How a DEI Focus Enhances Workplace Mental Health and Wellness

Getting a pulse on differences in employee perspectives around mental health could improve psychological safety in your organization.
By: | November 11, 2022

Addressing mental health in the workplace is a delicate matter at the best of times. Add on the pandemic and an economic roller coaster, and it’s no surprise that mental illness continues to grow among U.S. adults.

Ensuring employees feel comfortable seeking support for their mental health can be further complicated by the impact of their ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and The Hartford revealed workers who identify as Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), Black and Latinx are less likely than their white colleagues to broach the matter of mental health in their workplaces.

As companies continue to shape their DEI strategies, “It’s important for leaders to appreciate that there are real differences across race and ethnicity when it comes to mental health concerns in the workplace,” said Susan Johnson, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at The Hartford.

Disparities in Perception

Susan Johnson, head of diversity, equity and inclusion, The Hartford

Before workplaces can become core access points for mental health support, employers will need to consider the effectiveness of their communication strategies.

The Hartford-NAMI study showed that 30% of the U.S. workforce would not turn to any workplace resource if they needed mental health assistance. Privacy concerns, stigma and low awareness of employer offerings were cited among factors contributing to workers’ reluctance to seek mental health support at work.

The study also showed AAPI (35%) and Black (32%) workers were more likely than white colleagues (21%) to agree that aspects of their identity make it or would make it hard to discuss mental health at work.

The study concluded that employees of different racial identities perceived some dynamics surrounding mental health differently:

  • When asked whether their workplace encourages dialogue about mental health, around one-third of Black (33%) and Latinx (36%) workers agreed, while nearly half of AAPI (42%) and white (43%) workers did.
  • Regarding the role of leadership expressing empathy and genuine interest in employees’ lives, more than half of white respondents agreed, with 46% of Latinx workers, 44% of AAPI workers and 40% of Black workers in agreement.
  • With respect to companies providing employees with flexibility in work schedules to get help, nearly half of white (48%) employees and around 40% of AAPI (and Latinx (39%) workers found this to be the case. Fewer Black workers (33%) found their places of employment to have this flexibility in place.

“Being the only — whether it’s the only Black or the only Latinx, the only AAPI worker — can bring about its own challenges and stresses,” Johnson said, including microaggressions, impostor syndrome, code-switching or bias.

Empathy and Engagement

The Hartford-NAMI research showed there are impediments to robust and equitable mental health support and no one path to meeting the mental health needs of a diverse workforce.

Nonetheless, U.S. workers who participated in the study identified four key actions employers can take to foster empathy and increase engagement around mental health:

  1. Create a central, easily accessible hub for information about company-provided mental health resources.
  2. Communicate frequently and clearly about how to access help.
  3. Educate leadership about mental health conditions and resources while encouraging peer-to-peer support, such as programs by employee resource groups.
  4. Lean on nonprofits and community groups that offer mental health education and programs designed for identity and cultural dimensions.

The Hartford’s strategy begins with its board and executive leadership, providing them the resources to understand how to bring about an inclusive environment, Johnson said. “And then we’ve got some terrific engagement and communications mechanisms through our employee resource groups.”

In addition to an employee assistance program where staff receive support from trained professionals, Johnson has found the company’s Courageous Conversation Circles (C3) to be helpful in engaging employees around matters that influence their emotional wellbeing.

The Hartford describes C3s as “facilitated discussions that empower employees to discuss complex topics in a safe space, build trust and increase productivity.” In 2021, the company held more than 400 conversations where thousands of employees “respectfully discussed topics such as age assumptions, gender bias, race and inclusive language.”

“It’s important for leaders to appreciate that there are real differences across race and ethnicity when it comes to mental health concerns in the workplace.” — Susan Johnson, head of diversity, equity and inclusion, The Hartford

Psychological Safety at Work

Identifying differences in employee perceptions around mental health may be key to developing more psychologically safe workspaces.

“We not only look at the universal data that our employees tell us relative to their experience of The Hartford,” Johnson shared, “[but] we also look at that data through the lens of diversity.We look at how employees feel relative to overall engagement, or to aspects of inclusion or trust in the workplace, to see if there are differences.”

By gauging the differences in employee perception, she said, leaders can explore what steps to take. “It’s really important to unpack the data across differences so that you understand where your opportunities are, and then you can build initiatives to get at them.”

The Hartford also uses performance reviews to support its commitment to DEI and psychologically safe environments.

“All employees are accountable for their behaviors, and we embed aspects of inclusive behaviors into our overall behavioral framework … and that feedback is incorporated into their performance evaluations,” she shared.

Company leaders are also expected to develop unit DEI plans, which are evaluated against specific criteria, she added. “That’s part of their performance feedback.”
Johnson described the unit DEI planning process as an opportunity for employee engagement: “We get such exciting and engaged participation from employees throughout the company, because they love to participate on their unit DEI plan.”

Weaving DEI into an organization’s performance framework, “does lead to our employees feeling safe, supported, respected, to talk about the issues that come about relative to anxiety or challenges or aspects of mental health at work.” &

Raquel Moreno is a staff writer with Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected].