Why Workplace Mental Wellness Should be Part of Your DEI Playbook

Written by: Team Welligence

March 08, 2022

While we are aware of the passing of  Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, rarely do we see organizational change as a direct result of the attention and—hopefully—heightened awareness of the contributions by and challenges for women and Black Americans.

Instead of simply recognizing  these two historically underrepresented groups for a few days a year, let’s reflect on direct action managers can take to create greater equity and alleviate common roadblocks and stressors that keep these communities of people from climbing and thriving at work: mental wellness.

The history of work and mental health challenges for Black employees

Despite recent DEI efforts, disparities still exist in the realities of work for Black Americans in the U.S. In 2021, a report by Gallup Center on Black Voices found that about one in four Black (24%) employees in the U.S. report having been discriminated against at work in the past year. Gallup also found that, “Employees are less likely to feel discriminated against at work if they have great managers who build a culture of high engagement and respect.”

In addition to the pervasive differences in opportunities and fair treatment at work for Black employees, access to and receipt of culturally appropriate support for mental health has been unevenly distributed to their White non-Hispanic associates. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Rates of mental illnesses in African Americans—identified as  immigrants from African nations, the Caribbean, Central America, and other countries—are similar with those of the general population. However, disparities exist in regard to mental health care services. African Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care.” Other factors include a lower rate of reporting due to cultural stigma and the importance of family privacy for this community.

“Employees are less likely to feel discriminated against at work if they have great managers who build a culture of high engagement and respect.”


Importantly, the study found that communication styles between caregivers and Black patients are less likely to promote trust and openness. One study found that physicians were 23% more verbally dominant, and engaged in 33% less patient-centered communication with African American patients than with White patients.

Realizing that it’s not just the care given, but how that care is communicated and the barriers communication styles have created in the past will help you and your teams better understand the resistance you may perceive from employees who seem to be struggling. However, it’s unlikely that change can be made without the right training. It’s unrealistic to ask managers to change their communication styles and address mental health challenges without a greater understanding of the impact their actions and words can have on an employee’s mental health. Like anything else, managing a diverse team of employees through shared challenges, including anxiety, depression, and burnout is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Educating management with mental health training will give leaders in your organization the tools and knowledge they need to build more inclusive, engaging, and respectful work environments for people across demographics.

Celebrating women who carry the burdens of society and earn less than men

The recent pandemic has put undue stress on women and has led to a phenomenon known as “wexit”.  According to an article by Dr. Jenna Car in benefitspro, “The exodus of women from the American workforce since COVID began has been the stuff of jaw-dropping headlines: 4.5 million fewer women working than 12 months ago; 617,000 women left the workforce in September, compared to 78,000 men; half the women who’ve departed are between the prime working ages of 35 to 44. Women of color have been disproportionately affected. It’s unprecedented.” She goes on to state that even in “normal” times women are at greater risk for mental health problems.

According to Statista, in January 2022, 25 percent of female respondents over the age of 18 in the U.S. felt symptoms of depressive disorder in a two-week period, compared to 21 percent of males.

Institutionalized gender inequality, pressure to perform most of the parenting and household chores, and salary inequities have historically been the cause of anxiety, stress, and depression for women. The choices women have had to make in the last two years between work and the health and safety of their children in the care of others has dramatically increased the pressure on women and resulted in a woefully unbalanced workforce. For those who have stayed, mental health issues resulting from increased tensions between work performance and the mounting responsibilities at home are leading to greater levels of burnout, anxiety, and stress.

“The exodus of women from the American workforce since COVID began has been the stuff of jaw-dropping headlines: 4.5 million fewer women working than 12 months ago.”

Dr. Jenna Car

Yet, for most businesses, the last two years have been pretty much “business as usual”. To keep up, women weren’t just working from home, they were spending their days juggling home and work responsibilities and working late into the night to make up for the time they needed to help children with homework and provide childcare. As the pressures to do it all and do it well mounted, women began exiting from the workforce in record numbers and have not returned.

Mental health and your DEI playbook

By now, your organization most likely already has a DEI policy or is working to create greater diversity, equity and inclusion in your company through prescriptive hiring practices. These policies not only encourage, but demand the inclusion of a wide range of ages, genders, races, and other demographics to your organization.

What your company leaders may not have considered is how to ensure that individual members of your diverse workplace are getting the support they need once hired. Just as efforts towards creating a more diverse workforce don’t just happen without the right programs in place, policies, programs, and communication goals need to be institutionalized to ensure your inclusive hiring practices are supported by programs that support employees once they’ve joined your teams.

In some cases, good practices, management training, and stated company values that are lived out in daily interactions help all employees. However, since the incidence of mental health issues is not equally distributed among all employees, the levels of support offered may not be exactly the same for every person on the team. In practice, inclusive leadership is the ability to recognize and respond to the differences in needs, not just skills and contributions.

Communicating to specific groups of employees with messaging that is culturally-aware and offering managers training that includes the identification of disparities among employees will help to make services and support more equitably distributed.

In practice, inclusive leadership is the ability to recognize and respond to the differences in needs, not just skills and contributions.

