Are you concerned about possible mental health discrimination at work? This article provides HR professionals and managers with valuable insights into the realities of employee mental struggles, and examples of mental health discrimination at work. By recognizing and addressing these issues, organizations can take meaningful steps to uphold the principles of the Mental Health Discrimination Act and promote a work environment where every individual feels valued and supported.

Mental Health Discrimination at Work Explained

It can be tricky to identify what is and what isn’t mental health discrimination at work. Especially from an HR professional or manager’s point of view. After all, you have to be mindful of your company’s interests, and your team’s needs. Let’s go deeper into the subject.

Mental health discrimination at work refers to unfair treatment or prejudice against individuals based on their mental health condition. It's like being judged not for your skills or efforts but for something beyond your control, like the color of your eyes.

In terms of mental health, discrimination can take various forms, from subtle actions like excluding someone from meetings because “they stress too much” to overt behaviors like derogatory remarks or denial of opportunities because they have expressed to deal with a condition.

Now, a term that’s heavily related to “discrimination” is “stigma.” Mental health stigma perpetuates misconceptions and stereotypes, leading to fear, shame, and reluctance to seek help. While also, refusing to provide support or including someone who may have a mental health condition. Do you see the connection?

6 Types of Mental Health Discrimination at Work

There are several types of mental health discrimination in the workplace. They all affect employee well-being, avoid them from having an equal opportunity, diminish the psychological safety of your company, and actually violate disability rights.

mental health discrimination in the workplace

Let’s explore 6 types of mental health discrimination at work so you can check if your organization is committing them or not.

  • Direct Mental Health Discrimination: This form of discrimination occurs when an individual is treated unfairly solely because of their mental health condition. It's like being overlooked for a promotion or facing negative remarks about your abilities because of a diagnosis like depression or BDPS.
  • Indirect Mental Health Discrimination: Unlike direct discrimination, indirect discrimination is more subtle. It happens when workplace policies, practices, or procedures disadvantage individuals with mental health conditions. For example, setting rigid attendance policies without considering the impact on those with fluctuating mental health symptoms.
  • Disability Discrimination: Mental health conditions are recognized as disabilities under the law, and discriminating against someone because of their mental health is a violation of their rights. It could involve refusing to make reasonable accommodations for employees with mental health conditions, such as flexible work hours or workspace adjustments.
  • Harrassment: Harassment based on mental health can create a hostile work environment, making it difficult for individuals to perform their job duties effectively. It may involve persistent teasing, mocking, or belittling of someone because of their mental health condition, creating feelings of isolation and distress.
  • Victimization: Individuals who speak up about discriminatory practices against their mental health may face victimization, where they are subjected to retaliation or further mistreatment as a result of their complaints. This leads to the stigma we talked about, discouraging employees from seeking support or speaking out against unfair treatment, perpetuating a cycle of discrimination.
  • Failing to Comply with Reasonable Adjustments: Employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to support employees with mental health conditions. Failing to do so not only violates anti-discrimination laws but also exacerbates the challenges faced by individuals with mental health conditions in the workplace.

8 Real-Life Examples of Mental Health Discrimination in The Workplace

We have gathered 8 real-life examples of mental health discrimination at work. Through a series of short anonymous interviews and explanations, we will tell you how your organization can avoid these challenges and improve your team’s well-being.

1. Termination due to Insurance Coverage

This is the story of an employee with a mental health condition who was abruptly terminated from their position, with the employer citing concerns about increased insurance costs due to the employee's need for mental health treatment.

Darryl was working in a warehouse for 4 years. He is the main supporter of a family of 4, and had been struggling with financial issues for the past 8 months. He Asked mental health support from his company, which they gladly provided at first. However, the standard coverage for Psychological appointments was 5 sessions.

He didn’t know this until he had reached the 10 sessions. His HR department mentioned they needed to take the extra sessions out of his salary, which of course, Darryl refused. His anxiety levels increased due to this situation, and his performance was lower than before. This is the original excuse his organization used to fire him. But the previous conversations let Darryl understand that this was not a productivity matter, it was the cost of the insurance.

2. Poor Performance Review to an Employee with Mental Health

Despite demonstrating competence and dedication in their role, an employee with a mental health condition received disproportionately negative performance feedback, leading to feelings of demoralization and exclusion.

Amanda was a Project Manager for a Creative Agency. She was from Mexico, living in the U.S for the past 3 years. Her visa situation was complicated due to COVID-related delays. It unleashed a series of daily panic attacks, and she started therapy a few months after to alleviate the burden.

