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Mental health bias in the workplace: Understanding mental health

​As published by the Mental Health Foundation about 1 in 7 people experience mental health problems in the workplace. Additionally, women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men (19.8% vs 10.9%). Evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.

Of course, the term ‘mental health’ is such a broad term, and thus any attempt to explore the impact of mental health bias at work should start by defining this broad term. As stressed by the mental health campaign, Time to Change, “learning a few things about mental health problems might help you to feel more confident about talking and listening”. Time to Change sets out some common mental health conditions:

  • Anxiety & panic attacks: Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience but becomes a mental health problem when someone finds they are feeling this way all or most of the time;

  • Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder is a diagnosis given to someone who experiences extreme periods of low (depressed) and high (manic) moods;

  • Depression: Depression is a diagnosis given to someone who regularly experiences a low mood and finds it hard or impossible to have fun or enjoy their lives;

  • Eating disorders: An eating disorder is a diagnosis given to someone who has unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviour about food and their body shape;

  • Personality disorders: If someone has a personality disorder, some aspects of their personality might affect them in a way which makes it very difficult to cope with day to day life, especially when it comes to relationships.

Bias and Mental Health

Research by social psychologists Tajfel and Turner, highlights how we as human beings, and thus employers, have a tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, based on a set of both conscious stereotypes and implicit bias. These biases often result in mental health stigma. Social stigma, as stressed by the sociologist Erving Goffman arises from negative attitudes and discriminating behaviour, based on common stereotypes such as:

  • People with mental illness are dangerous and unpredictable: This is the most prevalent stereotype about people with mental health conditions. It is reinforced on a daily basis by the media;

  • People with mental illness are incompetent: This stereotype is also very pervasive. Popular media furthers this stereotype by portraying people with mental illness as wildly irrational or childlike;

  • People with mental illness deserve blame for their conditions: This can be expressed as people with mental illness as weak or having character flaws that lead to their conditions;

  • People with mental illness have little hope for recovery: This stereotype would have you believe that a person with a mental illness is irretrievably damaged.

These biases impact employers’ perceptions of people with mental health issues resulting in:

  1. Not wanting to employ people with mental health conditions

  2. Not assigning certain types of work to colleagues with mental health conditions

  3. Avoidance by co-workers

  4. Name calling and talking behind people’s backs

Research by the YMCA found that two thirds (66%) of young people have heard harmful words relating to mental health. Many young people say it is simply part of everyday language, with ‘psycho’, ‘retard’ and ‘attention seeker’ being among the most commonly used words.

Covering at work

This type of language has a profound impact on an employee’s sense of self, resulting in Covering at work. The term ‘covering’ was coined by Goffman as part of his work on stigma. Covering is a strategy through which individuals manage or downplay their differences. In a paper entitled ‘Uncovering Talent: A new model of inclusion’ by Deloitte University, the authors have identified four ways in which covering at work manifests:

  1. Appearance: Covering up aspects of ones’ appearance, including attire and mannerisms.

  2. Affiliation-based covering: This may take the form of not talking about medical appointments or not wanting to support mental health related work events or talks for fear of being outed.

  3. Advocacy-based covering: Not wanting to outwardly be an advocate for mental health issues at work. Not ‘sticking up for’ mental health issues or colleagues with known conditions. This results in down-playing their own condition.

  4. Association-based covering: For instance, not wanting to attend disability or mental health employee network groups for fear of being exposed and discriminated against.

Mitigating mental health bias at work

In order to mitigate social bias at work employers should adopt the following 6 tips:

  1. Review your recruitment polices and at work processes to ensure they do not discriminate against people with mental health conditions

  2. Train hiring managers to be mental health aware

  3. Create an inclusive work environment by educating employees on the nature of mental health conditions - focus on myth busting

  4. Proactively challenge negative stereotypes and attitudes amongst work colleagues

  5. Provide a platform for mental health role models

  6. Ensure mental health inclusion is central to your workplace diversity and inclusion goals.


This list of common stereotypes is taken from:

Yoshino, K and Smith C. Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion. Deloitte University: The Leadership Centre for Inclusion. 2013


Dan is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.