Mental Health as an Integral Part of DEI Policies in the Workplace

Multi-coloured letters on a white background. Letters spell Mental Health

There is no way around it; we cannot discuss Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace without recognizing and understanding that the mental health issues of employees are at the heart of the matter. There should not be DEI policies put into place without foundationally building them on the mental health needs and priorities of the specific employees in an organization. How can we call for DEI policies to help bridge the gap between those who have been systematically disadvantaged in society without first acknowledging the direct impact this continues to have on their mental health?

It is important to note the lens I am using when discussing identity. I view cultural identities, as highlighted by Sandra Collins (2018), as embodying the experiences and expressions of multiple dimensions of culture, inclusive of gender, gender identity, ethnicity, Indigeneity, ability, sexual orientation, social class, age, and religion or spirituality. Using this lens now to assess how DEI and mental health overlap; if we are aiming to create workplaces that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive, we need to consider the societal impact and influence our cultural identities have on our place of employment, our dynamics with colleagues and managers, and even during the hiring process.

With the research suggesting that around 60 percent of employees have never discussed or would never feel comfortable discussing their mental health issues with anyone in their workplace (Harvard Business Review, 2021), it is clear that DEI policies are lacking. Employees are three times less likely to disclose a mental health issue such as depression than a physical one such as cancer (CAMH, 2021). When discussing mental health, we cannot deny the influence our cultural identities have on our experience in the workplace.

  • 59% of working Canadians have either witnessed discrimination or been discriminated against, or both, in the workplace (Abacusdata)
  • 38 % of men and 26 % of women believe that employment equity laws discriminate against women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, and visible minorities (Abacusdata)
  • One in ten women experiences gender-based discrimination at work (Statistics Canada)
  • A report conducted in 2020 by Statistics Canada outlined that the most reported forms of discrimination based on employee experiences during the pandemic were based on: race or skin colour (34%), age (30%), physical appearance (26%), ethnicity and culture (25%), and sex (22%)

Employees from varying cultural identities can face a lack of representation, microaggressions, and unconscious bias (Forbes, 2021), directly impacting their mental health and well-being. If we cannot create spaces where employees from various cultural identities feel like their mental health needs are being respected, heard, and supported, they will not stick around. Millennials and Gen Zers are statistically more likely to leave jobs for mental health reasons. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review reported that a staggering 68 percent of Millennials and 81 percent of Gen Zers have voluntarily and involuntarily left roles for mental health reasons.

More diverse spaces, where people with varying cultural identities are respected, sought after, and represented, are statistically more likely to thrive. Here is what the numbers are saying (McKinsey & Company, 2021):

  • Companies that champion and seek out diversity in hiring have a 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee
  • Companies with gender, as well as racial and ethnic diversity, perform better financially
  • Diversity at the management level increases revenue by 19 percent
  • 86 percent of women seek employers with diverse inclusion strategies
  • 80 percent of workers want inclusive companies

Why does it all matter? In simple terms, happier employees make for higher productivity. If 1 in 3 Canadians, or about 9.1 million people, will be affected by a mental illness during their lifetime (Statistics Canada), every company has employees struggling and dealing with mental health and wellness issues that require assistance, validation, and resources. Without the right mental health support in place, we can never create a space where employees can be productive.

What can be done? Let us start with two tangible ways to create a mental health cultural shift within our organizations:

  • Encouraging conversations about mental health, especially those initiated and shared by senior leaders and managers (modelling)
  • Ensuring that employees feel supported by managers and HR, that includes workplace adjustments and employee benefits (support)

With these two foundational elements in place, employers can begin the daunting task of making this information accessible, encouraging, and critical to their organization’s identity. How can that be done? Come back next week to learn more!

 Dina Shamlawi is Associate at MT Consulting Group, focusing on the intersections of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with mental health, race and gender. She earned her M.Ed. in Educational Administration and Leadership from the University of Alberta in 2015. She has since worked as an educator and within the higher education sector. Dina is currently pursuing her MA in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. 

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