Normalizing Workplace Mental Health

Why is Mental Health So Hard to Talk About in the Workplace?

The pandemic and related quarantines have had a profound impact on the workforce in two major ways – how leaders, teams, and individuals have needed to carry out their work, and the impact on employee mental health.

COVID19 has taken a significant toll on the mental health of Americans. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey (2020) found a significant increase in anxiety even in the first few months of the pandemic and with that the recognition that mental health struggles affect the workforce. The need to address mental illness and substance use in the workplace is not new. Long before COVID19, behavioral health challenges showed up at work through absenteeism and presenteeism both of which result in decreased productivity. Perhaps as significant, is the impact of behavioral health struggles on an employee’s morale, contribution to their team, and career longevity. Note: behavioral health is an umbrella term which includes mental health and substance use.

According to a large-scale survey of thousands of employees conducted by the American Heart Association (AHA) 76% indicate they have struggled with at least one issue that affected their mental health and 42% answered yes when asked if they have ever been diagnosed with a mental health disorder (AHA CEO Roundtable Mental Health Taskforce Report, 2019).

So why is it so hard to talk about mental health in the workplace?  The stigma of mental illness is a powerful barrier to understanding and supporting mental health needs. Social stigma is strong disapproval of a person due to perceived characteristics or membership in a group that is deemed undesirable.  Stigma typically results in discrimination and is maintained through stereotypes. When individuals experience stigma, they cannot talk openly about what they are experiencing for fear of being judged; shame and isolation can result.

One of the biggest hurdles resulting from mental health stigma is that it decreases help-seeking, which prevents the opportunity for early identification and treatment. For too long the notion of “snap out of it” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” regarding mental illness conveyed a sense that if one tried hard enough, you could overcome depression or anxiety. In reality, these dangerously misguided notions perpetuate self-blame and stigma.


Start with Normalizing the Mental Health Conversation

The prevalence of mental health conditions is a reminder that everyone is impacted directly or indirectly by mental illness. Mental health exists on a continuum and can be thought of akin to physical health in that people can experience strong wellbeing in their lives, struggle with chronic or acute problems, or vacillate anywhere in between. According to NAMI Mental Health by the Numbers:

  • 20.6% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2019 (51.5 million people). This represents 1 in 5 adults.
  • 5.2% of U.S. adults experienced serious mental illness in 2019 (13.1 million people). This represents 1 in 20 adults.
  • 16.5% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 experienced a mental health disorder in 2016 (7.7 million people)
  • 3.8% of U.S. adults experienced a co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness in 2019 (9.5 million people)

Additionally, the pandemic surfaced disparities in health care and the differential impact of COVID19 related to demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Social determinants of health and associated risk factors play a strong role in the negative impact on specific ethnic and racial groups in the US as reflected by the following NAMI data:

Annual prevalence of mental illness among U.S. adults, by demographic group:

  • Non-Hispanic Asian: 14.4%
  • Non-Hispanic white: 22.2%
  • Non-Hispanic black or African American: 17.3%
  • Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native: 18.7%
  • Non-Hispanic mixed/multiracial: 31.7%
  • Non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 16.6%
  • Hispanic or Latino: 18.0%
  • Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual: 44.1%

For years we tried to keep mental health out of the workplace. Now, we realize that is impossible. Employers have a strong role to play in supporting employee mental health.  One of the most effective ways to address mental health and reduce stigma is by normalizing these conversations in the workplace.


Why We Need to Talk about Mental Health in the Workplace

As new generations of employees enter the workforce, they bring new expectations of a company culture that supports health, including mental health. Millennials, Gen Xers, and those younger are comfortable talking about behavioral health, which raises the possibility for increased dialogue and effective use of mental health resources.  According to the AHA Report, 42% of employees of all ages would like their employers to provide more information about mental health benefits, accommodations, and resources.

The need to address mental health in the workplace is also a financial imperative. Consider these facts:

  • Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity each year
  • Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide

The pandemic has also illuminated the need for mental health support for families. Organizations are recognizing the need to respond to the well-being of their employees and their families. According to NAMI,  8.4 million people in the U.S. provide care to an adult with a mental or emotional health issue.



Given the impact of mental health struggles on the workforce, employers have human and financial imperatives to better support employee needs and leverage resources that can provide treatment and support.  In fact, the new generation of workforce will expect their company culture to support their full self and provide resources for mental and physical health.

Stay tuned for a follow-up article to address Strategies to Build Behavioral Health Literacy in the Workplace



American Heart Association. (AHA CEO Roundtable). March 5, 2019.  Mental Health: A Workforce Crisis. The Center for Workplace Health Research and Evaluation:

Kaiser Family Foundation. (KFF). 4/24/2020:

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (NAMI). Mental Health by the Numbers.



The author wishes to thank Cal Beyer for sharing the topical outline for this article. Beyer CWP, SCTPP, is Vice President of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing for CSDZ, a Holmes Murphy Company. The author and Beyer are frequent collaborators on various mental and behavioral health initiatives in the construction industry. A longtime author for CFMA Building Profits, Beyer was instrumental in the launch of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

About the Author

Lisa K. Desai, Psy.D.

Lisa K. Desai, Psy.D., is Director of Behavioral Health Consulting at MindWise Innovations, a division of Riverside Community Care. Dr. Desai has over 20 years of clinical and administrative experience working in college counseling centers, community mental health, hospitals, and private practice. In her role at MindWise,

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