Fighting Stigma in the Workplace

The workforce includes many individuals whose psychiatric disabilities may be stigmatized and misunderstood. Despite the contributions of numerous people who have had, or have, mental illnesses, employers and the public may discourage people who have a mental illness from fulfilling their career goals.

In fact, due in part to stigma and discrimination, the unemployment rate among people with serious and persistent mental illnesses is 90% -- far higher than the 50% unemployment rate among individuals with physical or sensorial disabilities. In other words, only 10% of individuals with persistent mental illnesses who want to work, and are able, are working.

The employment of people with mental illnesses helps employers fill job openings and contributes to society through the return of paid taxes and Social Security and reduced use of government health and disability benefits. Employers who have hired individuals with mental illnesses report that their attendance and punctuality exceed the norm, and that their motivation, work quality, and job tenure is as good as or better than that of other employees. (reference)

Consequences of Untreated Mental Disorders in the Workplace

  • In 2001, mental health and substance abuse treatment costs totaled $104 billion and represented 7.6% of total healthcare spending in the United States. Depression alone cost employers an estimated $44 billion in lost productivity.
  • Mental illness and substance abuse disorders, combined as a group, are the fifth leading cause of short-term disability and the third leading cause of long-term disability for employers in the United States.
  • Healthcare use and healthcare costs are up to twice as high among diabetes and heart disease patients with co-morbid depression, compared to those without depression, even when accounting for other factors such as age, gender, and other illnesses.

What can employers do?
Companies that proactively address overall mental health in the workplace can realize significant benefits. Mental health friendly practices can bring greater productivity, reduced insurance costs, and improved retention. They can, in fact, affect the entire culture of the company. 

Want to find out how depression might be affecting your workplace?  The Productivity Impact Model (PI Model) can help estimate the cost of depression to your company, and can also project the benefits when depressed employees receive treatment. This booklet for top executives and complementary toolkit for human resource personnel and managers, help get the message to employers that mental health is a part of every workplace and help employers spread the message to their workforce.

Recovery works!
Training supervisors to recognize and respond more effectively to employees who may be experiencing mental health disorders can result in more timely intervention reducing costs to employers and improving quality of life for employees. A free, online training developed by Wisconsin United for Mental Health is available at:

Hear what people in the workplace have to say ...

Additional Resources:

ADS Center (SAMHSA's Resource Center to Address Discrimination & Stigma Associated with Mental Illness)

Create a Stimga-Free Workplace - 2 page basic .pdf brochure from Mental Health America about how to start addressing stigma in the workplace

Partnership for Workplace Mental Health - A program of the American Psychiatric Foundation

Mental Health Works - This issue of "Mental Health Works," a quarterly newsletter by the Office of Healthcare Systems and Financing of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychiatric Foundation, focuses on employees with a psychiatric disability.

Employment Initiatives (WI Dept. of Health Services) "... these employment initiatives involve identifying current systematic barriers and designing creative ways to address them. The goal is to test innovative solutions to existing problems and incorporate them into the overall consumer-driven, systems change movement in Wisconsin."

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