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Mental Health Stigma and DEIB at Work

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.

We Bring Our Whole Selves Into Work With Us 

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.”

How Stigma Shows Up in the Workplace

‍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. 

Strategies for Overcoming Stigma in the Workplace

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. 

  • Show your employees that their mental health matters: Firstly, you can show your employees that their mental health matters, and that it’s important to you, and to everyone else in the workplace. The best way to do this is by leading by example. If you choose to take a mental health day, be upfront with your staff, and demonstrate that you can take a day off for your mental health care, without needing to explain exactly what is going on. You can also encourage your employees to take their paid time off (PTO), and remind them that they don’t only need to be experiencing physical health concerns in order to take off work. Additionally, you can encourage your employees to go to therapy if needed, and highlight any therapy benefits or resources that your company’s health care plan might cover.
  • Be completely open while talking about mental health: Next, in order to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace, you can spearhead change by being completely open while talking about mental health. Open and honest communication around mental health in the workplace can help everyone feel more accepted and understood and can ensure that your office is a safe space. Communication around mental health should be non-judgemental and accepting. Leaders who communicate openly while talking about mental health concerns can truly transform the dialogue and understanding in their office. With that in mind, you can also encourage your employees to openly share their own experiences, and let them know that it’s okay to share their concerns in the workplace. In general, workplace trends are shifting in this direction, with nearly two-thirds of respondents of one study talking about their mental health at work during the course of one year. Keep in mind that sharing your mental health challenges demonstrates your authenticity as a leader. That authenticity can lead to more satisfied employees and can have a positive impact on employee happiness. 
  • Create a welcoming and friendly workplace that encourages seeking support: This can include having mentorship programs, where your employees are able to connect and learn from their peers. You can create a dedicated Slack channel for employee support, where your employees can turn to one another during times of need, big or small. You can also promote and share employee resource groups, where employees self-organize based on commonalities. This gives employees the space and resources to share with one another, find support, and become more comfortable communicating their needs and challenges.
  • Launch initiatives about mental health: While employee-led resource groups can be powerful arenas for support and change, leaders can also launch their own initiatives about mental health. For example, leaders can organize ongoing mental health awareness programs in the workplace. This might involve bringing in experts or speakers who lead sessions on different topics. Leaders can also organize workshops and training, in order to educate their staff about mental health.
  • Pay attention to the words you use: A last (but important) strategy that leaders can deploy to help reduce mental health stigma in the workplace is to pay attention to the words that they and others are using. Oftentimes, mental health issues are stigmatized by common speech alone. For example, calling someone or something “crazy” could potentially perpetuate a negative stigma around mental health concerns, as could saying things like “that’s insane” or “I’m so depressed.” Statements like these might seem benign, but could be fueling negative mental health stigma. In general, leaders should seek to avoid offensive language in the workplace that has a basis in mental well-being and should encourage others in their workplace to do the same.

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.

Employer Best Practices to Create Psychologically Safe Work Environments

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: 

  • Foster an inclusive work environment: One way to ensure employees aren’t stressed and can bring their best selves to work is to foster inclusive work environments where all employees feel like they belong, are respected and appreciated, and have a valued voice. 
  • Provide the option to take time off for mental well-being: Mallick mentioned how important it is for leaders to provide employees the option to take time off for mental well-being if needed, especially in the wake of troubling world events. “I’m telling you that if you need to take time off this week, it’s okay. Rather than them having to ask me. Just to have that level of cultural competency and awareness — and of course I’m not trying to force anyone to take days off. Because the counter is true. Somebody might say to me, no, I want to be here today but thank you for the offer.” 
  • Allow room for education: Carta has a new educational initiative called “Men as Allies,” which provides a place for men to ask questions they may be afraid to ask in other situations. “We really don’t want men to be excluded from this conversation, particularly white men,” said Mallick. “Most people are not showing up at work to harm. But sometimes we feel we can’t ask questions because it’s not a safe space.” 

Mental Well-being Strategies for Employees

‍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.

  • Take personal time: Mallick encourages employees to take days off when needed and generally avoid feeling like they always need to be "on." “I am really trying to role model people taking random days off,” Mallick said.” I feel like we have to stop treating ourselves as Uber apps who are available 24/7.” 
  • Avoid micromanaging: Don’t be so quick to follow up on tasks, and allow coworkers the time and courtesy to respond to you at their own pace. “Give someone one chance to get back to you using one form of communication. We don’t need to be micromanaging. I think that’s also adding to struggles. Being hybrid, being remote, very few people have a sense of control right now. So don’t use that as an opportunity to try to control your team.” 

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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