Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

DEI That Ignores Mental Health Is Doomed

2020: What an emotional rollercoaster. The ongoing pandemic and civil unrest have combined to create a markedly large number of highs and lows for everyone, most particularly for minority communities. Not to make light of this serious issue, but the current environment does have a silver lining: The events of this year have thankfully pushed concerns around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) front and center for nearly every HR leader.

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Sudden Spike in DEI

Though DEI seems like a no-brainer, only 55% of employees agree their organizations have policies that promote diversity and inclusion (D&I), according to Gallup. This is staggering. Clearly, something isn’t working. With the current focus on DEI and the need for mental health support, it’s obvious companies are either:

  • Not equipped and are now in a reactive situation
  • Choosing not to focus on proactive solutions

In either case, trying to bolster existing atomistic programs won’t work. Companies need to really dig deep and focus on their employees and the health of their company. The benefits far outweigh the current strain, even in the climate we find ourselves in.

The state of our mental well-being affects how we feel, react to problems, and cope with the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis. Because we all spend a large majority of our time at work, prioritizing mental health in the workplace is a must. 

Some companies are getting the memo and investing in DEI more quickly than ever before. A report by Glassdoor analyzed this trend by tracking the prominence of vacancies for job titles such as “diversity and inclusion recruiter,” “D&I program manager,” and “chief diversity officer.” It found:

  • Those job titles fell by 63% at the start of the pandemic.
  • Following the civil unrest amplified by the killing of George Floyd in police custody, the same category of job titles rebounded by 50%.

To put this in perspective, that’s the largest percentage increase in any category during a 4-week period since January 2016. That said, although DEI is getting the attention it deserves, not all of the components that make up a successful DEI strategy for companies are being addressed. 

Mental Health Matters—Like, It Really Matters

Ill mental health can be a symptom of lackluster DEI within companies, specifically for minorities. 

“Mental health and diversity and inclusion (D&I) are closely connected,” says one Forbes article. “Employees from diverse backgrounds can face lack of representation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other stressors that impact their mental health and psychological safety at work.” 

A survey by McKinsey & Company found that a majority of employees have considered the inclusiveness of companies when making career decisions. People care. That said, almost half of the same respondents feel they aren’t very included at their current organization. Regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, a majority felt they have experienced barriers to inclusion. The research supports the argument that certain demographics are more likely to feel less included. Among those groups are entry-level employees, women, and ethnic or racial minorities.

Considering all of that, it only makes sense that DEI strategies should support and proactively include mental health; one can’t truly succeed without the other. When someone’s race and identity and who the person is get repeatedly questioned and used against him or her, the person’s mental health is affected. When those kinds of questions and attacks happen within the workplace, the individual and the company suffer. 

The Key: A Holistic and Actionable Strategy

Incorporating mental health into your DEI strategy may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to. You can leverage actionable tools and programs to help develop and implement a holistic approach that allows your DEI efforts to truly be effective and take hold within your organization.

The key is to use robust measures of mental health and well-being and tailored results. An effective mental health program should empower you to get to know your own mental well-being and then provide you with the tools to work on it. Every individual is on his or her own unique journey. The organizations each person works for should provide tools to help him or her along that path.

Specifically, companies can consider these four holistic approaches to mental health within their DEI strategy:

  • First: Consider a wide range of topics that might apply to your employees’ different life stages and situations. Keep in mind the entire spectrum of mental health, and acknowledge that every individual will have a different perspective.
  • Second: Offer various channels of delivery. From digital content to group presentations to individual conversations, this will allow employees to choose the most convenient avenue for focusing on their mental health.
  • Third: Provide more than one scientific approach; not all techniques work for everyone. People’s needs are different and come at different times in their life’s journey. While one person might benefit from focusing on mindfulness to alleviate stress, another might need to rely more on positive psychology or cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Fourth: Communicate openly, and celebrate each other’s differences. Regardless of your role and seniority, be courageous and share your needs, be thoughtful in trying to understand each other, and be conscious that mental well-being means something different for everyone.

Mental health may not currently be the focus it should be for every company. But it is something every individual, at every company, deals with every day—whether people realize it or not. The odds of someone feeling truly included in your company are lowered when the person’s mental health is affected. And workers’ mental health is affected when their race, gender, or ethnicity is questioned. 

This has been a challenging year in many ways. Hopefully, one bright outcome will be that more companies realize that DEI matters immensely and that its initiatives have been lagging because of broken and perfunctory programs for too long.

DEI can’t succeed without mental health. They’re part of the same DNA. The technology is available, and the need is loud and clear. Companies just need to step up to the challenge and effect real change for their people.

Dr. Heather Bolton is a clinical psychologist and BABCP-accredited cognitive behavioral therapist. She is Head of Psychology at Unmind, a workplace mental health platform. Before joining Unmind, Dr. Bolton worked in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) for around 10 years, mainly focusing on improving access to therapy for people with depression and anxiety disorders. Connect with Dr. Bolton on LinkedIn.

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