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How work integration social enterprises impact the stigma of mental illness: Negotiating perceptions of legitimacy, value and competence

Terry Krupa (Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada)
Judith Sabetti (McGill University, Montreal, Canada)
Rosemary Lysaght (Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada)

Social Enterprise Journal

ISSN: 1750-8614

Article publication date: 20 June 2019

Issue publication date: 21 November 2019




The purpose of the present study was to advance a theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which WISEs can influence the stigma associated with mental illness. Many people with serious mental illnesses want to work, but despite much attention to work entry strategies, unemployment rates remain exceptionally high among this population. Stigma has been identified as a particularly pernicious barrier to the full community participation of people with mental illnesses. If work integration social enterprises (WISE) are to positively impact the full community participation of people with mental illnesses, then addressing stigma will be integral to their operation.


A comparative case study approach was used to address the following research questions: “How is the stigma of mental illness experienced in the everyday operations of WISE?” and “What influence do WISEs have on the stigma of mental illness within the workplace and beyond?” Five established WISEs that pay workers at minimum wage or better were selected for inclusion. The maximum variation sample included WISEs that varied in terms of geographical location, form of commerce, business size, revenues and degree of connection with mental health systems and local communities. Data analysis was conducted in four stages using qualitative methods.


The study findings suggest processes by which WISEs can positively impact the stigma of mental illness. Three social processes are associated with the potential of WISE to contribute to stigma reduction: perception of legitimacy, perception of value and perception of competence. Each of these social processes is fueled by underlying tensions in practice that arise in the context of negotiating the dual goals of the business.

Research limitations/implications

This study advances theoretical understanding of the ways in which stigma may be perpetuated or reduced in WISE by revealing the social processes and practice tensions that may be associated with operation choices made by WISEs and their partners. Further research would be required to determine if the processes described actually lead to reduced stigma. Although efforts were made to select WISEs that demonstrate a variety of features, it is likely that some important features were absent. Additional research could further explore the findings identified here with WISEs from other sectors, including youth and workers with transient or less severe forms of illness. This work should be replicated internationally to explore how contextual factors may influence individual and public perceptions.

Practical implications

The findings provide guidance for WISE developers in the mental health sector concerning strategies that may help mitigate the development of stigmatizing features within a social enterprise and by extension improve the work experience and workforce integration of employees. The identification of these processes and tensions can be used to advance the development of consensus principles and standards in the WISE field and contribute to ongoing evaluation and research.

Social implications

WISEs have the potential to reduce stigma, an important goal to support their efforts to improve employment and integration outcomes for people with mental illnesses. Through their business structures and operations they may be able to impact stigma by positively influencing perceptions of legitimacy, value and competence – all issues that have been associated with public assumptions about mental illness that sustain stigma.


To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this study is one of the first to specifically focus on stigma in the WISE sector, particularly as it relates to the work integration of persons with mental illnesses. The findings provide a range of theoretical and practical implications for future development in the field and highlight factors that merit consideration more broadly in the sector.



Funding for this study was received from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Thanks are extended to the participating WISEs and study participants.


Krupa, T., Sabetti, J. and Lysaght, R. (2019), "How work integration social enterprises impact the stigma of mental illness: Negotiating perceptions of legitimacy, value and competence", Social Enterprise Journal, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 475-494.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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