By Corporate English Solutions

04 September 2023 - 14:30

Promoting mental health at work Cultivating a stigma-free culture

By actively promoting mental health and well-being at work, organisations can positively transform employees’ lives, workplace cultures, and organisational outcomes. 

But do your organisation’s employees feel safe talking about mental health? Creating a stigma-free organisational culture is crucial to fostering open discussions, supporting individuals' mental well-being, and promoting a healthier, more productive work environment. We share targeted strategies to reduce the stigma around mental health in your organisation and support your employees (and organisation) to thrive.


Reading time: 6 minutes

One positive shift since the pandemic is we’re talking more openly about mental health at work. More organisations not only understand the strategic importance of addressing mental health and well-being in the workplace, they’re actually doing something about it. Many have put in place wellness resources and initiatives, mental health awareness campaigns, counselling and support services and flexible work arrangements

A recent global study by UKG Workforce Institute reveals why these efforts are so crucial:

  • 60% of employees say their job is the biggest factor affecting their mental health
  • 43% of employees report feeling often or always exhausted
  • 73% say that stress negatively impacts their work performance
  • 66% of employees would rather take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness
  • 40% of C-suite executives say they will likely quit within the year because of stress

These numbers are clear. Poor mental health and well-being at work negatively impact productivity, performance, job satisfaction and retention.

But there are solutions.

The opportunity ahead

Forward-thinking organisations recognise they have an incredible opportunity. By actively promoting workplace mental health and well-being, they have the potential to positively transform employees’ lives, workplace cultures and organisational outcomes.

But before organisations can move forward, they must address one critical area: the stigma around mental health. 

Although there is a growing understanding of mental health issues, stereotypes and discrimination still exist. What keeps many people from speaking about mental health or seeking help is the fear of being viewed negatively by family, friends and their employers. This stigma is especially true for Gen Z. Even though they are more accepting of others with poor mental health, they stigmatise themselves, according to a recent McKinsey Health Institute survey.

So, how can you build a stigma-free organisational culture

Start by raising awareness of what mental health is (and isn’t). Mental health is more than the absence of ‘mental illness’. Rather, it’s a state of emotional, psychological and social well-being. It enables us to handle stress, build relationships, make decisions – all essential elements to performing well at work. 

Keep reading to discover targeted strategies to reduce the stigma around mental health in your organisation and support your employees (and organisation) to thrive.

1. The importance of a stigma-free organisational culture 

Some discussions are more difficult to have at work. Mental health can be one of them. 

Erik, an IT manager, continues to work remotely post-pandemic. Recently promoted, he’s been struggling with his new responsibilities. His main cause of stress? Managing a team of 10 across different countries and time zones. Instead of reaching out for support, he’s at the point of burnout and considering leaving the company.

There are many employees like Erik worldwide. And that’s why it’s so crucial to create a stigma-free organisational culture. 

The significant benefits speak for themselves, including:

  • Enhanced employee well-being: What happens when employees feel safe discussing mental health? They’re more likely to feel comfortable seeking help when they need it. Which leads to early intervention and better management of mental health issues in the workplace.
  • Increased resilience and adaptability: Helping employees develop resilience and coping strategies is a win-win. You enable them to effectively handle challenges and unexpected change – professionally and personally.
  • Improved talent attraction and retention: People want to work for organisations that care about their mental well-being. When you do, they appreciate it – and are more likely to stay.
  • Higher productivity and performance levels: When you support mental health and well-being at work, it boosts morale and lowers stress levels. And this leads to a more engaged, focused and productive workforce.
  • Better reputation: Demonstrating a commitment to mental health and well-being helps you stand out as an employer of choice. Because top talent – especially Gen Z – wants to work for compassionate organisations. And stakeholder partners, too.

2. Understanding the reasons behind stigma around mental health at work 

In order to create a stigma-free culture, we first need to explore why it exists. 

Many highly-capable employees – like Erik – remain silent about burnout and others are reluctant to talk about using mental health resources. 

What’s the main reason? They believe if they share they are struggling or even taking preventative measures, they’ll be seen as incapable or weak. And this fear often leads them to hide their difficulties, which further increases the problems they’re experiencing. 

