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  • 27 September 2021
  • 3 years

Stigma of Mental Health in the Workplace: A Conversation with Workplace Options CEO, Alan King

Staff Writer

World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is observed globally each year in October to recognize and raise awareness about mental health. WMHD was established by the World Federation of Mental Health and gives organizations an opportunity to discuss mental health and strive to ensure all individuals have equal access to mental health care and support.

The stigma associated with mental health continues to prevent individuals from accessing the care they need when they need it. It is estimated that the stigma around mental health prevents 40 percent of individuals experiencing anxiety or depression from reaching out for support.

In a sit-down interview with Alan King, Workplace Options CEO, he emphasizes the need for organizations to create a culture that promotes mental health and openly talks about mental health issues.

What are the implications of stigma and discrimination of mental health in the workplace?

AK: The first application to me and the most significant is that stigma keeps people who need care away from care and it also keeps those who care for others away from providing the care that’s needed. So basically, the entire thing is about an aggregation of responsibility to take care of yourself and to take care of others. That’s the biggest issue to me with stigma.

From your perspective, what responsibility is there from a corporate level to address mental health stigma?

AK: I think it falls squarely on the shoulders of the leadership team, in the sense that we have a fiscal responsibility to our organizations and to maintain the health and wellbeing of our business. And if you don’t do that for your employees, then you’re basically falling down on one of the largest areas of responsibility. So, health and wellbeing of your employees is not only a moral requirement, it’s also an extraordinarily practical requirement that impacts the productivity of your workplace. It impacts the overall engagement that comes from your employees and ultimately it impacts an organization’s ability to be successful in the long term.

Would you also say that there is a long-term benefit as well to incorporating wellbeing in the overall corporate strategy?

AK: The dimensions of an individual and the requirements that are associated with supporting that individual don’t fit into neat categories. The one thing that we have seen with programs that exist is simply checking the box and don’t deliver the results that organizations are looking for, whereas creating a place of culture of wellbeing is all about that word culture. It’s an ongoing, in-depth, multi-level approach that requires engagement, just not from leadership but also requires engagement from the entire organization. Employees need to know that their leadership is committed. And their leadership needs to see employees engaged and willing to participate in these programs. So, something that is both wide and deep and continuous is ultimately what makes the most positive difference.

What types of strategies can leaders use to breakdown mental health stigma and discrimination? Some individuals may be afraid to speak up or come forward to their managers because there is a pre-conceived stigma or some level of discrimination that may exist in the workplace. Are there certain strategies that leaders can put in place to breakdown those barriers and foster a more transparent environment where everybody has the opportunity to speak up about this topic?

AK: I think the first is you simply talk. You simply start the conversation. My experience, in general, is that all the things that people don’t like to talk about are really the things that they should be talking about and the one way to start the conversation is to recognize your responsibility to begin it. So, I think one of the ways, particularly with mental health, that leaders and others can diminish the stigma is by actually raising it and calling it out for what it is, and not just simply talking about mental health in an abstract or trying to find the right words or the right language, but just call it out. Connect your own experiences and your own vulnerabilities into the situation. Encourage others to share their stories because it’s the stories that we can connect with. The terms and words and the stereotypes of others are just that. The story is what we lived and live everyday, and that’s what makes the most fundamental difference.

Is there perhaps an anecdote you can share? Maybe on a professional level, you’ve witnessed this in the workplace and you’ve addressed it directly?

AK: I can give you an example of someone who needed support and who masqueraded very well about not needing that to someone who worked with me closely. In a million years, I would never have thought that there would be anything impacting this person, but their performance was starting to be impacted negatively. They were starting to become less reliable than they were before. All the conversations that were happening on an organizational level didn’t get any answers and didn’t give any results and it was just by chance when we were having coffee one day when I just asked a question about how his family was doing. Just an innocuous question and everything came out. In that moment I could listen and then I could make a connection to support and services that could change things entirely around for this person and help them recognize that actually the worst possible thing they could have done was to be quiet and to try to shoulder this on their own. But they got the assistance they needed, and we as an organization were there to help that person.

At Workplace Options, we always strive to be better. We are a company that tries to walk the talk. We try to learn from what we know. So, the stories I told you about the transformational power of engaging around mental health issues, we live the stories everyday – not just with each other, but with our members, and we see the power of what we do. It’s our ability to see someone beyond how they are presented and how we know them in that moment, to when we can see a little bit deeper to what may be troubling them. Sometimes there are issues that aren’t always present on the surface level.

What strategies can leaders use to foster a healthy workplace environment?

AK: There are services that WPO offers to our clients and others that are all about doing that. We provide emotional health, physical health support, and practical health support across the board. We try to make the connection and help organizations get knowledge and access to what we provide. So, I think really beyond just having the conversation, it’s also about being a visible champion in your organization about not just the topic, but about the interventions around the support using the services and showing people that not only is it okay – it’s expected. Helping to train leaders themselves to be able to recognize and use the resources we have. I know a lot of effort goes into parts of an organization to raise awareness through promotional campaigns, and while that is still important, one of the best ways to connect people who need help in the moment comes when their manager recognizes the opportunity and makes the connection. So educating managers and creating a culture where this kind of support is woven into the process and procedures of an organization as well as the fabric of that organization’s culture are ways that we can make change ultimately. But the key thing is for people to expect this benefit to be used and to expect their managers and their employees to engage and use it. That’s the single difference. If you’re simply ticking off a box and adding a benefit that you think you’re required to have, then you’re going to get a result that’s similarly focused. But if you view this as a tool then everyone in your organization recognizes it as there for their assistance. That creates a very different result.

Given the unprecedented challenges that everybody has experienced due to the pandemic, do you have a message you would like to share?

AK: What we need to recognize as we return to some semblance of the familiar is that it is just that – a semblance of the familiar. If our expectation is a return to the past, that can’t happen. If our expectation is some new normal that won’t happen. What we’re going to see and what we’re going to experience is likely going to be continued volatility. Continue changing what we have to first accept, which is that we are going into something that will be different. We just don’t exactly know how different it will be and that’s frightening for some people. But what’s even more frightening is if you expect something to be like it was, and when you get there, it isn’t that. So, I think that’s the first caution that we don’t yet know what it will look like, but it will be different. And the second part of that is that no matter how resilient we feel we have been, no matter how resilient we feel everyone around us has been, the entire planet has been through trauma for a very long time. There is no way that we aren’t touched by what we’ve experienced, whether that just comes in how our daily lives and daily routines have changed, what we decide to keep or don’t keep from that, the people we’ve lost, or what we have missed in that period of time. We need to acknowledge that we are moving from a pandemic into a different form of a pandemic and that is one where trauma is now the number one enemy that we need to work against.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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