How to address mental health stigma and prioritize DEIB in the workplace
The phrase “mental health stigma” refers to negative thoughts, opinions, impressions, and attitudes about mental health. Research tells us that nearly half of people experiencing mental health challenges don’t seek help and that this is oftentimes due to concerns around the potential stigma.. Today, mental health stigma can be a particular concern for employees in the workplace. For example, studies show that many employees will avoid seeking mental health treatment, so others don’t find out about what’s going on with them. It’s important to note that mental health stigmas can often impact marginalized groups the most.
Modern Health’s Global Clinical DEIB Manager, Dr. Jessica Jackson, and Carta’s Head of Inclusion, Equity, and Impact, Mita Mallick, recently sat down to discuss how to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace, and how to prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Here are some key takeaways from the chat.
When we come into the office, our social identities and societal beliefs come with us, and this can have an impact on mental health stigma in the workplace Mallick says that as a first-generation American daughter of Indian immigrant parents, she was raised to work hard, keep her head down, and not talk about mental health. She maintained this work ethic and ideas at one of her previous roles, which made it difficult to speak up about gaslighting, harassment, and bullying she experienced. Mallick eventually left the job and finally opened up about her reasons for doing so, but didn’t receive a sympathetic response.
“I remember when I finally revealed to people why I had left, individuals were saying to me: You should have gotten over that. You were being too sensitive. I don’t think that’s what happened,” Mallick said. “What happened to me is I started isolating. I lost touch with a lot of people during that period. And people were wondering what was going on with me."
Dr. Jessica Jackson spoke from her experience in the Black community, and how one unspoken rule is that you have to work harder, and essentially achieve perfection =. Research shows that perfectionism can potentially lead to a variety mental health challenges.
“What happens is we end up in this cycle,” said Dr. Jessica Jackson. “We work so hard to be perfect. When you are socialized from cultural values, that actually contributes to your mental well-being. If I always have to be 100, and I always have to be on it, and always have to say the right things, I’m going to feel burnout and symptoms of depression. I’ll probably be anxious very often.”
Mallick explained different ways that mental health stigma can show up in the workplace. For example, calling a mental health day or well-being day a “sick day” is stigmatizing language. These are days you take off from work for mental health care and Mallick says there should be a distinction between time off for physical health and for mental health. At Carta, Mallick strives to lead with vulnerability and encourages her team to take mental health days whenever needed. She also understands that to build psychological safety at work, she needs to be open with her team about struggles she faces.
Dr. Jessica Jackson agreed, adding how employees often feel the need to explain themselves if they require time off for mental health reasons. “It’s rare that I hear of people who are maybe just having a bad day, who say I don’t feel well in the emotional sense and feel okay with that. Normally people feel like they have to explain….which then stops them. But if I wake up with a cold or a sore throat, I just say I don’t feel well.”
Mallick detailed her experience with workplace stigma in the form of microaggressions from a former manager, which she has talked about on her Podcast, Brown Table Talk. She used her full name, Madhumita, when starting her first job after grad school. Early on, her manager decided that he didn’t want to learn how to pronounce Madhumita, and wasn’t even willing to call her Mita, her shortened name. He instead renamed her Muhammad and thought that it was funny.
“Imagine, you’re coming into work every day, and there is somebody who has renamed you something entirely different and thinks it’s hilarious,” said Mallick. “Nobody ever intervened on my behalf. There were real power dynamics there. I did not feel comfortable. I thought it was acceptable and okay. Every day I showed up to work with a pit in my stomach. I was having physical reactions. And every time he called my name, all I wanted to say was just call me by my right name. There are real implications to your mental and physical well-being.”
Dr. Jessica Jackson compared the harm inflicted by microaggressions to the Zika virus. One mosquito bite can give someone the Zika virus, but determining the exact mosquito bite that transmits Zika is almost impossible — so people have to be hypervigilant about protecting themselves. She explained how microaggressions are similar to these mosquito bites — you don’t know which ones will affect you the most. It becomes exhausting for anyone from a marginalized community to constantly be on guard and feel the need to protect themselves against microaggressions.
If you’re a leader wondering how to reduce mental stigma in the workplace, there are several steps you can take in order to reduce negative ideas around handling mental health challenges and opening up a dialogue around these topics.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing mental health stigma in the workplace, these are some general strategies that leaders can use to get started. It’s important for leaders to take action on this issue, in order to create a more supportive and positive work environment for all employees.
Another concept that Dr. Jessica Jackson and Mallick address is psychological safety, which is the feeling that you won’t be punished or embarrassed for sharing new ideas, posing questions, or making mistakes. When psychological safety is present in the workplace, employees feel more free to share what’s on their mind. That includes details about their mental wellbeing.
Dr. Jackson and Mallick shared a few ways for employers to create psychologically safe work environments:
Dr. Jessica Jackson asked Mallick to share any well-being strategies or tips that she uses as a leader at Carta that can help employees manage their mental wellbeing.
Attend Modern Health Circles: Mallick is a big fan of Modern Health’s group therapy Circles and recommends that all employees with access to Modern Health give Circles a try.
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