November 15, 2023

Mental Health. Mental Illness. These phrases are often used interchangeably. And even though society has made significant strides, the topic of mental health is still shrouded in stigma and discomfort — especially when it comes to mental health in the workplace.

So what is the difference?

At a fundamental level, mental health and illness are the same as overall health and illness. Illness refers to a condition or disorder — a departure from the norm.

In the same way, mental health is a person’s ability to effectively function in daily activities, while mental illness is a condition or disorder that inhibits that ability.

Just like physical health, mental health is not cut and dry. It is more of a spectrum. Every person will experience ups and downs with their mental health. To simplify, here are some ways to gauge what your mental health looks like and identify signs of mental illness.

Mental Health Looks Like

  • Ability to be productive at work, school etc.
  • Ability to form healthy relationships
  • Ability to adapt to change
  • Ability to cope with adversity

Mental Illness Looks Like

  • Significant changes in thinking, emotion or behavior
  • Distress in previously normal social settings
  • Problems functioning in social, work or family activities

Let’s talk stigma

Even though mental health is a fundamental human trait, there is a stigma associated with it. Stigma can be loosely defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.

In practice, this means people living with mental health conditions are:

  • Alienated
  • Afraid of rejection
  • Perceived as dangerous
  • Seen as irresponsible
  • Less likely to be hired
  • Less likely to have safe housing
  • More likely to be criminalized

The numbers on mental health and stigma are not favorable. Despite its prevalence many people fail to receive the care they need, which can perpetuate other health concerns.

This stigma is not new. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General identified it as a public health concern that leads people to avoid living, socializing or working with individuals with mental illness. He has prioritized mental health in the workplace as the foundation for healthy organizations and thriving communities. So, what can each of us do?

Start by looking inward

Have you ever distanced yourself from someone after learning they have a mental illness? Ever called someone “crazy”, “nuts” or “insane”? Are you any less sympathetic to mental illness than say… heart disease?

Fighting stigma starts with us being conscious of how we view and speak about mental health. We can support those who are struggling by changing the tone of the workplace and social discussions on the topic and showing compassion.

Employers — what resources do you currently offer to support mental health in the workplace? Lean into education to ensure your people are aware of (and comfortable with) the benefits that can elevate their mental health.

Employees — take some time to familiarize yourself with the coverage you have for mental health services. Talk to your benefits administrator about your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and don’t be afraid to ask questions and identify every component of your plan that can support you.

Tips for moving forward

Mental health is health — plain and simple. Just like our physical health, we can take small steps each day to make progress toward a healthier future. Here are a few tips:

  • Continue the discussion on mental health
  • Take care of your body — it supports your mind
  • Schedule regular checkups — just like you would with your physical health
  • Develop a self-care routine
  • Give yourself time and show yourself compassion — health does not change overnight