The Role of Leaders in Reducing Mental Health Stigma

What do we Mean by the Term “Stigma”?

Stigma refers to negative beliefs, attitudes, stereotypes, and behaviours directed towards individuals who are perceived to be different or deviate from social norms, including people who experience difficulties related to their mental health This stigma can express itself as discrimination in the workplace, social exclusion, and negative media portrayals to name but a few. 

There are different types of stigmas, including public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma. Public stigma is the stigma that society holds towards individuals with mental illness and leads to individuals being ostracised and discriminated against. Self-stigma is the internalisation of the public stigma, causing feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and reluctance to seek help. Institutional stigma refers to policies, procedures, and practices of institutions that discriminate against individuals with mental illnesses.

Mental Health

Stigma can have significantly impact the mental health and well-being of individuals who already struggle with their mental health. It can create barriers to accessing healthcare and support, leading to long-term negative outcomes. It can make it challenging for individuals to find and maintain employment, leading to financial hardship and social isolation.  

Reducing stigma is essential for increasing access to support for individuals who are struggling with their mental health. This can happen through interventions aimed at changing public attitudes and beliefs regarding mental illness. It can also happen through policies and practices that promote equality and inclusion in the workplace and society. In addition, leaders in businesses and organisations have a crucial role to play in reducing mental health stigma. By creating an environment that is accepting and understanding of fluctuations in mental health, businesses can help to reduce stigma in the workplace and improve the well-being of their employees.  

How are People with Mental Health Difficulties Stigmatised?

Stigma is a significant barrier to many people seeking support and treatment for their mental health difficulties. Stigma surrounding mental health can lead to intense feelings of shame, isolation, and fearing being judged just as harshly by others as they  judge themselves. 

Labelling and Discrimination  

People with mental health difficulties can be subjected to painful stereotypes such as being labelled “unstable”.  Such labels can lead to social exclusion and discrimination, and people with mental health difficulties are statistically more likely to lose friends, employment, and face social isolation because of their condition.  

Institutional Stigma  

Institutional stigma is the negative responses and discriminatory behaviors from officials and institutions. It can create barriers to access to quality mental health care, housing or employment. Examples include insurance companies not providing coverage for mental health or when care facilities don’t treat mental health with the same priority as physical health.   


One of the most damaging stigmas is self-stigma. Self-stigma is when an individual internalises the negative attitudes and beliefs of others, leading to a decline of self-esteem and self-worth. Self-stigma can occur through shame, fear of being seen as “weak,” or even by denying their condition to themselves or others.  

Media Stigma  

Media has the power to perpetuate pre-existing mental health stigmas through false representations of those with mental health difficulties. For example, people with mental health difficulties may be wrongly portrayed as violent, unpredictable, and aggressive. This stereotype can further impede progress and recovery, reducing public support and contributing to more negative attitudes and behaviors towards mental health issues, including from healthcare professionals.   

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How does Mental Health Impact Relationships in the Workplace?

Mental health impacts all areas of a person’s life, including their professional life. In the workplace, mental health issues can negatively affect relationships between colleagues, and negatively impact productivity. Relationships in the workplace can be impacted in the following ways:  

  1. Communication barriers: 

Mental health difficulties can lead individuals to struggle to express themselves or communicate effectively. This could result from poor self-esteem, questioning themselves, or difficulties with concentration and memory. This can lead to misinterpretations and conflicts with colleagues which can be a further cause of stress and frustration, exacerbating and maintaining the mental health difficulties.  

  1. Lack of trust: 

Mental health challenges can lead to suspicion and paranoia, making it challenging for individuals to trust their colleagues. Poor self-esteem and difficulty trusting the intentions of others (such as due to relational trauma) can negatively impact workplace relationships, affecting team dynamics and workflow.  

  1. Low morale: 

Mental health affects an individual’s mood, which can impact their work performance and attitude towards colleagues. Individuals struggling with their mental health may feel unmotivated or disengaged, leading to negative feelings towards their job and colleagues, which can affect team morale.  

  1. Stigmatization: 

Individuals struggling with their mental health may fear being judged and stigmatised by colleagues. This can lead to masking symptoms, withdrawing and isolation, which can lead to individuals feeling ostracized from their colleagues. This can then exacerbate their mental health challenges and so forth.  

  1. Increased conflict: 

Mental health struggles can lead to difficulties regulating emotions, making individuals more reactive in the face of miscommunication or misunderstandings. When this is not understood, this can lead to increased tension in the workplace and affect team productivity and overall business performance.  

