Diversity and inclusion: The case for mental health

Diversity and inclusion: The case for mental health

Diversity and inclusion: The case for mental health

Diversity and inclusion aren’t just HR buzzwords or something to include in your strategic plan and annual report.

They are the attitudes, words and actions lived out at your organization by every staff member at every level, every single day. Although the research on diversity and inclusion is vast, with the current focus on and de-stigmatisation of workplace mental health (made possible by initiatives such as R U Okay Day), we’re taking a closer look at the link between diversity in the workplace and mental health.

But first, some terminology (feel free to skip ahead if you’re already a D&I pro).

Diversity vs. Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion seem to go hand-in-hand—you don’t get one without the other. So what is the actual difference?

Dr Katie Spearitt, CEO and founder of Diversity Partners, who provide advice to businesses on diversity, unconscious bias, inclusion and work flexibility, explains that diversity in the workplace refers to the ‘differences we bring to work’ from both a demographic perspective (diverse backgrounds, culture, gender, disability, age) as well as diversity in terms of thinking approaches.

Inclusion occurs when this diversity of people feel valued and respected, have access to opportunities and resources and can contribute their talents to improve an organization.

“The reason they’re always anchored together is that initially there was a lot of support for diversity efforts which manifested through hiring practices, but there was a problem with retention”, Katie says.

“To understand inclusion properly, one helpful thing to do is reflect on what exclusion feels like — think of a time when you felt like you weren’t a part of the group. Inclusion is the opposite of that.”

Katie Spearitt
Katie Spearitt, CEO and founder, Diversity Partners

Diversity, exclusion and being ‘different’: The challenges

Sadly, for the majority of us, recalling a time when we’ve felt excluded is probably not too difficult. Whether it was not being invited to a birthday party when you were six years old or seeing pics on Instagram or Facebook and realising you were left out of a social occasion, it can have an instant and resounding effect.

Humans are social creatures, and being ignored or excluded threatens some of our most basic human needs for belonging, control, self-esteem and meaningful existence.

In psychology research, this type of exclusion is known as social ostracism and the results are not pretty. In ‘Cyberball’ studies, which deliberately exclude one individual from a virtual ball-tossing game, ostracism has led to increased levels of distress, low mood, performance and motivation.

If this can happen in a computer game, how does it play out in a work context for groups of employees who are frequently excluded or discriminated against, like LGBTIQ+ employees, ethnic minorities and women, and what are the implications for mental health?

In her book on the experiences of women in masculine industries Rules of the Game, Teagan Dowler identifies a number of challenges that impact women at work, including:

  1. Gender stereotypes
  2. Being the subject of degrading comments/rumours
  3. Harassment and assaults
  4. Lack of suitable amenities for women
  5. Finding PPE that fit correctly and safely
  6. Social expectations of child care and having babies
  7. Having your appearance scrutinised and commented on
  8. Having your abilities doubted
Teagan Dowler
Teagan Dowler, founder of The BCW and author of Rules of the Gam

As you can imagine, any of these could cause considerable discomfort, stress and have implications for mental health, but Teagan says that two of the biggest hurdles women, and many other under-represented groups, have to overcome in the workplace are unconscious bias and isolation.

1. Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is one of the biggest challenges facing minority groups such as women, LGBTIQ or people with a disability as it impacts decisions relating to recruitment and selection, promotion, role allocation, mentoring, pay equality and much more.

“Someone’s bias may be the difference between whether they are overlooked over for a role, or paid less than their counterpart (even with the same qualifications and experience) or in the case of women, they might be excluded from career development conversations because they’re of a ‘certain age’,” Teagan says.

“When this occurs the impact is not only tangible, in terms of experience, earnings and superannuation, but also intangible in terms of the mental impacts (frustration, low self-confidence, anger, stress).

“Fortunately more organizations are beginning to understand the negative impacts of unconscious bias and are educating their people leaders on how to identify and manage their biases in an attempt to minimise negative impacts on under-represented groups.”

2. Isolation

Another challenges faced by minority or under-represented groups is isolation and loneliness.

“For women in heavy or traditionally male industries where they are the overwhelming minority, it can be a very isolating experience, particularly if the team culture is not inclusive of difference or diversity,” Teagan says.

And this has repercussions for mental health.

When the culture is overtly unwelcoming it can become not just lonely, but also emotionally draining and anxiety inducing. Constantly feeling like you must be on guard, second guessing everything and trying to keep your self-doubts at bay.

On the flip side however, is that being able to freely contribute to meaningful work without worry of ridicule or exclusion and feeling satisfied with your job has been correlated to correlated to feeling less anxious and stressed, increased employee engagement and, happier workers are higher performing workers.

So what are some of the other benefits of diversity? Read on to find out.

Benefits of diversity – for the worker and the workplace

The advantages that come from a diverse and inclusive organization aren’t just limited to the employee, they apply to the organization as well. According to Katie, three of the key business benefits are improved decision making, increased creativity and engagement.

1. Decision making

To make good decisions, organizations need to not just gather relevant information, but also hear from and explore a diverse range of perspectives.

“The diversity of thinking afforded from the different backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints you get in a diverse organization make for a much more robust, informed decision (and you’ll also have buy-in from those who contributed!),” Katie says.

2. Creativity

Along the same lines of improved decision making, diversity and inclusion also invites greater innovation, problem solving and creativity, which can lead to improved business processes, products and performance.

“Creativity is essentially the opposite of groupthink, which is what prevails in homogenous teams.”