Ongoing surveys that identify demographic groups in the workplace and are designed to understand levels of anxiety, depression, and overall happiness of your population will help raise awareness of disparities in sentiment, overall mental health wellness, and specific challenges. Careful data analysis will give you the ability to understand how to effectively serve, communicate, and build trusting relationships across the demographics of your workforce.

Celebrating women and Black history through workplace wellness 

How is your company celebrating and acknowledging the contributions of women and Black Americans? A few social posts? A company-wide message? While these efforts are all good and help to raise awareness, nothing creates change like taking direct action to better serve these communities.

Begin by understanding your employees past and present. While the recent pandemic has amplified many of the mental health challenges of the last decade, those issues existed well before the Great Resignation. Looking back at exit interviews, conducting employee pulse surveys focused at understanding mental health and workplace challenges, and taking action with training and resiliency programs are solid first steps to overcoming the current state of the workplace.

Gayle Markowitz of the World Economic Forum summed it up perfectly, “Given that healthy, happy people tend to be more productive and contribute more actively to innovation, wealth generation and success, mental health may be the right place to start to close the other gender gaps.”

Mental health wellness is the right place to start to close racial, age, and other gaps, as well.

Careful review of exit interviews to understand the history of mental wellness

When you’re ready to start making the kind of organizational change that will turn the tide of employee burnout and resignation, begin by reviewing past exit interviews and analyzing the data you have already collected. While most companies routinely collect information from departing employees—either in the form of a survey, or personal interview, or both—the data collected is rarely used to make real change within the organization.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, “Many companies don’t even conduct exit interviews. Some collect exit interview data but don’t analyze it. Some analyze it but don’t share it with the senior line leaders who can act on it. Only a few collect, analyze, and share the data and follow up with action.”

Going back over historical data will help put your leadership styles and effectiveness in perspective. You may be able to identify patterns of employee churn on certain teams or under certain leadership. Patterns may emerge where employee satisfaction waxes or wanes before and after company-wide policy changes or demographic trends may reveal who is willing to partake in an exit interview. Whatever findings you uncover, be prepared to follow-up with specific action.

If your exit interviews don’t reveal any actionable insights, trends, or real data into the leadership practices and employee wellbeing at the company, perhaps it’s time to revise the way exit interviews are conducted. For instance, employees aren’t likely to have a frank discussion with a manager who has created a toxic environment.

In addition, if your organization is relying solely on written responses to a survey, instituting a face-to-face interview with a neutral interviewer in an atmosphere of trust may help you identify areas of improvement. Lastly, believing that employees leave just because they got a better offer doesn’t tell the whole story. Data shows that employees leave managers, not jobs.

Ongoing employee pulse surveys keep your wellness data current

While exit interviews will help you capture the experiences of departing employees, if your goal is to retain employees, you’ll want to gather their sentiment before they start looking for a new job. In a recent article, Mindshare Partners shared 4 elements of a meaningful pulse survey to understand our company’s wellness intelligence growth over time:

  • Understand your culture and exactly what its strengths and challenges are. Is it a lack of safety in accessing resources? Or lack of preparedness by managers to respond to mental health conversations?

  • Evaluate which programs, processes, policies, and resources are working and what needs to be improved.

  • Maintain accountability to outcome goals, particularly when findings are shared with senior leaders and integrated into business goals.

  • Communicate and signal to the rest of employees that your organization is taking action for workplace mental health.

To get more ideas about what questions to ask in pulse surveys, see our blog: 3 Ways to Improve Your Wellness Intelligence

Partner with employee resource groups (ERGs)

In addition to exit interviews, ongoing employee surveys, and the data analysis and insights that result from those formalized research methods, a company’s employee resource groups (ERGs) are a great source of information. ERG focus groups are powerful because the conversation is already happening in an established safe space for historically underrepresented groups.

Partner with your ERGs to host mental health focus groups to better serve and understand the needs of teammates across the organization. Focus groups within these communities offer a unique opportunity for candor, trust, empathy, and direct action.

Now that you’ve collected your data, it’s time to take action.

Management training and employee resiliency programs

Communicating the results of exit interviews and employee surveys to the supervising managers and team leads in the organization is a good first step—but it doesn’t go far enough. Creating a mindset shift for management, and giving them the information and confidence they need to create a secure and accepting workplace that leads to less employee turnover, and higher productivity requires reskilling.

As with any new skill, managing teams with greater awareness and promoting better mental health in the workplace takes training and practice. Set-up your management teams with manager mental health training to help them be more effective leaders and learn how to foster an atmosphere of workplace wellness that leads to greater productivity, higher retention, and better bottom line results. During the training, managers will also be given an opportunity to talk about their own mental health at work and understand their individual needs. Healthier, happier managers are better equipped to lead healthy teams.

As with any new skill, managing teams with greater awareness and promoting better mental health in the workplace takes training and practice.

Once your management team is onboard and working toward greater mental health awareness and support in their teams, offer your employees resiliency training. Putting the power in the hands of individual employees to advocate for themselves and to understand how their awareness of mental wellness can positively impact their work life and that of their coworkers, distributes the responsibility for workplace wellness across the organization.

Ready to learn more? At Welligence, we specialize in mental health training programs for the workplace. Our courses are designed to lead companies to overcome the stigma of mental health concerns by way of education and implementation of workplace wellness best practices. Find out how we can help you normalize the mental health conversation in your workplace.