Blog: Leading by example to remove the stigma around workplace mental health

Rachel Bottomley, Improvement Officer at See Me ScotlandBy Rachel Bottomley, Improvement Officer at See Me Scotland

In the last couple of years, we’ve definitely seen a positive shift in attitudes around mental health and mental health problems. But unfortunately, mental health stigma and the fear of discrimination are still big reasons why people hesitate before asking for help at work.

There is a lot that organisations can do to ensure colleagues feel confident to talk openly about their experiences, ask for help when needed and are supported to stay at / return to work. At See Me we advocate for a whole organisational approach to making this happen, which means taking direct action to tackle stigma across workplace culture, practices and policies.

This might feel like an overwhelming task, especially if you’re a smaller business that isn’t sure where to start. But leadership action is a surprisingly simple starting point. Culture change can’t happen without leadership action, this is why it’s the first of seven building blocks that we look at when supporting employers to create positive change, because we know that the everyday actions of leaders have a big impact on employee behaviour.

Leaders (directors, managers, supervisors, etc.) have an opportunity to role model inclusive attitudes and behaviours, and to create an open and honest culture that appreciates equality, diversity and inclusion. By opening up conversations about mental health, sharing their own experiences, if appropriate and safe, and creating the conditions for others to safely speak out, leaders set strong permissions for employees to take action without fear of negative consequences.

But, stigma doesn’t discriminate according to job title, and self-stigma can still present a barrier for leaders.

During the pandemic, See Me surveyed almost 5,000 Scottish workers about how comfortable they felt discussing their own mental health at work. A common theme amongst people in management roles was that they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about the fact that they were struggling. They felt they needed to stay strong for their teams and didn’t want their peers to think they couldn’t cope with their role. We also heard from managers who felt they needed to absorb extra workload to protect their teams from additional pressures. But this can harm the workplace rather than help to support it.

When employees think their leaders aren’t ‘walking the talk’, they view any mental health initiatives as tick-box exercises and lip service. This leads to a lack of trust in the organisation’s key messages, poor engagement in initiatives and low uptake of support services.

Leaders don’t need to be mental health experts to make a difference, and we’re not asking anybody to disclose anything that they’re not comfortable sharing. But when employees see their leaders visibly accessing the benefits and support that are available, using wellbeing days, engaging in open and honest conversations about mental health and actively taking part in initiatives like training and campaigns, then employees are more likely to engage in those behaviours themselves.

All employees are leaders in their own right and everyone can make a difference by championing conversations about mental health.


More about See Me…

See Me is Scotland’s national programme change negative behaviour towards those with mental health problems and end discrimination, for a fair and inclusive Scotland.


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