Is Mental Health Part of Your Diversity Strategy?

Although diversity at work has been addressed on several fronts there’s a great big gap as it’s been rightly pointed out, when it comes to understanding emotional and psychological diversity in all of its guises.

Every one of us experiences highs and lows. It’s human nature. But many of us who suffer from stress, anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders are masterful at concealing turmoil. We’ve been ingrained to believe that showing emotional upset at work is taboo. So when it hits, we withdraw, hunker down quietly in our workspaces, retreat for some quiet (and sometimes a good cry) in the washroom, or feign an appointment, an emergency, or a physical ailment to escape, to get away. Why the hesitancy to speak up?  Most people admit to feeling stressed at work. In fact a Work and Wellbeing survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that one in three report being chronically stressed on the job.  Yet for the most part, mental health remains hidden under a dark unmentionable cloud.

Statistics tell us:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year. One in four adults experiences mental illness each year and an estimated 18% of the US adult populations have an anxiety disorder.
  • Mood disorders, including major depression, persistent depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for youth and adults aged 18–44.
  • Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent World Health Organization (WHO)-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

According to Wellright, for job-focused Baby Boomers who tend to link their work to their identity, fear of irrelevance can lead to feelings of genuine loss, anxiety, and depression. Increased job pressures combined with balancing a busy family life (raising children while caring for ageing parents) can leave Gen Xers feeling like they’re being pulled in multiple directions and trigger mental health issues. Many Millennials suffer from being perfectionists, resulting in emotional turmoil when they’re unable to achieve the lofty goals and maintain the high standards they set for themselves.

A study published by the American Psychological Association indicates rates of mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes have increased significantly over the last decade among adolescents and young adults. Researchers behind this study assessed data of 212,913 adolescents aged 12 to 17 from 2005 through 2017 and 398,967 adults aged 18 and older from 2008 through 2017. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of respondents that experienced serious psychological distress increased among most age groups. The largest increases were seen among younger adults aged 18-25 (71%). Notably, rates of serious psychological distress increased by 78% among adults aged 20-21. These are our future Gen Z workforce.

mental health diversity communication

While mental health in the workplace isn’t a new problem, it’s clearly a growing one. Some attribute it to the digital technologies transforming the workplace. Let’s be frank, these “advances” are a mixed blessing of benefit and burden. Factor in the parallel popularity of social media (with younger adults being less inclined to interact face-to-face) and it’s no wonder why there are mounting feelings of isolation and emotional distress.

“Given identity is tied to work, being recognized and appreciated makes employees feel valued and boosts the sense of self and self-esteem, which is protective in terms of depression and anxiety,” says psychiatrist and author Dr. Gail Saltz. “Since close to half of all employees will at some time in their lives struggle with mental health issues, it behooves companies, for productivity and saved dollars, to encourage early mental health care.”

Progressive organizations open to addressing mental health and the stigma attached, help both their people and their bottom line.

Yes, mental illness is a challenge. But contrary to notions popularized in films and TV it’s not a weakness. Research has found that feeling authentic and open at work leads to better performance, engagement, employee retention, and overall wellbeing.

Take Alyssa Mastromonaco’s story, reported in Harvard Business Review (HBR). Alyssa who served as White House deputy chief of staff for operations under President Obama, was an executive at Vice and A&E, and is Senior Advisor and spokesperson at NARAL Pro-Choice America) switched to a new antidepressant. She decided to tell her boss.

““I can react strongly to meds, so I was worried switching would shift my mood and wanted the CEO to know why. I talked about it like it was the most normal thing in the world —it is!”

Her boss was supportive.

When Mastromonaco goes to work, she and her mental health struggles do not part ways at the door. “You want me,” she says, “you get all of me.” Mastromonaco brings tremendous talent to her workplace — but she also brings her anxiety.

mental health and success

The same is true for high-performing employees everywhere.  Also profiled in HBR, Christina Wallace is another prime example. As a Harvard Business School graduate, a three-time startup founder, and an accomplished executive and creator of an innovative STEM education program, Wallace wrestles with panic anxiety. Does she consider her anxiety a strength? Her response: “Absolutely.”

According to feedback from direct reports, Wallace is an incredible manager. Because she openly acknowledges her anxiety, she has learned not only how to manage it, but also how to communicate and share her needs — a skill that helps her stay attuned to the emotional needs of others, and navigate difficult situations with grace and ease.

Organizations that understand the link between employee mental health and organizational performance are leaps ahead of those with a darker judgmental view (and probably higher turnover, higher absenteeism, higher disability costs and lower employee engagement).

Cases in point: winners of the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards: Utah Foster Care (UFC), University Health Alliance, Hill Brothers, and Waimānalo Health Center, were recognized for their efforts to foster employee well-being by honoring practices centered on self-care. The turnover rate for each of these organizations was less than a third of the national average. Touché.

The earlier recognition and support occurs, the better the chances an employee will engage, unearth what they’re really good at, and dig in with productive gusto.

Carolyn Slaski, Ernest and Young Americas Vice Chair of Talent couldn’t agree more. “You have to notice first if someone is struggling,” says Slaski, “and ask them if they’re okay. Learn how to listen to their concerns, and then act. Our company has 47,000 US employees and 250,000 globally. If I can get my team comfortable just noticing when someone has an issue, then there is so much more we can do for them. These are people reaching out for help. We want to help. We don’t want to have a stigma around it.”

A healthy workplace is one where employees and leaders actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting employee psychological well-being and working to de-stigmatize mental health issues internally and beyond.

Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign is the single largest corporate commitment to mental health in Canada. Originally a five-year, $50 million program to combat stigma and drive action in mental health care, research, and the workplace, Bell Let’s Talk was renewed in 2015. As of 2019, the corporation’s commitment sits in excess of $100 million. According to Twitter, “the #BellLetsTalk hashtag was the most used Canadian hashtag of 2018 and the top three tweets in Canada that year were all related to the initiative.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2019 Mental Health Information Sheet several risk factors for mental health in the work world include:

  • Inadequate health and safety policies
  • Poor communication and management practices
  • Limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work
  • Low levels of support for employees
  • Inflexible working hours
  • Unclear tasks or organizational objectives
  • Unsuitable tasks for a person’s competencies
  • A high and unrelenting workload
  • A lack of team cohesion or social support
  • Bullying and psychological harassment

The struggles of mental illness aren’t exclusive to the suffering individual. It’s shared by everyone in the workplace. Educate leaders and managers to be aware of the inner conflict so many people feel on the job (possibly even themselves). Spread a message of non-judgmental tolerance and empathy across the organization.  Include mental health in all its different forms in your diversity strategy.

Sometimes the worst place you can be at is in your own head. Stop thinking and start acting.

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!

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Watch our webinar, How HR can empower their employees with their mental health

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Read great blog posts on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys.

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