In the past few years, businesses have begun to understand the importance of proactively promoting the mental health of their employees. This is likely due to the pandemic, which forced mental health into the spotlight and revealed serious disparities between demographics.
But many well-meaning business leaders simply don’t know where to start. Becoming an ally to employees requires a holistic understanding of the social issues that employees may face. Business leaders also need relevant strategies to support each of their employees.
Mental Health Demographics
In the U.S., serious disparities in opportunities and mental health support exist between White Americans and Asian, Black, or Hispanic Americans. Research shows that Black and Hispanic Americans are half as likely to use mental health services as often as White Americans. Asian Americans receive even less mental health support and only reach out for help at a third of the rate that White Americans do.
Despite the disparity in mental health support, we know that minorities face high levels of discrimination that may undermine their mental health. People of color may face chronic discrimination which has a lasting effect on mental well-being and stress. Long-term stress may lead to higher absenteeism at work and undermine employee health and wellness.
Unfortunately, demographic disparities in mental health were exacerbated by the pandemic. A recent CDC report found that “persistent systemic social inequities and discrimination,” eventually “worsen stress and associated mental health concerns.” Overcoming this disparity should be a priority for employers who want to be allies for their employees.
Challenges in the Workplace
The CDC report on stress for minorities in the U.S. found that workplace inequity and vulnerability are major contributing factors to poor mental health. This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, as a poor working environment takes a toll on employees’ mental well-being and can lead to work-related depression and anxiety.
Conditions like depression and anxiety can undermine employees’ overall well-being and performance at work. Folks who suffer from depression find their cognitive performance reduced by an average of 35%, and may find it harder to complete basic physical tasks, too.
Unfortunately, many workplaces are a minefield for employees who are minorities. Widespread discrimination exists across the nation based on race, gender, class, and sexuality. This means that workers who do not pass as White, straight, men may hide elements of their identity while at work or play down the issues they face.
Worse still, many employers have put diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies in place that are ineffective and poorly maintained. This means that discrimination still occurs, but employers can point toward their tokenized DEI policy to avoid public backlash.
Why Advocacy Matters
True advocacy in the workplace is about more than slogans and occasional diversity events. Real advocacy for minorities at work changes the shape of a corporation and ensures that everyone has an equitable experience at work, regardless of their role or identity.
Advocacy at work can also break a cycle of poor mental health and mistrust/lack of support. For example, Black Americans are more likely to struggle with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and despair. However, Black Americans with depression are less likely to receive support due to mistrust of mental health treatments and a lack of access to quality care.
Businesses that actively advocate for their employees can break the cycle of untreated depression by offering benefits and services that make it easier for Black employees to receive mental health support. Employers can also share services like the National Alliance of Mental Illness for Black/African Americans or the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective.
Taking extra steps to support minorities in the workplace does require a material investment of capital and resources. However, an investment into allyship is the right thing to do and is certain to pay off. Becoming an equitable employer that promotes the well-being of all employees will help businesses find better employees and make for a more positive working environment.
Strategies for Allyship
Allyship is a widely misunderstood concept. Many well-meaning individuals and businesses accidentally erase the experiences and input of minorities in favor of their own ideas. This is often due to a misguided sense of “saviorism” on the part of the demographic majority.
Businesses can look to other companies that have successfully implemented DEI programs from the perspective of allyship. Businesses like the aptly named Progressive Insurance go beyond their core statements and set a good example for other businesses that want to become allies to their employees. Some of the best strategies businesses can learn from Progressive include:
- Set measurable goals to increase representation at every leadership level.
- Fund events and workshops that improve understanding of discrimination and mental health
- Ensure that all employees of the same/similar roles receive equal pay
- Collect and publicly share equality data
- Work with local communities to support charitable events that promote equality and/or mental well-being.
These steps hold businesses accountable for allyship programs and promote a more inclusive, mental health positive workplace.
The pandemic forced businesses to invest in mental health services for many of their employees. However, many companies have now realized that some of their employees face discrimination that acts as a barrier to receiving adequate support for their career and life goals. Employers can take the initiative by advocating for these employees and creating initiatives that ensure equality and representation at work.