United Kingdom

Mental health in an unequal world: the role of DEI in mental wellbeing in the workplace

Charles Alberts, Head of Wellbeing

In the past few years and to an extent accelerated by COVID-19, I’ve observed a real attitudinal shift when it comes to employee mental health and wellbeing.

We’re in the midst of an evolution, from a society where mental ill health was a taboo subject to a society where we have global awareness days, high profile celebrities talking about their struggles and a doubling of Google searches around mental health in the past five years1. Many employers have also stepped up with mental health and wellbeing programmes now commonplace in a large number of workplaces.

But there is still more to be done.

When we consider that issues such as excessive pressure, poor relationships and incivility (plus others) have led to work-related stress, depression and anxiety being the leading cause of work-related ill health in the UK, there is a clear imperative for companies to recognise that they themselves are an important part of the equation.

Also consider that mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is something that is core to being human and is impacted by our whole lives, both in and outside the workplace. Where our health is concerned there is no single approach, but how do employers ensure their strategy is inclusive, caters to a diverse workforce, and supports everyone at an individual level?

Consider the diversity of your workforce

No two people are the same – we’re as diverse as we are complex. But when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing, there are various research studies which show that certain groups of people are more likely to struggle with mental health, varying by ethnicity, by age, by gender and by sexuality – and these characteristics are often interconnected. As such, to ensure that mental health and wellbeing strategies cater for the diversity of the workforce, actively using demographic data (age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality) can help employers shape a strategy which provides targeted support for the whole of the workforce. In addition, the value of continued Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategies that aim to create a positive working environment for all employees should not be underestimated for groups who may be at greater risk of being impacted by poor mental health. This can often be due to struggles employees face with prejudice and discrimination whether direct or indirect – which is where DEI and Wellbeing comes together to deliver tangible results.

But there are many additional factors which companies likely won’t have data on. In their personal lives, employees will have different support networks available to them, and be from different socioeconomic backgrounds. There will be lifestyle factors which also impact mental health and wellbeing, such as living situation, debt levels, hobbies, and exercise routines to name a few. All of these can impact someone’s emotional and mental state, as well as their overall resilience.

We should also be mindful of how external events may impact employees differently; the Coronavirus Pandemic and recent well-publicised events around climate change, social injustice and geopolitical conflict are all examples of factors that may all detrimentally impact employees’ mental health and wellbeing and we all respond differently.

With all this in mind, how can we ensure we have the maximum reach and positive impact on employees? Certainly, efforts to understand people more and connecting with them on a personal level can pay dividends. As is taking a holistic approach to employee mental health and wellbeing – recognising that we are all different and a wider range of support both internally and externally is required.

Ensuring equity, not just equality

It’s obvious, but often overlooked; different people require different solutions.

One way to look at it is where people are with their mental health and wellbeing. Similar to physical health, employees will have different levels of mental health, wellbeing and resilience. For some individuals, support may be focused around maintaining good mental health and wellbeing; education, mindfulness techniques and stress management could be sufficient. Some may be at the early stages of struggling which is where a culture of speaking up and looking out for one another is really beneficial. And some may have acute or chronic mental ill health – here offering good employee benefits, support from trained line managers and HR, appropriate workplace adjustments and so on can often help people remain productive and at work. Of course, some will need to take time off from work, which is where a good occupational sick pay policy can go a long way to alleviate any worries about financial security during this time. So to sum up, it is valuable to have appropriate support for employees no matter where they may be on the mental wellbeing spectrum.

However, this can make it challenging for employers to know where to start when it comes to implementing a strategy. Even seemingly small changes can make a big impact; think about senior leaders talking more about mental health and wellbeing, having sessions to raise awareness of various related topics, upskilling managers and perhaps mental health champions, creating a mental health and wellbeing resources guide, and encouraging colleagues to speak about their own experience with mental health. All of these are low-cost initiatives that could start to change the culture around mental health and wellbeing and make more people feel heard, respected and included.

Take an inclusive approach

Inclusivity goes hand-in-hand with diversity; you can’t effectively cater to a diverse workforce without taking an inclusive approach.

Let’s here consider how individuals differ; for instance, not everyone wants to talk about mental health at work (and this may not necessarily be categorised by the stereotypical generational divide you may expect). This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be supported, but rather the approach could be tailored accordingly – perhaps communicated via email rather than face-to-face, or a centralised resource hub accessible 24/7 which signposts to the relevant provision (such as Employee Assistance Programmes or Private Medical Insurance contacts). Aon’s own research has indicated a worrying communications gap – where employees are often not aware of the range of support that is available to them. It goes without saying that information about support must be easily accessible, account for any special requirements which may impact user experience, and be tailored to different audiences. A communication and engagement strategy can be as important as the support that is offered itself, as without reaching people the investment made is wasted.

We should also consider an inclusive approach that flows across the hierarchy; leading from the top will help set the cultural tone for more open discussions about mental health and wellbeing plus the support that is available. Visible leadership engagement and support on the topic helps to build a culture of trust, security and inclusion. Whilst developing an inclusive culture around mental health and wellbeing doesn’t happen overnight; an environment where people can bring their true authentic selves to work is worth every bit of effort.

The trend towards more virtual working beyond COVID-19 has many benefits, but can also create a challenge for businesses when it comes to inclusion. It can be difficult to communicate effectively through a screen, read subtle cues of someone struggling, or even offer support that feels personable. But it’s an environment more of us are getting comfortable working in and is here to stay for many, so thinking about ways to be even more inclusive in a virtual environment is a vital objective.

We should also consider those who are not in the workplace. Struggling with your mental health can feel lonely, especially for employees who are off work due to mental ill health. Regular contact with these employees, taking genuine interest in how they are doing, offering support, and talking about everyday issues can help them feel connected and ease any transition back into the workplace.

Finally, we should not underestimate the value and impact of employee-driven initiatives, such as through Business (or Employee) Resource Groups, to drive a culture of inclusion and belonging. This is equally true for mental health and wellbeing, where employees coming together with a common purpose and provide peer-to-peer support can make those who are struggling feel less isolated and more included.

Short-term tactics, long-term success

All of the examples covered here should ideally form part of a longer-term sustained commitment to employee health and wellbeing. There is no silver bullet to deliver an overnight success story, but short-term tactics as part of a long-term strategy will help drive genuine cultural change and inclusion.

1UK data taken from Google Trends, September 2021



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