Fighting mental health discrimination in the workplace

February 14, 2023


10 min

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Around a quarter of British people experience mental health problems every year. From borderline personality disorder to social anxiety, mental illness is a pandemic that no lockdown or copious amounts of hand sanitiser can fix. It’s a serious health issue and one that should be treated as such. But, the workplace hasn’t always got this right, with a lack of support and outright discrimination making it difficult for employees to show up every day. Now that the world is shifting to a more remote approach, is this still the case, or have we finally given workplace discrimination the boot?

What is mental health discrimination?

If you have a mental illness and you find you’re treated negatively because of it when at work (including remote work situations), then you’re being discriminated against. This can include:

  • Not being allowed time off for health reasons
  • Being ruled out of promotions because of mental health
  • Being left out of important meetings
  • Being fired for too many absences related to mental illness
  • Mocking your behaviour
  • Calling you names associated with your mental illness 
  • Ignoring requests that could make your work life easier

Discrimination occurs when employers and other staff members don’t understand mental illness and end up judging you for it. Sometimes, discrimination can be a form of punishment, as others don’t understand why you need extra sick days or a more flexible work schedule. In all forms, it’s wrong, harmful, and can seriously affect the life of the individual being discriminated against.

Does mental health discrimination still exist?

In the UK and across most of Europe, mental health discrimination in the workplace – both on-site and remotely – is illegal. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t happen. 

Almost 90% of those suffering from severe mental health problems report that discrimination is rife across Britain, including in the workplace. 61%, for example, stated that mental illness discrimination had stopped them from applying for a job promotion, holding their career back due to fear and anxiety. Another report reveals similar findings, noting that 9 out of 10 employees with a mental illness face discrimination.

Why is stopping mental health discrimination so vital?

For some, remote work capabilities are a lifeline. You don’t have to interact face-to-face with others when your mental illness is flaring up, and can often keep a more flexible work schedule. However, a lot of people who are switching to remote work can see a decline in mental health, too. The lack of social interaction and less routine all contribute to a rise in struggling employees.

As the business landscape becomes increasingly remote, there’s a huge need to face the problems surrounding mental health, including discrimination. More employees are suffering, and if their workplace doesn’t make them feel safe and supported, thousands of UK workers could be at risk of serious mental health consequences. 

Workplace mental illness discrimination can lead to individuals:

  • Not speaking out about their mental health due to fear
  • Not asking for support when they need it
  • Refusing job promotions or not going after them in the first place
  • Losing their job

Most importantly, it can exacerbate existing mental health issues. As we all know, mental illness can be a fatal disease. It’s vital that we tackle discrimination together to ensure that it doesn’t lead to worst-case scenarios.

Neurodivergence must be understood in the remote workplace

Neurodivergence describes differences in how the brain functions. About one in seven British people are neurodivergent, meaning that they’ll have different strengths and weaknesses from the general population and may not see the world in quite the same way. Autism and schizophrenia are well-known examples of neurodivergence.

In the remote workplace, these conditions must be addressed. When not working face to face, many people who are neurodivergent can struggle more, with a lack of visual aids making communication more difficult and social isolation leading to worse mental health. 

It’s also been reported that half of managers would feel uncomfortable hiring a neurodivergent employee. This is blatant discrimination and shows that, though we’ve progressed, the British workplace is still not a welcoming place for those with slightly different brains.

What can we do to stop mental health discrimination?

There’s no doubt that mental health discrimination is still alive and kicking, even in the world of remote work. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that employers and employees can work to stamp it out, giving everyone equal opportunities regardless of their mental health.

The first step is to create a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination. If you’re an employee and your workplace doesn’t have this sort of policy in place, bring it up in a meeting with senior staff members and push for it to become a reality. When a policy is in place, be sure to spread the word so that all staff know and make sure the consequences of discrimination are clear.

All senior staff should be trained in how to support those with mental health issues, too. From knowledge of anxiety treatments to understanding the ins and outs of different mental illnesses, they should know exactly what to do when an employee comes to them for help.

Workplace policies should already be in place to help staff. Allowing employees to log on at more flexible times as long as they complete the work, for example, and allowing for absences to receive treatment. Supporting the need for a healthy work-life balance is essential, too.

Preventing discrimination in remote work settings

Many of the policies and training practices already mentioned will work well in remote work settings. Even when not in the office, having these policies set in stone will create a trickle-down effect. If staff know that their employer is pro-mental health support, they’re far less likely to discriminate. Those who need support are more likely to ask for it, too, creating a better place to work for everyone involved. 

But there are further measures that need to be taken to actively support mental health in remote settings. Remote working has its own set of challenges, such as loneliness and a disconnect from society. To help staff and prevent discrimination, you must check in on employees regularly. Maintain one-to-one sessions using visual conferencing tools with those who you know suffer from mental illness, asking staff how they’re coping and whether there’s anything they need from you.

Maintaining the same support as you’d provide in a work setting for remote teams is another way to boost inclusivity. Virtual wellness gatherings, for example, can be lifelines for those with mental illness, providing a place to share and support. Carry these over to the digital space with group calls and an online chat space.

We’d also highly recommend implementing asynchronous work. This setup allows remote staff to complete tasks individually when they’re online, rather than having to wait for others to join the digital space. This allows for people to work when it suits them, rather than tying them down with obligations that may put their mental health at risk.

Final words

Mental illness isn’t something that’s going away anytime soon, and with the rise of remote workplaces, it’s time to take stock of how employers are dealing with mental health discrimination. Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into why and how it’s such an important topic. Now, it’s time to get out there and start fighting the good fight, eradicating mental health discrimination once and for all.


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