3. Employee engagement

People want to work in a place where they feel included and that their opinions are valued, which leads to a higher level of engagement. And employee engagement has been linked with increased productivity, job satisfaction and lower absenteeism and turnover, which all impact a businesses’ bottom line.

“When employees feel like they can contribute and are empowered to perform their best work, they are more likely to be engaged and committed which has flow-on effects for the business,” Katie says.

From an employee perspective, Teagan says that one of the most important messages that often gets forgotten when a company starts focusing on diversity and inclusion, is that D&I is good for everyone, not just the minority.

This is highlighted in the Diversity Council of Australia’s Inclusion@Work Index which found those who work in inclusive teams are:

  • 10 times more likely to be highly effective
  • 9 times more likely to innovate
  • 19 times more likely to be very satisfied with their job

Recalling an interaction with a drill and blast supervisor who was concerned about an audacious D&I target (before D&I became more accepted in the heavy industries), Teagan asked him ‘when you come to work Steve, are you the same bloke here, as what you are at home with your wife and kids? Or are you different?’.

He thought about it and said, ‘no, I’m different’. To which Teagan replied, ‘to me, D&I isn’t about quotas, it’s about creating an environment where everyone can feel comfortable to be their true selves – their authentic self and not have to fit some stereotype’.

“This then sparked a great conversation about the predominantly homogenous culture in the heavy industries and how diversity and inclusion can help make the environment more accepting of everyone’s uniqueness,” Tegan recounts.

These are the conversations C-Suite, HR and team leaders need to be having more of.


How to foster good mental health through inclusivity

There are four key ingredients for good mental health of diverse employees (and for that matter, all employees) in the workplace. These are:

  1. Inclusion, belonging and an environment of psychological safety
  2. Productive conversations
  3. Genuine care shown by leaders and lead from the top
  4. Support

But ingredients aren’t much good without a recipe. So here it is.

1. Create a ‘psychologically safe’ environment where employees feel included

Psychological safety refers to the belief or feeling that you won’t be punished or judged for your opinions, contributions or if you make a mistake.

In a 2015 study of what makes Google teams so successful, guess what was the number one thing that set Google teams apart from others? Psychological safety.

It wasn’t so much about who was on the team, but the structure and dynamics of the team and the feeling that team members could contribute freely. And diversity and inclusion is one of the best things you can do to create that sense of psychological safety.

“When there’s psychological safety, you can speak up, be yourself and you don’t have to hide aspects of yourself, whether it’s a disability, mental health challenges or other differences we might bring to the workplace. This is key to good mental health,” Katie says.

Katie draws on the research on psychological safety by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson when she encourages managers to explicitly ask ‘what are you struggling with’ and ‘how can I help?’ to signal their understanding and willingness to support employees through different challenges.

FREE TEMPLATE: Team psychological safety exercise

2. Have productive conversations

Have conversations with the people from the minority groups you’re targeting, Teagan advises.

Understand their lived experiences, don’t make assumptions and involve them in creating the solutions and initiatives to improve D&I.

Katie also emphasises the importance of conversations, not just as a one-off but on an ongoing basis, which can be in the form of engagement surveys, face-to-face meetings or virtual check-ins (or ideally, a mixture of all).

“Questions like ‘do you feel like you can contribute?’ and ‘are diverse views considered in your teams?’ can be used in engagement surveys to assess if your staff are feeling included and psychologically safe,” Katie says.

“I highly recommend making wellness checks a regular thing, whether it’s on a weekly or monthly cycle – it’s an excellent way to monitor employee wellbeing and satisfaction. These can also help leaders to identify and act on any issues and find out what else you could be doing for mental health.

“Physical OH&S has been such a big focus for such a long time and now psychological safety needs to be.”

3. Lead from the top

If you want diversity, inclusion, psychological safety and all the benefits that flow from it, then it needs to happen from the top down. And one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increase in attention of leaders to the mental health and psychological safety of their workforce, Katie says.

“There’s been a growing acceptance and understanding of the different ways people do and experience things, and preparedness to have conversations about mental health and what’s needed for good mental health, whether it’s working from home, or working flexible hours to be able to pick up the kids from school.

“For leaders, it’s about creating a safe space for employees to say ‘I’m not okay’. By being authentic about what’s happening for them, they act as role models so that staff can see that it’s okay to share.”

4. Support

Lastly, support in both group and one-on-one formats are a valuable mechanisms to maximise the chance that the diverse employees you hire, stay, Katie says.

“Grassroots groups or more formal networking groups established by the organization itself provide a place where employees can build relationships, connect and get support to help foster that sense of belongingness that is so important.”

In addition, if you don’t already have one, Katie suggests creating a mentoring program or buddying up your employees with a more senior member of staff who can act as a go-to for questions and to help navigate the workplace and inevitable office politics that come with it.

“Mentoring is a proven way to retain talent. Having a mentor who is relatively senior and knows their way around an organization can be a valuable source of information and advice.”

FREE DOWNLOAD: Mental health toolkit

Final word – D&I is about everyone!

Lastly, Teagan urges companies not to leave the majority out of D&I conversations.

“Absolutely, we need to focus on the minority groups to increase their representation and ensure barriers are removed, but we also need to ensure the majority groups are included in the conversations.”

“This doesn’t mean we should shy away from making bold decisions, actions and changes to improve diversity and inclusion in our companies. But, we need to be mindful of the needs of all humans to feel belongingness and inclusion.”

Looking to build diversity and inclusion in your organization? Mind Australia has a number of great resources including their diversity and inclusion framework.


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