She was later diagnosed with C-PTSD, as a result of an extended period of stress. This was causing her to be mentally absent from her work, she was not as productive or motivated as before, something her managers started to notice.

The owner of the company started to give her really harsh reviews without much care about her situation, and without a previous interview to understand her, he fired her with a two week notice with the excuse of her performance.

3. Calling Employee to the Office When There's No Need

An employer repeatedly summoned an employee with a known mental health condition to the office for trivial reasons, creating unnecessary stress and anxiety for the employee and exacerbating their symptoms.

This is Jimmy’s story. He was a designer for a Marketing Agency. Sadly, his son passed away shortly after being born, and he had taken the paternity leave and grieving leave his company offered.

Jimmy was working remotely most of the days, but the owner of the company wanted him to be at the office. No excuses. Due to the nature of his job, Jimmy could do it from home without real issue; most importantly, he had already manifested that he needed to stay that way to support his wife with house chores and to deal together with the grief and its mental health consequences.

Even though his therapist did write a letter explaining her recommendation, and supporting Jimmy’s request, he was forced to go back to the office. Which led to him feeling angry, stressed, demotivated, and eventually quit.

4. Termination of an Employee Diagnosed with a Mental Health Condition

A highly skilled employee was terminated shortly after disclosing their mental health diagnosis to their employer, leading to feelings of discrimination and abandonment.

Arthur was working in a motor garage. He had been struggling with Schizophrenia since his teenage years. But this type of diagnosis in the present is not synonym for mental health hospitalization, it is, in fact, very manageable with the right medication and therapy.

A friend of his helped him get the job. The owner of the garage knew about his condition, and agreed to hire him. Arthur didn’t tell him much about his situation, still, the owner didn’t get properly informed or asked him what his triggers were.

On New Year’s Eve, Arthur’s brother passed away in a motorcycle accident, and unleashed an episode of depression that Arthur couldn’t handle so he had to miss work for a week. Even though there wasn’t much for him to do at the garage due to the holidays, the owner decided to terminate his contract without mediation.

5. Denial of Promotion Opportunities

Despite meeting all qualifications and demonstrating exceptional performance, an employee with a mental health condition was consistently passed over for promotion opportunities, further fueling feelings of worthlessness and inequality.

Elisa was a neurodivergent retail worker. She was diagnosed with OCD, and was undergoing treatment and therapy. She was highly skilled at her work, she even enjoyed organizing and cleaning. Except at times the store was really crowded, because she had to deal with loud music, client’s requests, and clothes that needed to be folded over and over again. It was causing her OCD to become an obstacle for her regular life, even after work.

She kindly requested her manager to assign her other duties during those crowded days, and she agreed. But after 6 months, when it was time for her work evaluations, she found out she was not going to be promoted because they didn’t see her “fit enough” for the manager role due to that request.

6. Isolation and Exclusion

An employee with a mental health condition was systematically excluded from team meetings, social events, and professional development opportunities, resulting in feelings of isolation and marginalization within the workplace.

Laura, another Project Manager, was working for an IT company as an intern. She was very nervous from the beginning, mostly because she had been dealing with ADHD since childhood.

She discussed her condition with her manager after her first work evaluation. At the beginning, it was dealt with comprehension, but a few weeks later, she noticed she wasn’t getting as many assignments as before. When Laura asked why, her manager said it was “for her own good.”

Since she was an intern, she had to comply with very specific milestones. Which she couldn’t do in the end, because someone else had decided for her that she didn’t need to.

7. Inadequate Accommodations

Despite requesting reasonable accommodations for their mental health condition, such as flexible work hours or access to a quiet workspace, an employee's requests were repeatedly denied, hindering their ability to perform their job effectively.

Alejandro, a computer engineer from Colombia, was in the spectrum. He struggled often with social cues, but he still managed to mingle and do his best at work. At some point, he asked HR if he could work remotely for a few days, since he was feeling nervous due to the noise in the office (there was a construction nearby). HR said no.

As an Asperger diagnosed, listening to music while working was not a choice to diminish the noise. He needed soft low frequencies to do so, but of course, working 8 hours with earphones and a soft noise gave him headaches, which kept him from giving his best.

He asked again to his HR department for a few days at the home office because he wasn’t feeling good. Still, the answer was no, “because then everyone else had to be given that privilege.” 

8. Microaggressions and Stereotyping

Co-workers made derogatory remarks and insensitive jokes about mental health conditions in the presence of an employee who had disclosed their sexual identity, contributing to a toxic work environment and undermining the employee's sense of dignity and respect.

