Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace
By Christine Tulk

For many individuals struggling with mental health problems, maintaining employment and prospering in their careers is an important concern. In recent years, there has been a lot of media attention regarding the negative impact of mental health stigma, which can be a devastating form of prejudice and discrimination in employment. Although there is no doubt that we need to continue to work on reducing mental health stigma, we also need to understand that supervisors and coworkers can respond negatively to working with individuals with mental health problems for reasons other than stigma. In fact, my research suggests that one of the primary reasons for negative responses to individuals with depression or anxiety is likely to involve concerns about increased workload or unfair distribution of work rather than stigma.

As part of my research on stigma towards depression and anxiety, I asked 400 Americans and 260 Canadians to read a fictitious scenario about a coworker returning to work following a leave of absence for depression, anxiety, or surgery and to answer questions about commonly held negative stereotypes regarding people with mental health problems. These stereotypes included beliefs that people with mental health problems are 1) faking illness to get out of work 2) less competent 3) to blame for their health problems and 4) a danger to themselves and others. In addition, I also asked participants to write about their own personal experiences with colleagues who had returned to work following a leave of absence for mental or physical health reasons.

I was not surprised to find that participants rated the coworker from the scenarios about depression and anxiety to be more of a danger to themselves or others than the coworker from the scenario about surgery. Individuals with mental health problems have long been stigmatized in this fashion. Participants did not, however, rate the coworker with depression or anxiety as more likely to be faking, a surprising finding given the general thinking that less visible health problems are used as an excuse to get out of work. Overall endorsement of negative stereotypes was also fairly low, suggesting that participants as a group had relatively positive attitudes towards working with colleagues with health problems.

When I analyzed what participants wrote about their own personal experiences with colleagues who had taken a leave of absence, I found that attitudes were indeed generally supportive but that workload and overwork were big concerns. The vast majority of comments expressed goodwill towards colleagues who were struggling. Participants felt that it is somewhat expected that coworkers will get sick and that it is morally the right thing to do to help people with health problems, particularly those people who are hard workers or who would return the favour if needed. But, many of these participants also expressed feeling conflicted when the amount of help needed interfered with their ability to get their own work done or resulted in more work than they were able to handle. Although they felt it was not the fault of the coworker who was sick for being on leave or for needing help when they eventually returned to work, participants expressed feeling stressed out about having extra work or not knowing how to help.

A smaller number of participants were much more negative about “picking up the slack” of colleagues who were either on leave or who had returned to work with an accommodation such as a reduced workload or schedule. Stigma was certainly a part of these responses with participants expressing anger towards coworkers they believed were faking to gain advantages like time off work or reduced workload.

But, participants were also angry and frustrated for reasons unrelated to stigma. For example, there was a belief that it was management’s responsibility to provide more resources or extend deadlines when a team member took a leave of absence or needed help getting back up to speed when they returned to work. There was also a sense that in many cases management didn’t really care about employees and that already overworked employees were being asked to do even more with no extra compensation. This was the case for both mental and physical health problems.

This is not to say that mental health stigma is not important — there is no doubt a portion of the population that continues to have outdated and uninformed attitudes about mental illness. But, we also need to be aware that organizations can do more in terms of planning for absences and that negative responses from colleagues are not necessarily based in stigmatizing attitudes.