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Why mental health needs to be a key element of your Diversity & Inclusion strategy

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​The landscape of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) is changing. It’s becoming more commonplace, more important to job hunters and it’s finally getting the attention it should.

But there’s one element missing from most DEI strategies, and that’s mental health.

With the number of people suffering from mental health problems increasing, and the upcoming generations placing more importance on it than ever before, it’s the next area that should be included in every firm's DEI strategy.

But including it in a strategy isn’t enough. We need to follow through and take the necessary steps to bring our strategy to life and create a supportive, safe working environment that our employees want to be at rather than adding to their troubles.

Why should firms be thinking about mental health?

The past few years have been tough. There’s no doubt that the stress, uncertainty and isolation the pandemic caused has impacted the nation’s mental health.

While that might sound full of doom and gloom, the silver lining is that we’ve started talking about it more. The profile of mental health and the general acceptance within society have both improved as a result.

With around 1 in 6 people experiencing mental health problems in the workplace, mental health is no longer a topic that can be kept behind a shut door. It’s impacting productivity, engagement, retention and firm’s bottom lines.

The Thriving at Work review found that poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99bn every year. When that stat is combined with the knowledge that 12.7% of sickness days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions, it’s clear that firms can’t sit back and pretend nothing’s happening. It’s time to take action.

Why should mental health be part of your DEI strategy?

Traditionally DEI has referenced age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, and sexual orientation. But there’s a growing argument that mental health should be included in the mix.

As we’ve seen, mental health problems can affect anyone, particularly if individuals have experienced acts of racism, violence or discrimination.

This intrinsic link between mental health and “traditional” DEI areas makes the decision to include mental health as part of your DEI strategy common sense.

If you try to research statistics around BAME and mental health you’ll struggle to find much. That’s because of the lack of research into the area and the reluctance of minority communities to discuss the topic. But that factor alone shows that firms need to try and start, or at least encourage, those conversations and your DEI strategy is the framework to do that.

Additional benefits to a commitment to mental health

You’re only as strong as your workforce. The key to a strong, resilient workforce? Strong mental health.

We all know the current challenges around recruiting and retaining employees, but your mental health support can have a direct impact on that. Almost half of employees would look to move jobs if their employer didn’t provide good enough support for their mental health.

With the younger generations prioritising their mental health it’s also an important factor in recruiting new staff. Listening to what your employees need help with, and what they value and incorporating it into your firm is critical to building an inclusive, engaged workforce.

What can firms do to support employees with their mental health?

It’s great to include mental health in your DEI strategy but that doesn’t go far enough. Alongside the written commitment to mental health, firms need to take action to create a culture that allows employees to work on their mental health, supporting them when they need it.

Training for managers

You can’t expect managers to be able to support colleagues, particularly around sensitive topics, without giving them the tools and support to deal with them.

Training, support and development opportunities allow managers to develop a toolkit to handle conversations in the right way.

But the help for managers shouldn’t just stop at a basic training course. Instead, they need ongoing support to protect their own mental health. Peer-peer forums, access to counselling and helplines or ensuring a robust understanding of the HR implications are all ways that managers can be empowered to assist those around them.

Address discrimination

Building mental health into your DEI strategy alongside elements such as race, age and ethnicity means that it’s essential to tackle any discrimination. Without taking those steps you’re only sticking a plaster on the issue. That surface level support undermines your DEI strategy and will further disengage employees struggling with their mental health as a result of discrimination.

Creating an environment that has a zero-tolerance discrimination policy is, you’d hope, an obvious step to take. But it’s also a really powerful step that proves your support and good intentions aren’t just skin deep.

Model healthy behaviours

There’s more to promoting good mental health than running a bi-annual seminar or an awareness week. Creating a safe, supportive environment starts at the top. When senior leaders or managers model healthy behaviours, more junior staff will feel more comfortable asking for help.

That could be as simple as leaving on time or restricting out of hours emails. But with 60% of employees having never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health, it’s down to leadership to take that first step. To initiate conversations, share their struggles or feelings and to create an authentic conversation about mental health.

Offer flexibility

One-size doesn’t fit all. That’s why the concept of working Monday-Friday 9am-5pm is outdated and needs flexing. When you’re struggling with your mental health, it might be that a period of flexibility helps, whether that’s shifting the office:home ratio or a change in working hours.

Allowing employees the ability to flex their working hours, location or style is an easy accommodation to empower employees to do their best work. 

Mental health is intertwined with all other areas of DEI. Research shows that those who experience racism, discrimination or violence suffer with their mental health more than others. When you combine that knowledge with the stress and trauma from the last few years it’s unsurprising that mental health is a topic that firms need to get a handle on.

Including mental health in your DEI strategy, and then taking the subsequent steps to embed it into daily working life, should be a logical step for firms who are serious about looking after their people.