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Mental Health Stigma and Discrimination in the Workplace

Mental Health in an Unequal World – Stigma and Discrimination in the Workplace

What is stigma?

Stigma around mental health is still prevalent in the workplace. It is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’ and it can occur due to lack of awareness, prejudice and/or misunderstanding. Many employers do not understand mental health, when it becomes an issue, how to spot the symptoms of compromised mental health and what to do about it. This is not helped by the fact that mental illnesses are often less visible than physical illnesses and that their impact is often underestimated, and the issue therefore ignored.

Equally, because mental health is generally misunderstood, people with mental health issues are sometimes unfairly labelled as a lazy, or selfish, dangerous, or incapable/incompetent.

This attitude can affect how they are treated at work, not to mention their career prospects, so it is no surprise that many people are reluctant to reveal that they are experiencing mental health challenges at work.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination means treating a person unfairly because of who they are. The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from discrimination by various parties:

  • Businesses and organisations which provide goods or services like banks, shops and utility companies

  • Health and care providers like hospitals and care homes

  • organisations that rent or sell property, like housing associations and estate agents

  • Schools, colleges and other education providers

  • Transport services like buses, trains and taxis

  • Public bodies like government departments and local authorities.

It also protects individuals from discrimination by employers.

Under disability and equality law (governed by the Equality Act 2010), employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the grounds of certain protected characteristics (nine in total, which outline how people are protected from discrimination (whether intentional or not) by law). Employers need to familiarise themselves with these characteristics in order to ensure that people are given equal opportunity in the workplace. In all cases, these characteristics are protected from one-off actions as well as those that are a result of a policy. We all have at least some of these characteristics, so the act essentially protects everyone from discrimination in one way or another.

The nine protected characteristics

  • Age

  • Disability

  • Gender Reassignment

  • Marriage and Civil Partnership

  • Pregnancy and Maternity

  • Race

  • Religion and Belief

  • Sex

  • Sexual Orientation

Whilst stigma and discrimination can occur due to lack of understanding of mental health, it can also occur due to unconscious biases, which is why when exploring stigma and discrimination during our managing mental health workshops, we spend some time exploring any that we may hold.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals can form without being consciously aware of them. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs, many of which are formed in our early years and/or inherited from influencers in our lives, like parents, siblings, teachers, and bosses. Sometimes these biases stem from our brain’s need and therefore, tendency to organise and categorise our world. Certain situations or circumstances can also trigger them: for example, biases may be more common or frequent when we are working under time pressures or trying to manage an excessive workload. Whatever the case, unconscious bias is often the origin of stigma and it can be helpful to address any outdated beliefs and update our understanding.

How the nine protected characteristics can be impacted by mental health

One way of updating our understanding is to gain insight into how each of the protected characteristics are impacted by mental health.

What Do Employers Need to Do?

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove or reduce obstacles and to avoid disadvantages faced by people within their workplace, who are considered to have a disability.

Under the act, people with a diagnosed mental disability are protected from discrimination in exactly the same way as those with a physical disability and once a person has been confirmed to have a disability due to a mental health issue, it then becomes unlawful for them to be substantially disadvantaged or to be treated unfavourably because of it.

If we can get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health, we can better support mental health and reduce mental ill-health.

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