Currently, the majority of existing diversity and inclusion initiatives in the American and Global workspaces still consider mental health as an outcome of their frameworks. Whether these initiatives are based on “best practices” models, or whether they are coming out of research, the mental health and well being of employees are considered good byproducts of organizational goals towards diversity and inclusion. In doing so, workspaces are still relegating mental health to the periphery, as a footnote or an after thought. But, mental health needs to be on the forefront of diversity and inclusion frameworks and initiatives – not just as an outcome, rather as a main driver to increase productivity, performance and employee retention.

This may sound like a radical idea, but it is the only truly sustainable way to leverage the power of diversity to progress toward inclusion across all spheres of life. Here are three reasons why a shift towards a focus on mental health in the diversity and inclusion sector is immediately imperative:

Focusing on mental health as a diversity and inclusion driver in workspaces is the biggest way to actively practice the inclusion of employees as whole human beings.

Historically, work and life have always been seen as separate entities. Prevalent thought on this focuses on work-life balance, and on concepts surrounding the separation of the professional sphere from the personal sphere. But, this is not how life operates these days. Work has become life as remote work possibilities and flextime options are becoming more prevalent, especially among xennials and millenials. People spend approximately one-third of their lives officially working, but in reality they spend much more time than that investing in their professional development or thinking about it.

Employees’ core personality traits, and their mental health needs don’t drastically change in the time they spend in workspaces and the time they spend outside of them. The mental health stressors they accumulate through their work often compound the stressors they bring with them, and vice versa. Yet, these very mental health needs are, for the most part, not acknowledged outside of a doctor’s office. Employees are expected to successfully compartmentalize in order to be efficient, productive and successful in delivering goals, however, they are not given the tools to do this. They are expected to figure it out on their own. Asking for help is a vulnerability – a potential weakness that is perceived to be fraught with negative consequences.

Changing our mindsets to turn mental health needs into driving initiatives serves to increase employee value, and in return, engagement and performance. When employees feel like supervisors and organizations care about their mental wellbeing as a whole, they are going to be more likely to participate more, and stay longer. 

Addressing mental health needs and providing support is critical to counteract the near constant microaggressions that large portions of the employee population face.

As the spotlight on diversity increased in the past two decades, what has become apparent is the alarming frequency with which people participate in the perpetuation of microaggressions – indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against underrepresented groups. Many of these microaggressions take the form of backhanded compliments that the recipient cannot respond to, for fear of being called hostile or unreasonable. Repeated exposure to these discriminatory behaviors undermines recipients’ worldviews, as they begin to internalize the stereotypes. It affects their personalities, motivations, attitudes and behaviors in negative ways.

Many companies already have multiple projects, initiatives and resources they offer to employees in the form of trainings, seminars, and ERGS. Through these they offer learning opportunities for the recognition of implicit and explicit biases, understanding stereotypes and prejudice, and counteracting discrimination. These efforts are necessary but not sufficient to equip employees with tools to support themselves and others who need mental health support. The most reasonable way to reduce the prevalence and effects of microaggressions within groups is to participate in the maintenance of an atmosphere where mental wellbeing is actively promoted and supported. When employees feel that their mental health needs are more than just mere outcomes of other organizational goals, they are more likely to feel more comfortable in participating in conversations and initiatives that lead to the practice of inclusion.

Organizations have to fulfill their portion of the responsibility of destigmatizing mental health needs and support in workspaces.

Almost 20% of the American population has a mental illness. This does not even cover the larger portion of the population who has serious mental health needs, but is not diagnosed with mental illness.

There is no doubt that the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and non-medical mental health needs does not fall under the purview of organizational setups and responsibilities. Seeking help for mental health needs ultimately does fall squarely on the shoulders of those needing the help. However, many don’t seek help and support precisely because of the stigma attached to mental health, especially if they feel that seeking mental health help might have negative consequences on their professional careers. Large segments of employee populations also don’t have the support they really need to thrive within workspaces. This is why creating a framework of support is essential.

In the past decade or so, there has been an intentional and drastic push toward the destigmatization of mental health support. But, many organizations have not participated to the full extent in this movement, within their capacities and realms of influence. This destigmatization can only be achieved via the mainstreaming of mental health conversations, including in workplaces. Focusing on mental health support maximizes individual and team potential. It promotes wellness in authentic and transparent ways. It openly recognizes the spectrum of the diversity in needs, thoughts and talents. It is one of the best ways to practice inclusion.

When organizational focus shifts to supporting employee mental health and well being, inclusion becomes the natural behavioral framework that every employee automatically adheres to. When we start treating people with the respect and support that their whole lives deserve, the diversity and inclusion numbers have a much better chance to fall into place in sustainable ways.