhere in that definition is there any mention of illness. Yes, many people struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. However, that should not lead us to pathologize mental health in general.

Hopeful signs

Although mental health and mental illness are two distinct things, the decreased stigma around mental illness is a positive development. Less stigma and less shame free us all to be open about the mental health struggles most everyone deals with.

The Journal of the American Medical Association released the first evidence of a significant decrease in public stigma toward depression. The study tracked participant responses to survey questions in 1996, 2006, and 2018—indicating a long-term, pre-pandemic trend.

Moreover, there is initial evidence that this decreased stigma has made people, in general, feel more comfortable opening up about mental health. According to a 2021 survey conducted by NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), 52% of respondents say they have been more open with others about their mental health since the pandemic started.

Making mental health an everyday conversation

We must move toward a new normal around mental health where it is simply normal to talk about it on an ongoing basis. I see an encouraging shift in this direction in conversations with my executive coaching clients.

First, I have had countless conversations with leaders about creating psychological safety in the workplace. Psychological safety is widely recognized as a fundamental precondition for cohesive and high-performing teams. It also creates an environment in which employees feel comfortable coming forward with any mental health challenges they may be facing and in which supervisors and leaders feel comfortable checking in with employees and asking how they can support their mental health.

Second, I see a growing number of executives recognize that mental health needs to be a central feature of workplace culture. It can no longer be siloed and delegated solely to the human resources department. Employee mental health must be a shared responsibility across leadership.

Finally, because I also design and implement corporate wellness programs for organizations, I have seen a transformation from an almost exclusive focus on physical health to a more holistic vision of well-being that includes mental health. Since the pandemic, mental health has been at the forefront when speaking about employee well-being and corporate wellness programs. Many business leaders recognize that their wellness programs must go beyond gym memberships and yoga classes. They also need stress management workshops and support, mindfulness classes, and one-on-one coaching.

Other steps for leaders to take

We appear to be in the midst of a paradigm shift in our view of well-being and how we approach mental health in the workplace. But this window of opportunity to keep mental health front-and-center may not last. Business leaders have been making progress but need to take more steps like the following (some are doing these, but not enough):

  • Provide no-hassle paid time off for mental health. (Google searches for “how to ask for a mental health day” have gone up 1000% during the pandemic.)
  • Organize company-wide shut-downs for everyone to recharge, not to catch up on work but to play and recover. Tending to our mental health will be normalized when everyone is doing it.
  • Make well-being training and mental health literacy a core part of leadership training.
  • Include mental health practitioners in regular company meetings. (Again, mental health is normalized only when it is discussed every day, as a matter of course.)

As a recent editorial in the American Journal of Managed Care points out, it is probably too soon to tell if the pandemic has permanently altered the stigma around mental health. What we can say for sure is that it has created the opportunity to lessen that stigma. “COVID-19 has cracked stigma’s armor; it’s put a foot in the door that has, for so long, shut people off from seeking and receiving help for of all kinds for mental health challenges.”

We cannot allow mental health issues to go back into the shadows. Our individual health and well-being, and that of our organizations, depend on us keeping mental health in the light and front-and-center where it belongs.



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