Whitepaper

Mental health stigma in the workplace.

Mental illness faces an enduring challenge in our society.

In clinical settings, it’s difficult to diagnose and treat. In public and even private life, there remains major stigma. Our pursuit of establishing mental health standards is now as urgent and essential as ever amidst a global pandemic that’s economically disruptive, socially isolating and fraught with emotion.

Even if we’re no longer commuting “into” work, mental health cannot just be left at home once we log online for the day. If employers need a wakeup call to finally start taking their employees’ mental wellbeing seriously, this is it.

In March 2020, we surveyed over 2,000 American workers to better understand the state of mental health in the workplace. We were eager to learn how frequently mental health is talked about both between coworkers and through employer-led education. We also set out to explore the prevalence and characteristics of work-related stress, which we consider fundamental to any discussion of mental wellbeing. Stress as a disorder is more ambiguous than some of its clinically defined counterparts but given its corrosive effect on individuals and organizations alike, we consider it worthy of attention.

Included in our report are analyses of:

  • Mental health stigma in the workplace
  • Employer-led education on mental health
  • Prevalence of work-related stress
  • Employer support of and education around stress
 

Mental Health Stigma in The Workplace 

The good news is the data shows that people are talking about their mental health at work. A solid majority of workers who have experienced mental illness are comfortable talking to their coworkers about it, and two out of three respondents said a coworker has talked to them about their own struggles with mental health. Still, if we’re to focus on the ideal of creating a society where every person feels openly supported in their pursuit of holistic wellbeing, there’s obvious room for improvement.

Some fast facts:

  • Real estate, insurance, legal and skilled labor industries ranked highest among the industries that reported not feeling comfortable talking to their manager or coworkers about their mental health.
  • HR, restaurant workers, engineering, IT and non-profit industries reported the least stigma at work.
  • 54% of employees with managers in their 20s and 30s feel comfortable raising the subject of mental health, while 43% of employees with managers in their 50s or older feel similarly comfortable.
  • Companies with 50 to 249 employees consistently recorded lower levels of stigma and higher levels of education, confirming the impact employee education has on overall wellbeing.

Employer-Led Education on Mental Health

Of the 2,000+ workers surveyed, 77% get health insurance from their employer. A majority (61%) of these workers are satisfied with the mental health coverage offered as part of their overall health plan, a hopeful trend.

However, many employers are still falling short in educating their workforce about mental health, illuminating the gap between mental health coverage and mental health education. In fact, more than half of those we surveyed never received information from their employer about mental health. Clearly, we still have a ways to go when it comes to destigmatizing mental health at an institutional level.

It’s hard to measure how much of this represents an actual versus perceived deficit—are employers not providing the information or are employees just not seeing and absorbing it? Still, the burden lies on the employer to effectively educate employees. Gone are the days where health and benefits information is communicated at open enrollment and open enrollment only. Employers must market benefits information to their employees year-round to ensure adequate adoption.

Prevalence of Work-Related Stress

Although stress itself is not an illness, there are distinct connections between stress and common mental health disorders. Long-term stress has a major impact on physical and mental wellbeing. It is constant. And when the body is under constant stress, it doesn’t ever receive a signal to return to normal functioning. We’re then more likely to develop chronic conditions, including immune, digestive, heart and sleep problems. Over time, this can have serious and lasting impacts—high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety—all of which may have an eventual effect on employees’ ability to bring their whole selves to work.

There’s no question that American workers experience unhealthy levels of (sometimes constant) stress. In a Gallup poll conducted in 2018, 55% of Americans reported experiencing stress the day before the poll. The global average was 35%.

According to our study, 51% of people experience work-related stress on at least a weekly basis, while more than a third experience it daily or several times per week. Additionally, 69% of workers say they have experienced burnout as a result of their job.

The WHO defines burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.

So how do the generations stack up when it comes to feelings of stress at work? Seventy-five percent of millennials report experiencing high or very high levels of stress, while just 53% of baby boomers report the same. Given that hours worked are relatively equal for both generations, the possibility is raised that younger generations are either more sensitive to or more aware of stress. On the other hand, there may be characteristics of being a young professional that are inherently more stressful, like striving to establish a reputation, feeling stuck in a role that’s not yet fulfilling, worrying about a lack of savings and many other realities for young working people.

Some fast facts:

  • Companies with 50 to 249 employees tend to be the most progressive in their abilities to educate employees on stress in the workplace.
  • 72% of workers say their manager is conscientious about stress and burnout
  • Engineering, IT, finance and government reported the highest statistics of employer-provided stress education.

Employer-Led Education Around Stress

It’s possible that a lack of employer-led education around mental health correlates with a culture that doesn’t support a healthy work life. Long hours, poorly trained managers, team toxicity—this all has major impacts on employee wellbeing and creates stress. So how many employers are trying to do something about it?

Supporting Mental Wellbeing at Work

We asked employees how they feel their employers directly support mental health and wellbeing. Workers were given a wide range of examples from which to choose, from flexible work hours to the opportunity to take mid-day naps.

No doubt, there’s work to be done to further support the millions of Americans who suffer from mental health challenges. Education needs to increase. Managers need to look for signs of chronic stress and be trained to talk about them. Many managers need to adjust their perspectives about what holistic wellbeing looks like. And, more than anything else, employers need take their involvement in employees’ mental health seriously.

Methodology

From March 20–22, 2020, we surveyed 2,009 American workers on a range of topics related to mental health in the workplace. Our respondents were 54% female and 46% male. Ages ranged from 17–78 years old with an average age of 36. All 50 U.S. states were represented as well as 22 professional industries.

About Maestro Health™

Maestro Health works with employers and their trusted advisers to administer self-funded health plans. By blending technology, analytics, care management and administrative services, Maestro Health helps employers optimize their health plans, drive better health outcomes and lower costs.

When partnering with Maestro Health, employers can save money on employee healthcare and focus on what really matters—their people.

For media inquiries, contact kmansour@maestrohealth.com.