Words Matter! Addressing Stigma at Work Starts with Language
Updated: Apr 18
The first challenge most workplaces face when they decide to address psychological health and safety is figuring out where to begin. The CSA National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace lays out current best practice guidelines, but let’s be honest: if your organization is in the very early stages of considering a mental health strategy, you may well be working with limited resources in the form of time, person-power and budget. So what can companies do to get the ball rolling on mental health promotion? Step One is to eliminate stigmatizing language from your workplace’s collective vocabulary.
Stigma—negative preconceptions or discriminatory attitudes—continues to be the most commonly cited reason employees who are struggling with their mental health don’t reach out for help. Fear of being judged, treated differently by co-workers/management, having job responsibilities taken away, losing out on promotions… all too often, these concerns prevent employees from getting the support they need, which increases the chances things will worsen to the point that disability leave is the only viable option. While thoroughly addressing the ripple effect of stigma is in itself a big project to tackle, a great place to start is take note of commonly used words, phrases and expressions that perpetuate false, negative notions about mental health and mental illness.
“I can’t believe he was so upset about one tiny assignment being late. He’s a total psycho!”
“Steer clear of the boss this morning—her bipolar is really kicking in today!”
“I’ll meet you in the lunch room, I’m just going to wash my hands first. I’m sort of OCD!”
You’ve probably heard these phrases, or something similar, in your workplace. When people use stigmatizing language, most of the time it’s in the context of a joke or hyperbole. The vast majority of the time there’s no malicious undertone and the person’s intent is certainly not to make anyone else feel badly. It’s easy to assume everyone in the workplace “gets it” and is in on the joke.
Here’s the thing, though.
When stigmatizing language becomes a cultural norm in the workplace, a specific message is communicated: we don’t take mental health seriously here.
A person who’s not directly affected by mental illness might not bat an eye at the phrases above… but for someone who lives with bipolar disorder, has a family member who struggles with a psychotic illness like schizophrenia or supports a friend who lives with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a phrase that was intended as a joke probably isn’t all that funny. The numbers tell us that at least one in three Canadians will struggle with their mental health at some point, so odds are, just about everyone in your workplace has been or will be affected either firsthand or by supporting a close friend or family member who’s struggling.
Imagine you’re going through a hard time and are on the fence about confiding in a co-worker or asking your HR manager for guidance on accessing the Employee Assistance Program. Something as small as a tactless remark could be the thing that tips the scale the wrong way. More generally, workplaces where this type of language mis-use is commonplace are likely going to have a hard time getting employee buy-in for bigger mental health promotion projects. Your team needs to start thinking about mental health in a positive, informed way before you can expect changes in behaviour like encouraging peer support, increasing EAP utilization rates and promoting resilience. The mind-shift has to come first.
Talk it out!
Talk about stigma broadly and stigmatizing language specifically at staff meetings and other face-to-face team events. Adopt a new cultural norm: talking about mental health at work! It might feel a little awkward or uncomfortable at first, but it’ll get easier over time. Be sure to facilitate the conversation in a way that nobody feels “picked on” or “called out” for having used undesired language. Communicating that there are “new rules” or "things we’re not allowed to say anymore” will cause frustration, confusion and resentment. Instead, set a tone of safety and openness, and present the idea as something ALL team members can work on together. Encourage appropriate, clear communication and a “say what you mean and mean what you say” mentality. It’s helpful to share examples of replacement phrases for commonly-used stigmatizing expressions. For example, instead of saying, “This assignment is driving me insane!” try “This assignment is overwhelming/stressful/challenging,” or better yet, “I’m really struggling with this assignment—do you have a minute to help me?” Better still, engage your team in the process by brainstorming some replacement phrases together. Give ample opportunity for questions and discussion. Validate. Be patient. Encourage staff to give gentle corrections to one another without judgment or reprimand while everyone works on breaking the habit.
Here’s the end goal: talking about mental health shouldn’t feel any different than talking about physical health. In a mentally healthy workplace an employee feels just as comfortable talking about struggling with stress as mentioning that they had a flu bug last week, or as comfortable disclosing that they live with depression as sharing that they live with diabetes.
It might seem small, but over time changing the words we use naturally prompts bigger changes in thoughts and behaviours. Addressing stigmatizing language is a practical, no-cost place to start getting the entire team on board. From my work as a Psychological Health and Safety Consultant I can tell you that stigma is an issue that has to be dealt with before any other mental health initiative can really gain traction. Even in workplaces with huge budgets for mental health promotion, if stigma is an issue most other initiatives end up fizzling out.
Looking for a handy tool to get you started? The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Safer Language Reference Guide is an excellent resource to guide your first conversation and tack up in the break room. Take this important first step and start laying the groundwork for a psychologically safe and healthy work environment!
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.