How Workplace Culture is Built from the Top-Down

Workplace culture can be defined as the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that define an organisation. The culture of a company is strongly influenced by the actions of the leaders and managers in the organisation. Without strong, positive leadership and management, a company culture that supports mental health and wellbeing cannot be built.  

When leaders prioritise improving and supporting the wellbeing of their employees, it sends a clear message that mental health is valued and prioritised. Creating such a supportive culture does not happen overnight, but it can pay dividends in terms of increasing employee engagement and productivity. Here are some ways leaders can build a culture which supports mental health and wellbeing:  

  1. Encourage Open Communication – Leaders who openly discuss mental health challenges can help to normalise fluctuations in mental health and decrease stigma. Encourage open communication among employees and ensure that mental health resources and support are readily available and well-publicised. 
  1. Promote Work-Life Balance – Leaders should encourage their employees to prioritise a healthy work-life balance. A culture that values taking breaks, leaving work on-time and taking annual leave can help promote mental wellbeing. 
  1. Prioritise Training and Development – Learning and development opportunities can help employees feel supported, valued and empowered. When leaders invest in training and development, employees feel more confident and capable, which is vital for building and maintaining a positive workplace culture. 
  1. Lead by Example – Leaders who model positive behaviours around mental health, such as taking time to relax and prioritise self-care, can help create a culture where mental health and wellbeing are valued. 
  1. Provide Mental Health Support – This could include offering access to counselling, employee assistance programmes, or time off to tend to mental health and attend appointments or classes for example.  

Why a Culture that Supports and Accepts Mental Health is Necessary to Reduce Stigma

Mental health stigma persists as a major problem in society, largely because it is often regarded as a taboo topic. However, fluctuations in mental health across the course of a lifetime is normal, and to be expected with experiencing significant life events. A culture that supports and accepts mental health is necessary to reduce stigma and improve mental health outcomes.  

Leaders should treat mental health with the same level of importance as physical health, and communicate this understanding. This means that employees should not be stigmatised or asking for support or needing time off to tend to their mental health, in the same way that their physical health would be accommodated.  

To achieve this culture, leaders must also invest in the mental health of their employees. This can involve providing training programs that teach staff about mental health, including identifying warning signs, offering support, and seeking help when needed. Additionally, leaders can establish programs that promote mental health self-care, such as mindfulness and stress management training, exercise classes, and access to counseling services.  

It is important to note that reducing mental health stigma is an ongoing process that requires the commitment of the whole team. Leaders and employees must be willing to learn and adapt to promote mental health and wellbeing.

How can Leaders Support Employees with Mental Health Difficulties

Businesses have a duty to ensure that the workplace does not detrimentally impact the health or wellbeing of their employees, including their mental health. Supporting colleagues also leads to increased productivity, benefitting the business as well as its employees.  

Here are some ways in which leaders can support employees with their mental health:  

  1. Create a Safe and Supportive Environment 

Encourage open communication and provide resources that can help employees manage their mental health issues. Leaders should also lead by example and lead accepting and understanding conversations about mental health and communicate with compassion and empathy.  

  1. Educate Employees about Mental Health 

Leaders should provide mental health education to employees through workshops, seminars, or training sessions. Educating employees on the signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties and how to seek support can reduce the stigma attached to mental health.  

  1. Provide Flexible Work Arrangements 

Flexible work arrangements, such as remote working or flexible scheduling, can help employees manage their mental health. This could help reduce stress and anxiety levels in employees and increase productivity.  

  1. Support Employee Wellbeing 

Leaders can take steps to promote employee wellness by offering resources, such as counselling or therapy sessions, mental health days, or employee assistance programs. By prioritising employee wellbeing, leaders can boost employee morale and job satisfaction.  

  1. Encourage Self-care 

Leaders can encourage employees to take care of themselves by promoting self-care practices. These include regular exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness and meditation techniques, and good sleep hygiene. By encouraging self-care practices, leaders can help employees manage stress and other mental health issues.  


Leaders are well-positioned to help reduce mental health stigma, boost morale, and encourage employees’ mental health wellbeing. By providing education, creating a supportive work environment, leading by example, scheduling regular check-ins, and encouraging peer-to-peer support, organisations can create a culture that promotes mental health and helps reduce mental health stigma. Combines, businesses can create an environment where all employees feel seen, heard, and above all, valued.

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