This case is not a mental health disorder (let’s remember transexuality is no longer considered as such), but a case of discrimination in the workplace based on stigma and lack of mental health understanding.

Larissa was a non-binary employee at an English academy in France. They had explained this to the People & Culture department, and told their coworkers about their pronouns (they/them). Shortly after, the derogatory jokes started.

P&C was aware of the situation, however, all they could “do for Larissa” was tell them to ignore it because “it will go away eventually.” Spoiler alert: It didn’t. The jokes made their workplace unbearable, and their self-confidence became very low.

Ways to Prevent Mental Health Discrimination at Work

After reading those examples of mental health discrimination, what would you have done differently? Are you able to understand the human experience in all those real-life cases? Let’s discover some ideas to prevent discrimination and foster a more inclusive workplace.

Ways to prevent mental health discrimination at workplace
  • Implement Mental Health Awareness Training: It all starts with education. Not just for people in leadership roles, but everyone in the organization. Raise awareness about mental health conditions, reduce stigma, and promote understanding and empathy. Meditopia can support you on this with our personalized workshops and webinars.
  • Establish Clear Policies and Procedures: Develop and communicate clear policies and procedures related to mental health accommodation, confidentiality, and non-discrimination to ensure consistency and fairness in treatment of all employees.
  • Promote Open Communication: Encourage open and honest communication about mental health in the workplace by creating channels for employees to seek support, share their experiences, and access resources without fear of judgment or reprisal. This is more efficient after implementing the first two tips.
  • Offer Flexible Work Arrangements: Provide flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting options, flexible hours, and job sharing, to accommodate the diverse needs of employees with a mental health condition and promote work-life balance.
  • Provide Reasonable Accommodations: Work with employees to identify and implement reasonable accommodations that support their mental health needs, such as modified work schedules, ergonomic adjustments, or access to counseling services.
  • Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage employees to prioritize self-care and maintain a healthy work-life balance by promoting boundaries around work hours, encouraging regular breaks, and providing opportunities for stress reduction activities. Meditopia’s mindfulness content can help your team with this.
  • Address Stigma and Discrimination: Take proactive steps to address stigma and discrimination in the workplace by challenging stereotypes, promoting inclusive language, and holding individuals accountable for discriminatory behavior.
  • Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Provide access to confidential EAPs offering counseling, mental health resources, and referrals to support employees experiencing mental health challenges. You can find them all within Meditopia for Work.
  • Lead by Example: Demonstrate organizational commitment to mental health by modeling supportive behavior, prioritizing employee well-being, and fostering a culture of respect, empathy, and inclusion at all levels of the organization.
  • Regularly Evaluate and Adjust Policies: Continuously monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of mental health policies and programs, soliciting feedback from employees and making adjustments as needed to ensure they meet the evolving needs of the workforce.

Key Takeaways

  • Start by educating everyone in the organization about mental health conditions to reduce stigma and promote empathy. 
  • Consider personalized workshops and webinars to enhance awareness.
  • Establish and communicate clear policies on mental health accommodation, confidentiality, and non-discrimination to ensure fair treatment for all employees.
  • Foster a culture of open communication where employees feel safe to discuss mental health concerns without fear of judgment or reprisal.
  • Offer flexible work arrangements like telecommuting and flexible hours to accommodate the diverse needs of employees with mental health conditions.
  • Challenge stereotypes, promote inclusive language, and hold individuals accountable for discriminatory behavior to create a stigma-free workplace.
  • Provide access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) offering counseling and mental health resources to support employees in need.

Examples of mental health discrimination at work: FAQs

Is a mental health issue considered a disability?

Yes, mental health conditions are often considered disabilities under anti-discrimination laws.

Can mental health discrimination at work be justified?

No, mental health discrimination is never justified and violates both ethical standards and legal regulations. There are different ways to take care of your organizational interests that do not promote discrimination.

What adjustments can be made at work for mental health?

Adjustments like flexible work hours, workspace accommodations, and access to counseling services can support employees with mental health conditions.

How can employers recognize signs of mental health discrimination?

Employers can recognize signs of mental health discrimination by being vigilant for unequal treatment, harassment, and exclusion based on mental health.

Are there laws in place to protect individuals from mental health discrimination in the workplace?

Yes, laws such as the Mental Health Discrimination Act provide legal protection against discrimination based on mental health in the workplace. Check the regulations in your country.