In Erik’s case, his fears weren’t entirely unfounded. Alma, a close colleague, still has reduced responsibilities 10 months after returning from a long medical leave for anxiety and depression. Recently, she was passed over for promotion. 

Organisational culture is another big factor in Erik’s reluctance to seek help. A culture of high-performance at all costs, where working late nights and weekends, is the norm. And post-pandemic, senior leaders have made it clear they prefer employees who mostly work in the office.

What’s the main reason it exists in your organisation?

3. Strategies for building a stigma-free culture that promotes mental health at work 

Even those who know more about preventing mental health issues in the workplace experience challenges. Ajay, head of HR at a non-profit, is no exception. His HR team, like many around the world, had one of the most difficult assignments during the pandemic. Supporting the health and well-being of hundreds of employees.

Post-pandemic, it was time for a mental health reset. Although difficult to admit, Ajay recognised that his organisation needed to work harder and take greater responsibility for building a stigma-free culture. Even harder to accept, he hadn’t been talking openly about mental health with his own team. 

With support from external consultants, Ajay’s team took the following strategic steps to reduce mental health stigma at work: 

  • Review organisational policies and practices: After a thorough examination, evaluate how effectively your organisation addresses mental health concerns. Do policies include benefits such as mental health days, access to counselling services and mental health leave? Are there resources to support people with different needs and in different contexts? Is policy language inclusive and free of stigmatising terminology?
  • Leadership involvement: Leaders like Ajay play an influential role in promoting open discussions about mental health. When they share personal stories, it can humanise mental health issues – creating a safe environment for employees to discuss their own challenges.
  • Mental health resources visibility: Do employees know about your employee well-being programmes and mental health resources? Create dedicated sections on your website and intranet about support services, such as counselling, coaching, wellness programmes. Showcase stories of employees using these resources. By increasing visibility, you make it easier for more people to build strong mental health or get help when they need it.
  • Promote self-care: Well-being initiatives such as scheduled mindfulness exercises, walking meetings, mindful eating breaks, quiet spaces, or flexibility for personal appointments send a positive message. When you promote such practices, it shows that mental health is a priority and encouraged at work.
  • Facilitate trust and confidential dialogue: Encourage an environment of trust and openness through confidential meetings, anonymous suggestion boxes, dedicated workplace mental health support teams. Ensuring confidentiality signals to employees their organisation is a safe space to discuss mental health.

4. Measuring the impact 

It’s been 9 months since Ajay’s HR team implemented these strategies. Although still a work in progress, there are some signs of improvement. ‘If it wasn’t for our team’s expertise in measuring impact, the organisation would not know if the new policies were working,’ he says. 

What methods are effective for measuring and evaluating impact?

  • Conduct anonymous surveys: Employees are more likely (and willing) to share their opinion if they know their answers are confidential. Regularly survey them to understand their perception of your organisation’s commitment to mental health. And whether they feel more comfortable in discussing it in the workplace.
  • Track usage of resources: Monitor use of mental health services and resources. It will keep you informed about employees’ awareness levels. Also crucial, it can alert managers of high use – helping them provide support during spikes in stress, burnout or other mental health challenges.
  • Record absenteeism and turnover rates: Low absenteeism and turnover are great signs of improved employee well-being and job satisfaction. However, the reverse can help you quickly identify problems and make necessary changes. 

Ajay admits that results show it may take time to change employees’ (and some leaders’) perceptions of discussing mental health at work. However, one benefit of measuring impact is having a better overview of mental health across the organisation.

The connection between stigma-free culture and mental health at work

Promoting mental health at work can only happen without a stigma-free organisational culture. Although progress may vary across organisations, the journey toward building such a culture is worth it. Employees get the support they need to prioritise their mental health and well-being. And organisations increase engagement, productivity and business growth. Which strategies will you use?

British Council has been supporting organisations worldwide to identify and develop skills to equip talent for success. Partner with us to upskill your workforce through training in Time and Stress Management, Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Handling. These crucial skills will support your teams develop self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness and social interaction skills.