To combat mental discrimination in the workplace, first change your beliefs – Natural Self Esteem

One in five Americans received treatment for their mental health in 2020. And yet the topic is rarely discussed outside of the closest circles.

“Unlike most physical health disorders, mental health problems remain deeply stigmatized,” said Matthew Ridley, a graduate student in economics at MIT. Curious about this stigma, he set out to investigate how revelations about mental health might affect relationships in the workplace. Would they change how one person sees another? And if so, how? “There’s a huge business literature that tries to understand gender and racial discrimination, but very little of it deals with mental health,” he said.

In a working paper, Ridley demonstrates two key findings. First, people show a strong desire to avoid working with someone they know has a mental illness — in this case, moderate to severe anxiety or depression. Second, those who suffer from mental health issues are highly prone to it hide this fact from potential employees.

For businesses and leaders, this means that creating an environment that fosters mental well-being takes more than just encouraging disclosure; Businesses must first focus on raising awareness and developing campaigns that transform beliefs and reduce stigma.

Exposing a “deep-seated norm against openness”

Ridley used the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing service to recruit approximately 1,700 participants to take part in his study. Each person completed a survey to determine their level of anxiety or depression over the past few days. (The survey asked other questions, such as educational level and political affiliation, to obscure the fact that the experiment was focused on mental health.) Two people were then paired to complete a simple task: via an online chat window, one person using a map led her partner from one point in a city to another. Successful completion of the task earned both contestants $2.

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In a paid online experiment, people were willing to pay 30% of their income to hide symptoms of mental illness from a partner.

Within this setting, some of the participants could request an additional payment if they teamed up with partners they didn’t want to work with (or if they didn’t team up with partners they wanted to work with). On average, if a potential partner recently admitted to feeling anxious or depressed, people charged 70 cents more to work with them – more than 30% of their average income. However, when forced to work with someone who was potentially anxious or depressed, they sometimes put more effort into completing the task. This result, along with survey data asking directly about the link between mental health and productivity, suggests they thought their partner was less productive — a false assumption made to participants with anxiety or depression, which was proven to be the case Cope with the task as competently as their healthy peers.

On the other hand, people were willing to pay about 30% of their income cover up symptoms from their partners. “Even in cases where a person’s partner couldn’t refuse them, and even if their income was fixed, no matter how badly they did it, people still wanted to pay to hide any hint of mental illness,” he said Ridley. “Given that these are one-off anonymous interactions, this is somewhat disheartening as it suggests a deep-seated norm against openness.”

What leaders can do

The findings are particularly relevant as workplaces are increasingly considering policies on transparency around mental health; While these efforts are likely well-intentioned, unless the right basis is already in place, employees could be extremely reluctant to speak out about their mental well-being, and those who do may face discrimination.

“Fortunately, there are some key strategies for changing beliefs and stigma in the workplace,” said Kana Enomoto, global director of brain health at McKinsey Health Institute and former head of the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

At a most basic level Employers need to recognize the problem. This starts with explicit policies that ban stigmatizing language (like “addict”) and mitigate discriminatory or exclusionary behavior, for example by including “neurodiversity” in the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. Enomoto also described the importance of training leaders and managers to recognize signs of emotional distress and mental health crises, just as they are currently being trained to respond to physical emergencies. “Somebody has to know how to use the defibrillator,” Enomoto said. “The same type of mental health training should be given to staff.”

On the subject of matching items

Next, when it comes to normalizing and promoting disclosure, Companies should lead by example, nurturing advocates willing to share their own experiences of mental health challenges. This approach is particularly fruitful when someone of status—say, a senior partner or the CEO—steps up to describe personal struggles with mental health. Such a move can create a culture where people may feel respected and supported when they disclose their illness.

“These are contact-based education strategies to reduce stigma,” Enomoto said. “It turns out that if you know people who fall under a certain category, you’re much less likely to be biased or discriminatory towards that group. You recognize them in their wonderful complexity as people and not just as labels.”

Third, employers should Appoint a leader to account for progress, like a Chief Wellness Officer. Part of that work is ensuring that the mental well-being benefits match the physical well-being benefits. Enomoto described the shared challenge of making appointments with mental health providers — calling 40 offices and getting either no response or long waiting lists. “No employer would tolerate that for cardiologists or oncologists,” she said. “It’s unacceptable for behavioral health.”

After all, companies have to recognize that different subgroups have different needs. According to the work of Enomoto and her colleagues at McKinsey, Gen Z workers report more behavioral health issues than older generations, and some communities of color report a greater fear of stigma surrounding mental health treatment. Employers need to listen carefully to their employees as they develop mental health policies, recognizing that a one-size-fits-all response may prove insufficient in the face of diverse needs.

An effect on the result

For Ridley, this paper is just a “proof of concept” – results obtained from a single and specific online task. He wants and has plans to investigate this stigma and discrimination in a real workplace. But despite the limitations of these findings, Frank Schilbach, an associate professor of economics at MIT and one of Ridley’s advisors, said they lay the groundwork for important future investigations.

For example, Ridley’s work is one of the first to address discrimination, as it refers to characteristics that are malleable and often concealable (unlike characteristics like race). In the business world, Ridley’s article also contributes to an important but understudied aspect of the labor market. While people with mental health problems may earn less because they are less productive – although Ridley shows that this is not true for his experimental setting – other forces could equally contribute to lower earnings.

“Matthew’s work is important because it sheds light on some potential other channels in which subjective evaluations, including discrimination, play a role and contribute to the income gap of people with mental health problems,” Schilbach said. “People make less, not because they don’t do a good job, but in this case because they are treated by their peers and bosses.”

Ridley’s paper comes at a time when companies are anticipating questions and concerns about mental health. “COVID-19 has opened the door to this issue,” Enomoto said. Although Ridley has hypotheses about what causes his findings, people may find peers with mental illness distressing; People with mental illness can expect to face discrimination and therefore hide their symptoms – getting to the root is important to alleviating the stigma that so many face.

“Eventually, people should be able to tell their employer they’re seeing a therapist to make themselves and the world feel better, like they might say they’re getting a tennis coach to improve their serve and volley.” ‘ said Schilbach. “We need interventions that make workplaces more accessible for workers with mental health problems, policies that normalize treatment. There is much to be done to improve people’s awareness and acceptance of disease and therapy.”

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