Diversity Insight

Erasing the Workplace Stigma of Behavioral Health Conditions

Although our culture has made great strides in recent years in understanding those who struggle with behavioral health conditions, these individuals often face huge challenges in the workplace. Imagine an employee who is suffering in silence with a condition such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance use issues and is struggling with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and worthlessness. Now imagine how much more that struggle is amplified when the employee has to hide those challenges and feelings from everyone at work in fear that he or she will be judged, rejected, or labeled.

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As an adviser, you can make a big impact on the workplace success of employees who struggle with behavioral health conditions by helping employers understand their role in supporting them. Part of the key to that success lies in establishing the right accommodations; equally important is guiding your clients on how to foster a supportive workplace and creating a culture that’s accepting of employees with mental health and substance use issues.

Overcoming Stereotypes to Boost Employee Success

Shame and denial are intertwined with virtually every mental health and substance use condition, and they are reinforced by pervasive stigma and negative stereotypes. People with depression and anxiety are sometimes told that they need to “snap out of it” and are often seen as little more than their conditions, as if their struggles define who they are. Those negative interactions can lead to employees becoming distrustful and disengaged.

Employers should pay close attention to the effects of that negative feedback loop, as behavioral health conditions cost businesses hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs every year. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that less than half of American adults with a mental health condition and less than 20% of Americans with a substance use disorder receive appropriate treatment.

Creating the Right Conditions to Support Employees

There are several ways you can bring value to your clients as an adviser by helping them grow in this area. It is critical for employers to create a workplace for their employees that is safe and inclusive while also reducing the stigma around mental health and substance use issues. For one, there are great examples of anti-stigma campaigns available online that you can suggest to your clients. These include Make It OK, Bring Change to Mind, Stigma Free, and Time to Change.

Second, you can help your clients make sure their behavioral health benefits are truly designed to support people coping with those conditions. Employer-sponsored benefits, by law, cover behavioral health treatment. However, it is up to companies themselves to verify that their coverage offers a reasonable network of contracted providers to make those benefits accessible to employees. To the extent possible, reducing the copayment for mental health and substance use treatment, or eliminating it altogether, helps remove the financial barriers that often deter people from seeking appropriate care.

An employee assistance program (EAP) is generally considered an essential part of a comprehensive employee benefits package. Some employees will be able to resolve their issues through using their EAP sessions, but others may be referred by the EAP provider for further treatment utilizing their health benefits. Frequent educational campaigns concerning behavioral health topics and information about accessing EAP services, especially in ways that address and minimize the stigma associated with those services, may increase employee utilization. Free or low-cost self-assessment tools or clinical screenings can help employees recognize the need for services and may provide the encouragement they need to start treatment.

Finally, suggesting other on-site workplace initiatives can help your clients break down the stigma associated with behavioral health issues. Lunch-and-learn sessions; workshops; and classes on topics such as mindfulness, stress management, communications skills, financial wellness, and conflict resolution indirectly help employees coping with behavioral health issues. Employers can also leverage their relationship with their wellness vendor to improve employee resilience and health consciousness in ways that will support better mental health and lower the risk of addiction, anxiety, depression, or other common behavioral health conditions.

Working with a Disability Carrier to Retain Employees

Collaborating with a disability insurance partner is another critical step to help employers retain their employees, especially when it comes to developing and implementing robust stay-at-work and return-to-work programs. Disability professionals can help employers by training HR partners, managers, and supervisors, especially when it comes to identifying employees who could benefit from stay-at-work services, helping the organization improve approaches that keep people productive, happy, and healthy. Carriers also can help employers determine effective and appropriate accommodations to keep employees at work.

Employees with behavioral health conditions are less likely to be referred to stay-at-work or return-to-work services than people with physical conditions, but they tend to have very high success rates in both types of programs. Disability insurers also can help identify trends and issues related to behavioral health conditions in the workplace, particularly by comparing program results with historical outcomes or national benchmarks. Once an issue is identified, they can partner with the employer to develop appropriate strategies to address it.

Overall, you can remind your clients that all the above tactics are most effective when there is clear and public support from the company’s senior leadership. Hearing the CEO discuss mental health and substance use stigma and supporting appropriate treatment, for example, can cut through the noise that many employees experience around benefits. A company’s culture must recognize the unique challenges employees face, as well as respect the social factors and barriers that complicate their lives. By working closely with your clients, you can reduce the stigma around mental health and substance use conditions and ensure that employees get the support and treatment they need to thrive at work.

Dan Jolivet, PhD, started working in the behavioral health field in 1980, as he was completing a degree in mathematical statistics and wanted to get some hands-on experience in an applied scientific discipline. His first direct service job in the field was a 1981 work-study position at a Community Mental Health Center (CMHC) in Seattle, where he quickly became hooked on trying to understand how people change.