5 steps to banish the stigma of mental illness

Jul 05, 2016

Stigma of mental illnessOne in five Canadians is likely to experience a mental illness at some point, yet fear of being judged is a major barrier to seeking treatment - a critical first step in returning to good health.

Eliminating stigma in your workplace will offer a lifeline to employees who may be suffering in silence. It will also reap long-lasting benefits for your business, says WSPS consultant Krista Schmid. "Everyone has a shared responsibility in eliminating stigma, from C-suite executives to front line workers."

Schmid outlines many ways to engage employees in eliminating stigma, based on five steps suggested by Heather Stuart, the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen's University. But first, Schmid explains how everyone in the workplace benefits.

Overcoming stigma means replacing ignorance and fear with understanding, respect and compassion. The spillover effects are enormous, she says:

  • greater motivation for all employees to support each other and do their best
  • improved customer service
  • greater attraction and retention of qualified people
  • lower turnover and fewer costs associated with recruitment and training
  • less absenteeism and sick leave
  • a more cohesive and solution-focused culture

5 basic steps to reduce stigma

The process begins with authentic leadership from the top, but implementing the five steps below will help everyone in the workplace communicate about mental health, show support, and overcome concerns about seeking help, says Schmid.

"Involving people from across the organization adds instant creditability to your efforts. It sends a very powerful message that this is important, that people are important. It's about creating a workplace culture where people can talk openly and share."

  1. Educate everyone about mental health. Set up teams to
    • explore how the workplace can contribute to maintaining positive mental health. Many workplace factors can affect mental health, says Schmid. Here are just three: organizational culture, clear leadership and expectations, and workload management.
    • collect and share information on what mental illness is and isn't, how to recognize symptoms, and what workplace and community supports are available. Invite everyone to assess their own attitudes 1
    • organize lunch 'n learns with guest speakers, such as your EAP provider or someone from the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association
    • host a wellness fair
    • create an ongoing communications campaign (e.g., newsletters, posters, payslips…)
  2. Language matters. Words can be hurtful or helpful. "People are more than their condition," says Schmid, "so beware of labels and loaded terms." Work collectively to define acceptable language and other standards of behaviour.
  3. Be kind. Establish a peer support system. Demonstrate empathy and try to understand. Avoid judging.
  4. Listen and ask questions. If someone you work with is sharing information with you, practice active listening. Ask, "How can I help you? What can I do to…"
  5. Talk about it. Integrate mental health into health and safety meetings and safety days. Learn how to start a conversation. Speak up if someone is using derogatory language or behaving inappropriately.

How WSPS can help

  • Learn more about mental health and the workplace at WSPS' online mental health resource page. Among the resources: e-courses, complementary downloads, articles, and videos.
  • Sign up for Mental Health First Aid, a 2-day course available onsite or in a classroom setting.
  • Register for one of five scheduled Networking and Knowledge Exchange (NKE) sessions on mental health in these communities:
    • Chatham, November 17, 2016
    • Hanover, September 15, 2016
    • Kingston, September 14, 2016
    • Point Edward, September 22, 2016
    • Stratford, September 28, 2016

Space is limited, register online today.
Talk to a consultant about opportunities to develop a planned, target-driven approach to creating a healthy workplace, including implementing CSA Z1003, Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Contact Customer Care: 1-877-494-WSPS (9777); customercare@wsps.ca.


  1. Bell Canada's Can We Talk website offers a brief questionnaire featuring 10 common attitudes, and a brief discussion of each. Click on "Mental Health Lesson Plans" in the right column.