How To Overcome The Stigma of Addiction & Mental Illness In The Workplace

When we look back at the past hundred years, it’s easy to see how far we’ve come in regards to mental illness. Advances in psychiatry have given us a deeper understanding of the mind, so we now recognize mental health and substance use disorders as real, treatable conditions that can be managed with the right support. But despite our progress, we still have a lot of work to do. Even in the 21st century, these issues are too often shrouded in myth and secrecy, leading to negative attitudes or beliefs that prevent individuals from getting the help they need.

Many people worry that a mental health or substance abuse diagnosis will cause them to lose their friends, career or reputation. Especially in the workplace, there’s concern about being seen as incompetent or unqualified when you admit you’re struggling. While the stigma has decreased in recent years, 75% of employers acknowledge that it continues to be a problem. The signs can be subtle, such as downplaying someone’s emotions or using insensitive language, but they can also be more obvious, exhibited in outright discrimination or hostility toward those with a history of mental illness or addiction.

If you’re a professional who’s reluctant to seek treatment or you want to address mental health stigma in the workplace, here are some things you can do to create a more supportive, open environment for you and your colleagues.


First, let’s talk about the types of stigma that exist around mental health and addiction. By learning to recognize how harmful attitudes or beliefs can arise in the workplace, you’ll be better equipped to address them and encourage new ways of thinking.


Most people are familiar with social stigma, which involves biased, discriminatory or negative views and stereotypes shared by the general public. Social stigma can cause others to reject, shame or avoid individuals diagnosed with a mental health or substance use disorder. It often results in less utilization of treatment services and poor long-term outcomes.


Self-stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs that individuals have about their own mental illness or addiction. It can lead to internalized shame, feelings of inadequacy and poor self-esteem. According to experts, self-stigma is closely related to public stigma, in that it often arises due to a person’s recognition of publicly held prejudices.


This type of stigma is more widespread and has to do with practices, policies or decision-making in public or private organizations that discriminate against those with a mental health or substance use disorder. In the workplace, this can result in lower pay, fewer opportunities for advancement or refusal to hire someone based on their diagnosis.


In the United States, roughly one in five adults is reported to have a mental health disorder. Among those one in five, 20 to 50 percent also have a substance abuse problem. We know that addiction, stress and mental illness are closely related, but continue to shy away from talking about these and other issues that impact our mental wellness. This avoidance further increases the stigma and makes people hesitant to ask for help. Here’s how we can promote healthier attitudes toward addiction or mental illness in the workplace.


It’s a common misconception that mental illness and addiction result from a moral failure or weakness. People often worry they’ll be perceived as “worthless” or “less than” if their mental health condition is known, or that their colleagues would begin to doubt their skill or talent. Employers can help change these negative attitudes by:

  • Improving mental health and addiction literacy training
  • Increasing mental health awareness among staff
  • Teaching executives how to recognize the signs of mental distress
  • Offering support for those with mental health problems

Employers can also encourage others to share their stories, especially if they’re in a leadership position. These steps can have a significant company-wide impact by changing how we perceive mental health and promoting a more supportive work environment.


People often use outdated terms to talk about mental illness or addiction, such as “crazy,” “disturbed,” or “junkie.” This kind of language is hurtful and derogatory, reinforcing harmful stereotypes that dehumanize individuals with a mental health or substance use disorder. It also influences the way others think about these issues. In the workplace, we can help eliminate inappropriate or offensive speech by correcting it whenever it’s used in both internal and external communications. Doing so will let others know it is unacceptable and promote a kinder, more sensitive company culture.


If a co-worker opens up to you about their mental health, treat them with respect and compassion. Ask them what you can do to help and don’t be afraid to relate on a personal level. You can also share your own strategies for dealing with issues like stress or depression and inform them of the mental health resources available at work. If they haven’t already, it might be a good idea to encourage them to reach out to management to tell them what’s going on. Most employers want to help individuals improve their mental wellness so they feel happy, healthy and productive in the workplace.


One of the most effective ways to show your colleagues, staff members or bosses that mental health is a priority is to lead by example. Don’t hide your own struggles and talk openly about what you do to cope when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Do you take a daily walk? Meditate? Go to therapy? Sharing your strategies can inspire others to do the same. Also, be sure to utilize company-provided resources, take time off when you need it and reach out to co-workers for support. Setting a good example is especially important if you’re an executive or team leader. Your employees take their cues from you and may neglect their mental wellness if they think you do, too, increasing the frequency of issues like burnout or absenteeism.


Stress is one of the biggest and most well-known risk factors for mental illness or substance abuse. If you ignore it, you might end up internalizing your emotions or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Instead, learn to recognize when you’re struggling so you can get help when you need it. This can also be useful for knowing when it’s a good time to check in on your peers. Some common signs of high levels of stress in the workplace include: poor job performance, low productivity, missed deadlines, increased irritability, trouble concentrating and avoiding social activities.


It benefits everybody to reduce the stigma of addiction and mental health in the workplace. These issues can impact people from all walks of life and you never know who might be struggling. Taking the time to raise awareness, be mindful of what you say and support your co-workers can go a long way toward creating a more inclusive, positive and healthy work environment. It can also help combat issues like burnout, absenteeism and high turnover.

Reducing the stigma can also encourage people to get into treatment, where they’ll learn new skills, tools and strategies for staying sober and improving their mental wellness. Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, offers a comprehensive yet flexible intensive outpatient program (IOP) for professionals with mental health or substance use disorders. To learn more about our treatment options, give us a call at 303-578-4975.

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