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Exploring mental health

NewsPad - April 2023

There is a keen and growing focus on mental health at work, with the backdrop that mental health issues affect 1 in 4 people in the UK, and nearly 15% of employees experience mental health problems in the workplace.

Holistically, health is a combination of physical, mental and social wellbeing – all are intrinsically linked.  And it’s important to recognise that health is more than the absence of disorders, diseases or disabilities.  To be ‘healthy’ is to actively experience wellbeing.  And if we’re looking specifically at mental health at work, a key contributor to being ‘healthy’ is the positive experience of an inclusive organisational culture.

So, what does mental health at work look like through a diversity lens?  Why do we need to be mindful of how identity and lived experience play into our considerations and conversations about mental wellbeing at work?  When designing and delivering solutions to enhance staff understanding of wellbeing, and to make the work environment a better place for all, how can we consciously include minoritised or marginalized groups?

We need to think about authenticity.  So, what does this mean?  It’s how we show up, how we express ourselves, how we reveal who we are through our actions, behaviours and emotions.  Authenticity is when we align our self-expression with our internal sense of self.

This definition or explanation reflects the work of Brene Brown.  She’s a marvellous speaker and writer on this topic, who says that authenticity is a collection of choices that we make every day.  It’s about the choice to be real.  The choice to be honest.

So, what are the benefits of authenticity – for individual employees, for leaders or managers, and for our organisations?

Research has revealed that authentic employees feel better about themselves than those who don’t present authentically.  They report greater happiness, higher confidence and lower job stress, and they have a better workplace experience overall.  This feeds through into commitment, engagement and productivity.  This is great news, but we must realise that the choice to be authentic isn’t a level playing field – it’s less easy to make for some than for others.  Consider, for example, the masking techniques used by neurodivergent staff; or the way in which employees who are minoritised in terms of ethnicity, culture or religion downplay their differences in order to fit with a dominant cultural norm.  Or the experiences of women who are called out for their clothing choices or outward appearance which do not align with Eurocentric standards of beauty.

We experience mental wellbeing when we can be ourselves, but if we are in a situation where we feel pressure to conform to the expectations of others, this takes effort and energy and can create cognitive dissonance – which is the antithesis of mental wellbeing.  Studies indicate just how demoralising and taxing it is for employees to actively hide aspects of their identity.  For example, research by Deloitte and NYU Professor of Law, Kenji Yoshino reports seventy-five percent of employees cover in the workplace, and this figure rises to 94% of racial minorities.  And the percentage of respondents who state that the practice of ‘covering is’ detrimental to their sense of self is between 60-67%.

So, what can we do?

Our own authenticity is important, but we shouldn’t just see it from a purely personal perspective.  It’s strength really lies in how by being collectively authentic everyone can show up as their true selves, with their imperfections and vulnerabilities.  Leaders and line managers who role-model authenticity can create a workplace where there is true acceptance of difference and where learning, innovation and achievement flourish.

We can also be alert to the implications of diversity in team and individual wellbeing conversations. For example, by reflecting more broadly on what situations trigger poor mental health, and by considering what can be done to minimise those triggers and support colleagues.  Also, by exploring the baseline behaviours that promote understanding and inclusion.

So, when we’re thinking about our organisation’s approach to wellbeing, let’s not forget that there are many ways of seeing and experiencing this topic, and as always, applying a diversity lens will ensure relevance and appropriateness for all.

About the author: Ann Allcock is Head of Diversity at Marshalls E-Learning Consultancy, a specialist diversity and inclusion e-learning and training provider, where she leads on facilitated EDI training and wider consultancy within HE and across other sectors.  At Marshalls Ann advises clients on diversity and inclusion strategy and actions, creates bespoke learning resources, and facilitates workshops to enhance employee knowledge and understanding of diversity and inclusion, enabling everyone to play their part in creating workplaces where all can thrive. Ann enjoys living in Brighton and Hove.  She is a keen runner, and on sunny, calm days is a sea swimmer.

We work with organisations in all sectors because no one can be complacent when it comes to inclusion! Our courses and resources include: Let’s talk about race, unconscious bias, allyship, inclusive leadership, conscious inclusion, and microaggressions.  We are always interested to know how we can support both existing and new university clients, so do get in touch if you’d like to explore how we can help you.