Discrimination in the Workforce: What Can You Do?

April 24, 2023

This picture depicts that mental health is not a problem, but is seen as such due to negative connotations surrounding the topic. Many suffer from mental health disorders that can be treated.

The Daily Vox Team, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Karsen Mellado ’26

As we near the end of the academic year some of us are about to graduate and start working full-time. Many of us, not yet graduating, will begin summer jobs or have had jobs in the past. No matter where you work or what kind of work you do, all jobs could potentially contribute to a huge problem in the US: workplace discrimination due to mental illness. 

Over one billion people suffer from mental illness worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis. It is more important than ever for workers to have a safe and healthy environment for work, yet our society struggles with mental health stigma and discrimination in the workforce. 

Mental illness is the greatest cause of worker disability worldwide. Recent studies and surveys have shown that 24% of employees lose their jobs due to mental illness and 26% lost work days for the same reason. A 2019 National Poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that about half of workers are concerned about discussing mental health in their jobs. More than 1 in 3 were concerned about being fired if they sought help. Only about 1 in 5 people were completely comfortable talking about mental health issues with their employers. On top of that, over 75% of employees recognize mental health stigma when they work. Despite this, many employers do not identify employee mental health as a priority concern. 

The presence of mental health discrimination in the workplace directly contradicts Article 2  and Articles 23 and 24 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has an equal right to work and protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has a right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure including reasonable limitations of working hours. It is considered a person’s economic right to be able to work in quality conditions and to have access to healthcare. Instead, people with mental illnesses suffer from unreasonable work conditions, suffer lost compensation, have difficulty getting jobs, and experience reduced job satisfaction. Discrimination in the workplace violates human dignity and limits the effective fulfillment of human rights.

What steps can be taken to improve the conditions of employment for people with mental illness? There are several. 

  1. Provide mental health literacy training. Employees need to be able to recognize stigma and prevent it.  When employers provide mental health literacy training, it debunks mental health myths and normalizes the topic in the workplace. The more knowledge we have, the more likely we are to defend someone who is being discriminated against. Guidance and training are available to help employees develop these skills. 
  2. Provide resources. Simply providing information to employees about how to seek help for their mental illness helps foster a more accepting environment, creating a workplace that feels safe for people with mental illness. And it shows employees that their employer cares about them. Information can be provided through periodic emails, posters, or videos. Companies can also provide anonymous surveys to monitor how employees are doing mentally.
  3. Normalize mental health. Mental health is seen as a taboo topic in the workplace. But when people, especially high-ranking officials or leaders, are positively open about their own mental health challenges, employees are more likely to seek treatment and become less stressed about losing their jobs. Mental illness should become as normal to talk about as other routine health problems like migraines or diabetes. 
  4. Be conscious of language. What we say can have a huge effect on how comfortable a person with a mental illness feels in the work environment. It is very easy to say something stigmatizing without realizing it.  MakeItOkay.org provides amazing resources on how we can be more conscious of our language. 
  5. Support a mental health advocacy organization. Make It Okay, Bring Change to the Mind, and Stamp Out Stigma are examples of organizations that focus on addressing the issue of mental health stigma and discrimination. They offer resources to help you create change and if you are unsure of what to do, your donation can have an impact. 
  6. Take action outside the workforce. Not everyone is a CEO or a manager. Some of these steps might be beyond your control. Even if you cannot do them on a company-wide scale, you can use these same strategies to improve how you respond to mental illness in the workplace and create a safer working environment. You can go even further and advocate or petition for these accommodations where you work or at major companies. 

For people to be able to have a good quality of life they need a stable job with a reliable income. Active mental health discrimination in the workforce makes this unattainable for far too many people. Employers, as well as individuals like you and me, need to start addressing discrimination and making changes in our workplace culture.

For more information on how you can help create a more positive working environment and reduce stigma, you can access the Working Well Toolkit by the American Psychiatric Association online for free. 

Karsen Mellado, ’26 is a psychology major at Albion College. She has a passion for human rights and especially regarding mental health, people with disabilities, and supporting the LGBTQIA+ community through art and writing.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily those of Albion College.