Benefits and Compensation, Diversity & Inclusion

Mental Health in the Workplace: A DEI Issue

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues were once an afterthought for most companies. But as research and data have revealed the financial upsides of investing in DEI, more and more companies are doing just that.

Yet many still view DEI through the primary lens of race and gender. And while these certainly are important aspects, DEI is much broader than that. Companies need to focus their efforts on making employees of all backgrounds feel like they belong. That means adding mental health and wellness to the core of your DEI strategy.

The Current State of Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health is an issue that impacts every employee, regardless of background, demographic, or seniority. That’s why it’s crucial for HR leaders and company stakeholders to normalize conversations around mental health and cultivate a workplace that supports—rather than hinders—employees’ well-being. This builds the foundation of a happy and healthy company culture, which, in turn, creates a sense of belonging.

Unfortunately, mental health in the workplace is currently at an all-time low. According to a 2022 survey by workplace mental health platform Lyra Health, 31% of respondents said their mental health declined in 2021. Even more, Deloitte’s Workplace Burnout Survey found 91% of respondents have an unmanageable amount of stress that negatively impacts the quality of their work, and 83% of respondents say burnout from work can negatively impact their personal relationships.

This has widespread consequences for companies. As employees’ mental well-being deteriorates, they become more prone to exhaustion and a loss of productivity, which can lead to more employee turnover.

Why Mental Health is a DEI Issue

First, certain mental health conditions fall under the definition of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a “physical or mental health impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Employees are entitled to reasonable protection and accommodation when this applies.

Second, these instances are much more common than people may think. A 2017 research paper published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Last, the taboo of talking about mental health means employees who suffer from depression or other mental health conditions may be reluctant to ask for help or even acknowledge it. Only 57% of employees self-report moderate depression, and 40% who report severe depression receive treatment. Within the realm of mental well-being, the American Psychiatric Association finds racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from “poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors including inaccessibility of high quality mental health care services, cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, discrimination, and overall lack of awareness about mental health.”

Encouraging mental health conversations and supporting employees at any stage of their mental health journey send the message that companies acknowledge their employees as humans first and employees second. As a result, employees are more likely to feel a sense of belonging within the organization. Data from research and advisory firm Gartner showed that implementing benefits and initiatives corresponding to work/life balance and mental well-being increases feelings of inclusion by up to 38%.

How Mentoring Helps Employers Improve Mental Wellbeing

So how can companies start incorporating mental health support into their DEI strategy? One proven method is implementing a mentoring program, which can create a safe space for employees to ask for help and accommodations when needed. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, activities that promote opportunities for growth like training, education, and mentoring help bolster mental health and well-being in the workplace. Additionally, 9 in 10 employees who have a career mentor say they are happier in their jobs. Several mentoring formats can pave the way for better employee well-being.

One-to-one Career Mentoring

Enabling employees to focus on their career goals and the development needed to get there builds employee engagement and satisfaction. Mentees feel in charge of their employee journey, while mentors gain leadership skills and new knowledge and skills from their mentoring counterparts. 

Reverse Mentoring

Reverse mentoring is when a junior employee is paired with a more senior employee but the junior employee serves as the mentor. With proper training, this can empower younger employees to feel more comfortable interacting with those who might have more influence on workplace culture and policies. Junior employees can share candid feedback with their mentoring partners on how specific policies benefit or harm different employees or employee groups in the realm of mental well-being. These conversations can build understanding and momentum around implementing policies workers value and abandoning policies that don’t enable balance and belonging.

Mentoring Circles

This form of peer mentoring gives employees of all levels and departments a chance to connect on a common issue. This can be especially beneficial for remote or hybrid employees, who don’t always have the same networking opportunities as in-office counterparts. A formal mentoring program provides an opportunity to build relationships and social connectivity, making up for the informal opportunities to connect that they’d typically have in an office setting.

Mental health, at its core, is a DEI issue, and HR leaders and executives need to treat it as such. Creating a safe space to discuss mental well-being, as well as the things that hinder or enable it, allows employees to be their authentic selves at work. This type of thinking acknowledges that being human means experiencing hardships and success, as well as negative and positive emotions.

A robust mentoring strategy provides an avenue for employers to communicate value to employees and effectively react to the needs of their employees. In this kind of environment, employees can thrive and ultimately produce their best work for themselves and the company.

Sara Rahmani is the VP of People Experience and DEI at workplace mentoring software provider Chronus.