Turning Stigma into Support

Posted by Lee Yarborough on 8/18/21 2:45 PM
Lee Yarborough
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Posted on: August 18, 2021

Not only did the world witness athletic prowess in Tokyo this month, but we also had a front row seat to the impact of mental health and the stigma that is associated with it. When gymnast Simone Biles, stepped down from competition to prioritize her mental health, the reactions were varied, from support, to anger, to misunderstanding. However, athletes such as Biles, swimmer Michael Phelps, and tennis star Naomi Osaka have put mental health in the spotlight and have begun to change the conversation.

Your workplace may not be an Olympic stadium, but it can be a place of stress and anxiety. According to The Hartford 2021 Future of Benefits Study, 70% of employers recognize that mental health is a significant workplace issue. The pandemic had a huge impact to our country’s mental health. In fact, the study found that 27% of U.S. workers suffer from depression and anxiety multiple times per week, compared to only 20% from the 2020 study. This number is highest among the younger workers.

AdobeStock_335203765_01Mental health is not just a personal issue, it has a direct impact on productivity at work. Workers struggling with depression, addiction, or other mental health problems have trouble concentrating, and collaborating at work. They are more likely to miss deadlines as well as have increased absences. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that depression causes 200 million lost workdays per year costing employers $17 billion to $44 billion.

Although 70% of employers agree that mental health is a critical issue, very few have addressed the stigma associated with it. In mental health, stigma can have far reaching consequences. Stigma can create shame and prevent a person from getting help when they need it most.

McKinsey & Company found that 75% of employers surveyed acknowledge stigma in their workplace and realize that employees are afraid to speak up. The survey confirmed the prevalence of this stigma in the workplace: 37% of employees with behavioral-health conditions and 52% of employees with substance-abuse disorder said they would avoid seeking treatment to keep others from finding out about their conditions.

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How To Reverse the Stigma Around Mental Health in the Workplace

How can employers provide a culture for all employees to thrive and reverse the stigma around mental health in the workplace?

AdobeStock_228148450_01Evaluate Benefits. Ensure that the company’s health insurance, disability plans, and leave policies support mental health. In fact, mental health issues are among the top five reasons, excluding pregnancy, for short-term disability claims. Understand the policy terms and communicate clearly to employees.

Engage an EAP. Employee Assistance Programs provide counseling, training, and other tools to help employees with personal issues that may be impacting their work. Since the pandemic, 70% of employers have seen an increase in the use of their EAP.

Use Non-stigmatizing Language. Communicate using person-first language, such as “a person with a substance use disorder” instead of an “addict.” This simple change decreases the stigma and shifts the attention to a health condition instead of an individual fault.

Encourage Connections. Employees are craving connection right now, more than ever. Whether a virtual meet up or some outdoor social opportunities, invite employees to form friendships and connections in the workplace. If your workplace is large enough, consider a mentor program or affinity group.

AdobeStock_231495264_01Train Managers. Provide tools for managers to recognize the signs of mental illness or substance abuse (Ask your EAP for help). Make sure the entire workplace understands that if there is concern for anyone’s safety, that it must be reported.

Work with HR. Make sure that your HR department or your PEO is aware of any concerns you have about an employee’s mental health. Not only will they be able to help you navigate the difficult territory, but they will also be able to address any additional compliance issues such as disability qualifications and reasonable accommodations.


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Simone Biles did not win the number of gold medals that was originally projected, but she did show the world that she is a true champion. She did not let the stigma of mental health get in her way and was able to prioritize the care she needed. The bravery she exhibited, by being honest, on a world stage is remarkable. Now, we must take the lesson that she gave to us and apply them to our own lives and workplaces. As she demonstrated clearly, we must prioritize mental health.

Propel HR President Lee Yarborough 

Propel HR President Lee Yarborough was recently elected Chair of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO) Board of Directors.  She spoke with PEO Insider magazine to share where she thinks the industry is headed and how NAPEO can continue to grow. Download a pdf version of the full interview:  A Passion To Serve 

Lee Yarborough YOU GOT THIS!You Got This! Lee was also featured on the podcast, TWO FEET IN.  In season 2 of the podcast, Coach Heather Macy highlights “inspiring women who are focused on empowering other women.”  In this short but in-depth conversation, Lee talks about changes in the workplace due to the pandemic, faith over fear, listening instead of giving advice, making smart business decisions, trusting her intuition, and her favorite version of herself. Available on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

About Propel HR. An IRS-certified Professional Employer Organization (PEO), Propel HR has been a leading provider of Human Resources and payroll solutions for more than 25 years. We partner with small to mid-sized businesses to manage payroll, employee benefits, compliance, and other HR functions in a way that maximizes efficiency and reduces costs. Visit our new website at www.propelhr.com

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Topics: benefits, Mental Health

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