Why and how to break the stigma on mental health issues at work

'Don't ask, don't tell': Why and how to break the stigma on mental health issues at work

With one in four people being affected by mental health issues, it’s safe to say your organisation is in some way, shape or form affected by this. Mental health issues can arise from (chronic) stress, and stress can be magnified by mental health issues. With stress still on the rise as the number one threat to employee well-being, it’s time to talk about mental health.

In this article I cover the social stigma experienced by employees struggling with stress and mental health issues, how this stigma is negatively affecting your business, and which steps you can take to raise awareness for mental health and improve psychological well-being in the workspace.

When we lift the social stigma on mental health issues, everybody wins. So if you want to learn why and how to tackle the issue of stigma, stress and mental health in your organisation, make sure to read this article.

Feeling seen, heard and accepted

When it comes to people, there’s one thing you should keep in mind: People want to feel heard, seen and accepted. They want to be validated as an individual, as someone who belongs and matters. This doesn’t necessarily mean they want you to agree with what they’re saying or stand for. On the contrary, it’s more important to them for you to listen and acknowledge their feelings and thoughts. We are all people, and treating each other as such is what allows us to create relationships, and ultimately communities. And this plays a big role in overcoming social stigma.

Stigma on stress & mental health

The importance of feeling seen, heard and accepted is especially important when it comes to sensitive topics like stress and mental health. Unfortunately, there’s a major stigma on these issues, which is causing problems for both employees and employers.

People who are dealing with stress or mental health issues, like anxiety or depression, are often ashamed and scared. They’re scared of being seen in a negative way and being treated differently because of it. They’re scared of how being open about stress or their mental health might affect their career and relationships with colleagues. One common fear is losing their job as a result of talking about their personal issues. This shame and fear is what keeps them from seeking the help they need, whether that’s a day off, delegating certain tasks or seeking out professional help.

The impact of stigma on your organisation

As long as employees feel the need to hide their struggles, employers can’t take action to support these employees. After all, you can’t solve a problem without knowing it’s there, nor without knowing its root cause.

I always refer to stress and mental health as the invisible forces that either lift an organisation up or bring about its demise. The benefits of positive psychological well-being can excel an organisation and create big profit. Poor psychological well-being, however, leads to increased absenteeism costs, reduced individual and team performance, low employee morale, and other employee costs like those related to burnout and professional help.

As with most problems, prevention is better than cure. That’s why I advise a proactive approach to psychological well-being and stress reduction. If it’s not to reduce the negative impact of poor well-being on employer and employee alike, then it’s definitely still worth it to bring the benefits of positive well-being into the workspace. 

Encouraging conversation & removing stigma

If you want to control this force, the first step is bringing these issues into the light. You need to raise awareness for mental health in the workspace, but more importantly, you need to remove the stigma. Getting people to open up can be a challenge, because stigma is often deeply rooted in social insecurity. As explained earlier, people don’t want to be treated differently or seen in a negative way.

For most people, accepting they are in need of help is already a challenge. Actually asking for help, especially in a professional setting, can be absolutely terrifying. If you want people to open up, it’s important to create a sense of trust – an open space where people feel free to share their story without needing to fear the consequences.

Check out these five tips for opening up the conversation about stress and mental health, and removing social stigma:

1. Encourage conversations

With stress and mental health issues being so common, it seems only fitting for them to be general topics of conversation. Although not everyone needs to know everyone’s business, encouraging employees to reach out to their direct manager or office confidant is a good first step to opening up the conversation. It provides employees with the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings, and gives the organisation a chance to address the issue. Raising awareness for mental health in the workspace can also encourage people to be more open with others and look after colleagues. This can connect people and deepen interpersonal relationships and the overall working community.

2. Train line managers

Equality, diversity and inclusiveness are important factors for well-being in the workspace. They’re aimed at providing people from all backgrounds with the same opportunities, as well as bringing people together to achieve success. Failing to make people feel included leads to low employee morale, which will negatively impact performance and culture. That’s why an active approach should be part of any employee well-being strategy.

3. Mental health week

A great way to raise awareness is by organising a mental health awareness week. You can choose a week that fits your company agenda, or maybe join one of the (inter)national mental health awareness initiatives. You can offer presentations by mental health experts, personal stories of C-level executives and managers, conducting a stress & mental health survey, sharing articles, organising activities and workshops, and so on. Although a mental health awareness week is a powerful initiative, the real power is in maintaining awareness and working on long-term solutions to mental health issues within your organisation.

4. Provide professional support

Employees might not always feel comfortable discussing their job experience and mental health with HR or their direct manager. Giving these employees access to professional support, like stress counselling, coaching or therapy, can help them work through their issues in a more discrete way. The mental health professional can support the employee and employer in discussing the current situation and advise on a suitable course of action.

5. Provide tools & resources

Sharing articles and offering (online) courses is a great way to give employees access to tools that will help them improve their psychological well-being. If you have an internal monthly newsletter, you could use this platform to share valuable resources and tools. If your organisation offers a training budget as a benefit, you could also encourage employees to use this for their personal development. At one of my previous jobs I used this training budget for a mindfulness course, which had a positive impact on my well-being and performance.


With one in four people experiencing mental health issues, this topic is highly relevant for most organisations and it’s time to take action. Whether it is absenteeism costs or reduced performance, stress and mental health pose a threat to the growth of your organisation. Identifying and addressing these issues starts with raising awareness for mental health. Because of the social stigma on mental health, it’s up to employers and HR to take the initiative and create a safe space for struggling employees to share their story and find the support they need.

Make sure to like and share this article if you wish to spread mental health awareness in the workspace. If you’re an HR professional or employer, please leave a comment down below about what actions you take towards improving mental health for your employees. 

Michiel Hengst
Michiel Hengst

Michiel is the founder of Joseph Waiden. As a well-being consultant & trainer, he helps businesses grow through employee well-being. With his background in philosophy, mindfulness, and stress counselling, he creates profitable employee-centered well-being strategies that benefit both the employer and employee.

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