Why the stigma hurts your business, and more importantly, your employees

It remains one of the last workplace taboos—talking about mental health. Even though more than one million Coloradans are living with a mental health condition—that’s 1 in 5 of us–there is still a gap for many companies to recognize mental health and wellness as a crucial component for workforce health.

As a physician, I understand the stigma that surrounds mental health is a major barrier to seeking treatment. It’s a problem not only for employees, but businesses too. As an employer, you have a unique opportunity to help end the stigma by starting the conversation and creating a culture of health in your workplace.

Mental health stigma is a problem

Like high blood pressure and other chronic health challenges, mental health conditions are not only common, they’re also treatable. But because of negative stereotypes, mental illness persists both in and out of the workplace.

Contrary to the negative stereotypes, many people living with mental health conditions are productive, reliable employees, and leaders who live full and satisfying lives. But even in the most progressive workplace, many employees keep their conditions secret. They may be afraid that being open about them will hurt their reputation, compromise work relationships, or even jeopardize their job.

In fact, 8 out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment. That’s why it’s so important to talk about mental health at work and create a culture of acceptance.

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How staying silent hurts your bottom line

Untreated depression can cost $9,000+ per employee, per year in absenteeism and lost productivity, according to the American Heart Association. And while many businesses worry about flu season impacting work, the flu pales in comparison to the impact of depression.

Stigma leads to silent suffering and social isolation, which can prevent employees from receiving life changing care. As an employer, you can’t afford to stay silent because the mental health of your workforce and your company’s bottom line are inextricably linked.

  • Mental illness is the single greatest cause of worker disability in the U.S.
  • 62 percent of missed work days can be attributed to mental health conditions.
  • Depressed employees are 20-40 percent more likely to become unemployed because of their condition.

Changing workplace culture

Fighting stigma is about creating awareness, encouraging acceptance, and challenging false beliefs. It starts with breaking the silence around mental illness and educating employees about:

  • Using the right language when talking about mental illness
  • Seeing the whole person, not just their condition
  • Being supportive and inclusive

As important as it is to address stigma in the workplace, it can be a hard conversation for employers to start. To help make it easier for employers to tackle this tough subject, the National Alliance on Mental Illness developed a program to help companies become stigma-free.

A stigma-free future

Here at Kaiser Permanente, we’ve been working to destigmatize mental health through our public health awareness efforts like FindYourWords.org. The campaign emphasizes the importance of talking about mental health and seeks to normalize the topic, helps people learn how to start conversations, and empowers people with relevant tools to cope or support.

Like us, more companies are taking action to improve workforce mental health. High-profile leaders and influencers are talking openly about their own mental health issues to help normalize the conversation. Slowly but surely, we’re changing the way we think about mental illness — replacing silence and stigma with acceptance and support. As an employer, you’re in the position to join the movement and help lead the way.

Mark Reeves, MD, is a primary care physician at the Kaiser Permanente Briargate Medical Offices and the Southern Colorado Market Medical Director for the Colorado Permanente Medical Group which serves the more than 640,000 members of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

— This branded content advertisement was paid for by Kaiser Permanente Colorado.