How mental health stigma thrives in the workplace

No one likes being told that they don’t know what they’re talking about, particularly at work. We like to think we’ve got a good handle on things but, like it or not, there will be times when we screw up and harm other people. It’s not always a bad thing – it can be a real learning curve, provided you don’t immediately start blustering about ‘oversensitivity’ (and reaching for that bloody Stephen Fry meme where he talks about how everyone who is ever offended is wrong). The hard part is when people aren’t able to be open about how much they do and don’t know – particularly about something as difficult as mental health issues.

Here’s one thing I feel pretty strongly about in light of the recent comments about workplace stigma: Mental health stigma doesn’t look how people think it looks. From most of the anti-stigma campaigns I’ve seen, you’d think it’s all flaming torches, pitchforks and people being chased out of their workplaces by employers screeching, ‘Get thee gone, you raving lunatic!’ as soon as the word ‘depression’ is mentioned. The truth is most of us won’t ever have a ‘Look! Stigma! There it is!’ moment because it’s just not that obvious it’s happening. Unless you’re the victim, of course.

People who have been the victim of mental health stigma know when it’s happened to them – the trouble is, it’s not all that easy to convey the unfairness and frustration to someone who has never experienced it. It’s not always so clear cut as someone calling you a nutter or spreading rumours behind your back. It can be very subtle, and it’s this sort of subtle stigma which is absolutely deadly. It can destroy relationships, kill careers and keep people unwell for far longer than they need to be. This is what needs to be focused on if we’re going to have a real chance of tackling it for good.

I’d like to talk about this idea of “concern” – that’s “concern” in inverted commas, rather than actual concern which is much more helpful. Here’s what it is:

“Concern” is someone is smiling at you, offering you a cup of tea and asking you to have a friendly chat. And then telling you that you’re fired.

“Concern” is someone talking to someone else about how worried they are about you. And then shutting up and staring as soon as you walk into a room.

“Concern” is someone asking you how you’re doing and do you need any support. And then looking pained and irritated every time you ask them for help.

“Concern” is someone “giving you space during this difficult time”. And then disappearing from your life.

“I just don’t think we can support him at this company.” “She can’t cope – we better take away her responsibilities.” “We all need to pull together as a team – we just can’t give him the help he needs.” “I care about her but she’s bringing the whole team down.” “In an ideal world, we could do more for him but budgets are too tight for that kind of support…” “She’d be better off in a job with less pressure.”

These are all familiar statements to anyone who has faced workplace discrimination based on their mental health. They are the damp which gradually cracks the paint, the weeds pushing up through the concrete. They all sound pretty reasonable – a rushed and harried employer, facing numerous pressures from many different places, just isn’t able to give the ‘right kind of support’. A whole team facing a tight deadline can’t afford to have someone not doing their best. A business facing closure in a flooded market can’t afford to spend time and resources on just one member of staff.

But these kind of statements are corrosive – they continue the cycle of “concern” until people with mental health issues have no confidence in their abilities, are pushed out of their jobs and forced to accept whatever their boss decides to throw at them. I had a boss once who was very happy to tell me how “concerned” she was about me after I told her I had depression. She also made sure to tell everyone else in the company how “concerned” she was and how she was sure I’d be better off in a different job until they all agreed. She was very “concerned” through the whole redundancy process and “concerned” on my last day when she bought me lunch and a pot plant as a goodbye gift. I was unemployed for eight months. I lost my flat and had to skip meals. I never heard from her again.

Am I concerned or “concerned” about someone?

If you’ve worked with someone with mental health issues and recognised yourself saying or doing anything mentioned in this post, here’s a handy checklist you can use then next time you’re dealing with someone with mental health issues:

You’ve seen the person recently and talked to them about the problems they’ve been having – The fact is if you’re truly worried about someone, you will talk to them, not about them.

You’re able to admit that the person will likely have a better idea of what they need than you do – A common misconception of people with mental health issues is that they’re not able to make decisions for themselves. Not so – and you could be seriously hindering their recovery by treating them as though they’re incapacitated.

You want to involve the person in any decisions made about them in their professional or personal life – ‘No decision about me without me’. If you’re planning to reduce someone’s responsibilities or transfer them to a different role, you need to include them in your plans and be prepared to listen to what they want.

You can admit that you’re out of your depth – If you’re not examining your own knowledge about mental health, then it’s likely you’re going to make the wrong call at some point. It’s OK to say that you don’t know very much and need help in deciding what to do.

You don’t have to be a nasty person to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, any more than you have to be a genius to get it right. The important thing is that people are open to learning more and willing to listen to the people who are most in need of support.

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One thought on “How mental health stigma thrives in the workplace

  1. Good post Sarah, I think you have some good points, I think there is also part of it where you get to know yourself more than anything (to know what made one react like that or why that happened) to a situation and other things, because all these little things have a knock on effect.

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