Stigma in the Workplace: A $20 Billion Problem

The workplace can play an integral part in maintaining positive mental health. Yet, it can also be a stressful environment, contributing to the rise of mental health problems and illness. Recently, an article was posted on CBC News regarding stigma around mental illness in the workplace. Stigma – negative attitudes and the behaviours they create – can prevent many employers from understanding how to address mental health issues in the workplace (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2015). Moreover, it can cause coworkers to isolate someone with a problem, and those with a mental illness to hide their condition. Stigma remains as a huge barrier to improving mental health in the workplace, a problem that the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates costs employers a whopping $20 billion a year (CBC News, 2015). Fighting stigma in the workplace means that employees living with a mental illness must feel supported in disclosing their condition without fear of being let go, being passed over for promotion, or being discriminated against by colleagues (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2012). Although Canada broke new ground in 2013 by creating a National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, the difficult task of translating this standard into a useful tool for companies has only just begun.


The consequences of stigma entail marginalization in the workplace, absenteeism, reduced productivity, and undermined basic rights of Canadian citizenship (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2012). These consequences are a result of myths that have been constructed, and perpetuated among the minds of many workers who may not be familiar with mental illness first hand. Krupa et al. (2009) has identified four assumptions underlying workplace stigma that vary in their salience and intensity based on a range of organizational, individual, and societal factors:

  1. People with mental health problems lack the competence to meet the demands of work
  2. People with mental health problems are dangerous or unpredictable in the workplace
  3. Working is not healthy for people with a mental health problem
  4. Providing employment for people with mental illness is an act of charity

De-bunking these myths are paramount in addressing the silent suffering experienced among workers with mental illness in the workplace. With most adults spending the majority of their waking hours at work than anywhere else, it is vitally important for all Canadians to challenge such myths to create mentally healthy workplaces.


  • In any given week 500,000 Canadians may miss work because of mental illness (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013)
  • One in three workplace disability claims are related to mental illness (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013)
  • Although different workplaces have different problems (including high absenteeism among health-care workers, post-traumatic stress among first responders, substance-abuse problems among oil and gas workers), 70% of disability costs are attributed to mental illness (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013)
  • Only 23% of Canadians would feel comfortable talking to their employer about mental illness (Canadian Medical Association, 2008)
  • Mental health problems and illnesses account for more than $6 billion in lost productivity costs due to absenteeism and presenteeism (Smetanin et al., 2011)


Providing a Solution to Workplace Mental Health

Benefits that cover mental illness are among the recommended steps for employers in the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The standard is a 76-page document comprised of a set of guidelines, tools, and resources to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work. Goals include:

  • Training managers how to look for signs of stress or mental illness
  • Growing a culture that promotes psychological health and safety
  • Creating a safe and open environment to talk about problems
  • Identifying stressors in the workplace 
  • Offering appropriate support and treatment

To translate these guidelines into practice, the creation of the standard was followed by development of an implementation guide that addresses key topics such as understanding the diverse needs of the organization’s population, establishing a policy and planning process to implement the system, and ensuring that the infrastructure and resources are in place to support the system. 

Mental Health Workshop Training 

A number of workplaces across Canada have taken an interest in mental health workshops to help employees and managers increase their awareness of the signs and symptoms of common mental health problems, learn how to recommend treatment options in a respectful manner, and reduce stigma within the workplace (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2015). Check out the L&L consulting services to find out more about the educational workshops and anti-stigma campaigns offered that can also be customized for your organization.

Assisting the Aspiring Workforce

Canadians with mental health challenges who are attempting to enter the workforce or retain their employment status are considered “the aspiring workforce” (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2015). The Aspiring Workforce: Employment and Income for People with Serious Mental Illness report offers practical advice for policy makers on ways to improve employment and income for people with serious mental illness. This report was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada alongside the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the University of Toronto, and Queen’s University.


 Creating mentally healthy workplaces is highly dependent upon systematic efforts to promote mental health, prevent mental illness, and improve mental health services (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2015). Addressing stigma, increasing mental health awareness, and equipping employers with the right tools are important lessons that we have learned to ensure that Canadians have access to positive mental health experiences at work.

What are your experiences with stigma in the workplace? How have mental health workplace training programs helped your organization? Let us know in the comments!


Canadian Medical Association. (2008). 8th annual national report card on health care. Retrieved from multimedia/CMA/Content_Images/Inside_ cma/Annual_Meeting/2008/GC_Bulletin/ National_Report_Card_EN.pdf.

CBC News. (2015). Stigma around mental illness a $20B problem in workplace. Retrieved from

Krupa, T., Kirh, B., Cockburn, L., & Gewurtz, R. (2009). Understanding the stigma of mental illness in employment. Work. 33(4): 413–425. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2009-0890.

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2015). Topics: Workplace. Retrieved from

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2013). National standard of Canada for psychological health and safety in the workplace. Retrieved from

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2012). Together against stigma. Retrieved from

Smetanin, P., Stiff, D., Briante, C., Adair, C., Ahmad, S., & Khan, M. (2011). The life and economic impact of major mental illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041. RiskAnalytica, on behalf of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. 

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