Employee Mental Health: How Inclusion Boosts Wellness

Work should be a safe space for everyone. 

But when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s immediate concern about company culture and how it affects employee mental health. 

About 1 in 5 US adults live with a mental illness. And you don’t have to be clinically diagnosed to experience the effects of stress and anxiety, especially at work. 

For underrepresented groups, this workplace stress is disproportionate to their white cis-gendered counterparts, according to these findings published in the Harvard Business Review.

  • Black and Latinx respondents were 50% more likely to voluntarily leave a job, and had higher rates of mental health symptoms compared to 32% of white respondents.
  • Employees from the LGBTQ+ community had higher rates of mental health symptoms and for longer durations. 
  • Women were more likely to have gotten treatment for a mental health condition in the past.

In fact, even an employee’s perception of their companies’ efforts toward DEI impacts their overall happiness at work.

According to an April 2021 survey of over 8,000 employees, “Those workers who say their company is ‘not doing enough’ to prioritize diversity and inclusion have a Workforce Happiness Index score of 63, well below the scores of 75 among those who say their company is doing ‘about the right amount’.

Bottom line: Mental health is a diversity and inclusion issue. Here’s how your inclusion strategy can help keep your employees happy, healthy and engaged. 

Why employee mental health and DEI are two sides of the same coin

1. Job satisfaction

No matter which way you cut it, an employee’s sense of belonging drives their overall satisfaction at work. No one likes the feeling of needing to ‘hide” who they are, but unfortunately this is a common experience in the workplace. 

“An inclusive workplace is an environment that champions intersectionality and allows employees to bring their full identities to work. We are so much more than just our job title—an inclusive workplace celebrates each team member's entire self, including (and most critically) our differences,” says Andy Crebar, CEO of Sapling HR.

The more our authentic selves are celebrated, the better our mental health—and this is especially important for team managers.

According to a recent report from BetterUp, employees experience 3.4X more job satisfaction when they view their managers as inclusive.

2. Higher innovation

Innovation isn’t born from exclusionary company culture.

While many companies aim to hire people with a specific degree, references, years of experience, and background—a team of employees with vastly different life experiences can often produce the best work.

Gone are the days of “Great minds think alike” and here to stay are the forward-looking teams that embrace a “Great minds think differently” philosophy.   

Without an innovative company culture, your team’s mental health could suffer. And it will directly impact their work—especially creative and innovative work.  

BetterUp also polled 1,350 US workers about mental health and creativity within a two week period. Not surprisingly, they found that the more employees struggled with their mental health, the more effort it took them to be creative. 

To put this in perspective, workers who reported struggling “not at all” with mental health spent 23% less effort producing creative work. That’s a significant amount of struggle that could be easily combated with the right culture.

An inclusive company culture means every employee gets a seat at the table, and embracing differences will lead to greater creativity and innovation. In fact, HR visionary Josh Bersin found inclusive companies are 1.7X more likely to be innovation leaders, plus 1.8X more likely to be able to cope with change.     

3. Increased productivity

As if the above statistics weren’t enough to convince you employee mental health is a business imperative, an alarming 61% of employees say mental health impacts their productivity. 

Workplace stressors for underrepresented groups specifically include: lack of representation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and more. These all impact the mental health of employees at work, and their productivity. 

The good news is, an inclusive environment greatly reduces these stressors.

One part of an inclusive environment is creating a safe space for employees to talk about work stress. Although the CDC recommends talking to co-workers and supervisors about stress (especially post Covid-19), a significant number of workers still feel like this conversation just isn’t welcome.

Joblist recently surveyed 1,016 employees and found:

  • About 35% of people feel they can’t talk openly at work about stress.
  • 11% of people said their company culture didn’t support talking about stress at all
  • 47% fear negative consequences from talking about stress at work; a fear more likely held by women than men.   

Whether it’s a simple “How have you been doing?” in your next one-on-one meeting or a company-wide forum on mental health, a culture that thrives on open communication is key to employee wellbeing. 

4. Community + collaboration

Human beings thrive on connection.   

The feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself can boost mental health and self-esteem. An inclusive company culture encourages co-workers to see themselves as part of a community.  

In BetterUp’s Fall 2021 Insight Report, the results of 10,000 responses since the start of the pandemic led to deeper insight about inclusive leadership and the impact on underrepresented minorities. 

“The pandemic has disproportionately affected underrepresented groups in a variety of ways, and managers must understand that the workplace is no exception. Our research found that URMs (underrepresented minorities) are 1.6X more likely to have low belonging than their peers in other groups, a leading indicator of intent to stay.”  

According to the report, the lower the employee’s psychological safety, the fewer feelings of belonging, connection, and support. 

