Simone Biles pulling out of the Tokyo Olympics gymnastics team final. Oprah interviewing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Framing Britney Spears. Headline-grabbing cultural moments in 2021 with a core theme in common: mental health. And specifically, breaking down the stigma around mental health issues.
In recent years, candid statements from high-profile figures like these, and public health and charity campaigns reminding us ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ have started to break down some of the long-standing shame and embarrassment that surround mental health issues. Employers too are recognising that they need to invest in employee wellbeing and be proactive in their approach.
However, while we may have started to chip away at traditional stigma, we’re far from removing it altogether. A McKinsey report found that 75% of employers acknowledge the presence of stigma in their workplaces. And data shows that 65% of people who couldn’t discuss their mental health at work experienced burnout often or always.
So how can organisations create an employee experience where their people feel safe and supported enough to be honest about how they’re really feeling?
The Covid-19 pandemic will have a deep, long-term impact on our mental wellbeing. The Centre for Mental Health predicts that 10 million people in England will need mental health support as a direct result of the pandemic over the next three to five years.
But we don’t even need to look that far ahead. Nine in 10 GPs are reporting a rise in work-related mental health concerns.
And while it might seem simplistic to suggest that talking could be a solution, Fortune reports that “feeling authentic and open about mental health at work leads to better performance, engagement, employee retention and overall wellbeing”.
We worked with global law firm Clifford Chance on a campaign to end stigma surrounding mental illness and support employees at all levels to speak freely. We created a film of a Senior Partner sharing his experience of losing a close family member to depression-linked suicide and his own mental health struggles.
Hearing from someone so senior helped other colleagues to share their own stories and created the sense of ‘safe space’ for discussing mental health.
We heard from another client who had an employee with a similar experience speak about it at a company town hall. “Stand up if you’ve been directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues,” they asked. Everyone stood.
Creating these moments at every level of the organisation is key to opening the conversation, removing nervousness, and quashing embarrassment. Then hopefully you’ll go some way to encouraging the 50% of people who don’t feel they can discuss mental health at work (Fortune) to do so.
Then once conversations start happening, we must be sure that people are ready and able to have them. Noone is expected to a mental health expert, but they need to know how to spot warning signs, how to really listen and where to direct people for more help.
That’s where good communication really plays a role: clear, easy access to mental health resources and programmes; communication and active listening training for line managers and champions; and helping to join the dots between wellbeing values and wider company strategy.
Many organisations also invest in mental health first aid training for line managers and champions to support a proactive wellbeing approach. Indeed, we helped Barclays with a series of mental health and disability training films to help shift perceptions. Others – like Nike, LinkedIn and Sky – give employees time off to look after their mental health.
The main point is ensuring your organisational approach goes beyond box-ticking. It must be a commitment to removing stigma from every element of your culture. Not an easy, but an important task.
As Jerome Adams, who served as US Surgeon General from 2017–2021 puts it: “Stigma is the biggest killer out there. Once we normalise mental health the way we normalise an MRI for your tweaked knee or any other medical treatment, that’s when you start to see stigma come down.
“When you fight stigma, you can save lives.”