How to reduce the stigma of mental health issues at work

how to reduce the stigma of mental health issues at work

This is part of a series looking at microskills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at

How many of your employees have a mental health challenge?

A common response is, “That’s not my business, so how would I know?” This is partially correct. It’s true that it’s not your role to pry, ask invasive personal health questions or diagnose staff.

Your role with respect to employees’ mental health is prevention and support by facilitating a psychologically safe workplace. Managers play an important role in shrinking the stigma associated with mental illness, being a support system for employees in times of need, and reducing psychological hazards such as bullying in the workplace.

The object of this microskill is to shrink the stigma attached to mental illness. Employees who are experiencing mental health issues often suffer in silence. Being proactive and engaged in promoting mental health in the workplace can encourage employees to ask for help when they feel that work and life are unmanageable.


Without context it can be difficult to appreciate how hard it is to function with a mental illness. The more context you get, the better you will be able to understand and support your employees. A good start is to be empathetic and accept that mental health challenges are as real as any chronic disease, and that ignoring the symptoms increases risk.

Many employees experiencing mental health issues don’t feel comfortable asking for help, out of fear of being judged, and the perception that it could have a negative impact on their career and employment. Only 26 per cent of employees believe their manager is equipped to manage staff who are experiencing a mental health issue. And it’s estimated that only 35 per cent of employees feel comfortable asking their manager for support. Shrinking stigma begins with awareness of the scope of the problem, and the importance of your role.


Accept that there’s a high probability you will have skilled and productive employees who will experience periods when their mental health is not optimal. As their manager you have an important role to play by supporting them without being judgmental.

Remember though, managers are never expected to act like psychologists. The role of managers is to guide performance. When they observe, or when an employee reports their performance is negatively affecting their results, the door is open for discovery and problem solving. If you have the knowledge and skills to identify mental health issues you will be less likely to miss signs and symptoms. To learn more, read online resources such as the Mental Health Commission of Canada website, and ensure you are up to date on your organization’s mental health policies, procedures and support programs.


Managers can take an active role in shrinking the stigma associated with mental health issues through increased awareness and accountability. Every day, a manager plays a role in influencing their workplace culture and the kinds of conversations that take place. One proactive approach is to monitor words and attitudes to help set and reinforce boundaries, such as not talking about other employees’ personal health issues in the workplace.

Shrinking stigma

Actively monitor employees’ stress. Tell them you care about their stress levels and are open to discussing what you can do to help. This can encourage employees to self-advocate and seek early intervention before a bigger problem occurs, such as an employee having to take stress leave.

Tell your employees that you will take an active role in shrinking stigma. Engage your team in conversation on the different types of stigma (such as self, peer, and organizational). Point out that if employees have a problem, they can come to you for guidance on the resources available to them. Engage your staff in providing ideas on shrinking the stigma associated with mental health issues so everyone knows the team has their back in times of need. No one is immune, and it’s good to know your workplace offers support to get through mental health challenges and back to work as soon as possible.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell’s Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:


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