Minding minds at work – three ways leaders can reduce mental health stigma

Have you heard Prince Harry’s admissions on the effect losing his mum has had on his mental health? His decision to publicly share the challenges he has experienced is helping to lift the lid on stigma about mental health issues.  

Prince Harry said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph “I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.” Prince Harry’s decision to open up and also show his public support for the mental health charity Heads Together, along with his brother Prince William and Duchess Catherine, is leading the way for change. He is laying the foundation for making it ok to talk about mental health problems that will affect one in four of us during a lifetime. This is good news for those who suffer from mental health issues, and also for business.

Australia’s workplace health and safety journey

In Australian workplaces, it is not ok to physically injure people at work and organisations have actively worked to reduce physical harm to their workers. It is now a business imperative to put the health focus back in to health and safety and target mental health. A recent report by Beyond Blue on the State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia indicates that mentally healthy workplaces are as important to Australian employees as physically safe workplaces, however workplaces are not meeting their expectations. 91% believe mental health in the workplace is important (88% believe physical safety is important). Despite this, only 52% of employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy compared to 76% for physical safety. Particularly concerning is that only half (56%) believe their most senior leader values mental health.

Mental health in the workplace – actively tackling stigma

We know that loss of productivity due to mental health issues results in 12 million days of reduced productivity in Australian businesses each year according to a return on investment analysis commissioned by the  Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance  and at the same time mental illness continues to be one of the most stigmatised groups of disorders experienced by people at work.

One study (Manning C, 1995) reported 50% of people would ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ employ someone if they knew they had a psychiatric disorder.   Stigma surrounding mental illness may also affect colleagues’ impressions of person’s capability to be effective at work (Stuart., 2006). Australian businesses are investing in mental health services in the workplace, but employees are underutilising these resources. A primary reason employees aren’t accessing mental health resources may be due to the significant stigma which surrounds mental illness.

Culture is key

It is the mindsets, beliefs and attitudes that underpin how we behave that create a culture that actively works to prevent the harmful aspects of work, protect and promotes mental health and at the same time supports those who need help. Like with safety, while supporting mental health at work is everyone’s responsibility, it begins with leaders.  If as leaders we believe that it is not ok to admit to experiencing challenges that impact our mental health then we will continue to propagate a business world that drives this underground.

We need to build cultures at work that genuinely care for people.  We need to generate mindsets in senior leadership that profoundly value their people and build business communities that expand to include people who are experiencing mental health challenges. Stigma around mental health needs to stop.

Leaders need to step up to the challenge and create workplaces that foster “good work”.  This begins by examining our own mindset about mental health at work and asking ourselves “what environment am I creating through my beliefs, attitudes and behaviours?” Three ways leaders can begin today in reducing stigma about mental health is by:

  1. Beginning to have unvarnished conversations about depression, anxiety and mental health.
  2. Increasing the help seeking options for people and effectively communicating these.
  3. Supporting people and caregivers facing mental health challenges by actively building communities at work that support people.

It is only through a critical mass of people actively showing they care about this that change will begin. Prince Harry is leading change by breaking through the traditional ranks of royal conservatism and has begun to make it ok through his admissions. As leaders, we can continue to open up the conversation in organisations.

Most work places do not understand their mental health and wellbeing risks nor what to do about it. We can help you move from information to targeted practical action. Learn more about our services.

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