Clearly, an inclusive work environment can help offset these negative feelings and boost employee mental health and productivity. But it all has to start with leadership. 

Practical tips to improve employee mental health and inclusion 

“The message is clear to me: in today’s global business environment—filled with challenges in demographics, skills, and culture—companies that build a truly inclusive culture are those that will outperform their peers,” says Josh Bersin. “Why? People perform best when they feel valued, empowered, and respected by their peers.”

And the proof is in the hiring data.

In fact, 1 in 4 candidates say a better company culture is one of their top reasons for leaving a role. But there is hope. 🙏🏽

You can make DEI a priority and focus on specific areas to better your company culture while supporting your employees’ mental wellbeing. Here are some of the ways to make it happen.

Focus on DEIB training and execution

Whether you define it as D&I, DEI, DEIB or any other acronym, your commitment to inclusion needs to be implemented from the top of the org. If the CEO of your company doesn’t care about providing an inclusive culture, employees will notice. 

Karima Mariama-Arthur, Esq., CS, Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport points out in Forbes, the all too common truth of companies thinking diversity is the same as inclusion.

“Diversity and inclusion are not one in the same, and neither happens through osmosis,” Karima says. “To make employees feel more included, appreciated and safe in the workplace, initiatives must be targeted to achieve specific results. Organizations must be proactive about creating diversity, as well as encouraging participation and acceptance within the workplace as a cultural imperative.” 

Make no mistake, an annual catch-all training will never be enough to get the job done. 

First, your company needs to identify specific organizational and employee challenges, develop a DEI strategy, and then choose training that supports the execution of that strategy. Collecting and using data differently can make all the difference. 

Use data to get a clear picture of your company culture

It’s no longer good enough to check off boxes on diverse hires and call it a day. 

Inclusion needs to be weaved into the company culture on a daily basis, including in the hiring process and beyond. 

Rather than focusing on numbers, you can ask questions to get to the heart of your DEI strategy. 

Ethan Salathiel, former Co-Founder & Executive Coach at Bound Coaching and Behavioural Change, gives examples of questions to ask such as:

  • ‘How long does it take people from diverse and minority backgrounds to get from onboarding to senior management?’ 
  • ‘What are the relative diversity pay gaps at each level and why?’ 

Asking questions and collecting data after hiring diverse employees will help you better understand the true inclusion practices in the company, and how these practices can impact employee mental health in the long run.

“This type of information will signpost any barriers or bias in the employee lifecycle, and gives the opportunity for organizations to address any issues more holistically,” he says. 

Before, during and after the process of collecting data, you should continue the discussion about DEI practices on a regular basis. 

Create an open dialogue around mental health

Every employee should feel welcome to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace without fear of repercussions. 

Zachary Nunn, creator and leader of the media platform Living Corporate, defines an inclusive workplace as “a space where marginalized voices are empowered to make actual decisions that impact the organization that they are a part of.” 

Honesty is everything when building trust between employees and leadership. Communicating your DEI goals, progress, and where you could do better should be no different. 

Arguably the most important is following through with your DEI goals. This shows employees you’re not just making empty promises — you are actively working towards creating the most inclusive work environment possible.  

Recognize employee mental health as a DEI issue

Employees with mental illness need an inclusive workplace in order to thrive, but due to the ‘invisible’ nature of mental health and the lack of discussion in the workplace, people continue to suffer.  

The Mind the Workplace report published by Mental Health America addressed workplace mental health in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic:    

“An employer providing a safe and welcoming environment for employees who live with mental illness was most strongly correlated with the healthiest overall workplace health score. Over 56% of respondents disagreed that their employers provide safe and welcoming environments for employees who live with mental illness.”

Making sure mental health is not a taboo topic in the company culture is just as important as keeping an open discussion about DEI. 

Impactful ways employers can support employees living with mental illness include:

  • Counting mental health days towards paid sick time 
  • Offering professional support through employee assistance programs
  • Welcoming adjustments in employee schedules and workloads
  • Proactively sharing mental health resources  

Because by now, the data is more than clear: The more employees feel supported at work, the better their job satisfaction, innovation, and productivity will be. 

Create a safe and inclusive company culture

We all want to provide a safe workplace for employees, but research shows not every workplace is created equal when it comes to DEI.

Diversity means nothing without inclusion. The more inclusive your workplace is, the better your entire culture will be. 

In the end, it’s all about your DEI strategy. Dig deep and pay attention to what’s really missing from your strategy and execution. And remember, you don’t have to get it all right from day one. As long as you stay committed to learning and trying to create the ultimate safe space for employees, you’ll be able to make more progress for the entire organization.   

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