In a bittersweet lesson, the pandemic has shone a bright light on the inequalities that we’ve lived with for far too long. These inequalities continue to affect the engagement, productivity, happiness, and mental health of so many unique groups within the world’s workforce. People are sidelined because of their gender or gender choice every day, or their cultural, societal, or ethnic background or beliefs. The cumulative impact of being minimized or overlooked because of one’s perceived differences builds barriers to a healthy mind. It also prevents equitable access to resources for mental well-being. Finally, the damage occurs even when the offending behavior is subtle, indirect, or unintentional. As a result, we all suffer.
What can employers do to change the story? The sources range from an employee’s personal life experiences to underfunded healthcare systems. They include poor leadership, overt discrimination, and stigma. The consequences are real, and they’re measurable.
A Sad New Triad: The Pandemic, Workplace Discrimination, and Employee Mental Health
Research in the last 15 years has demonstrated that when someone is mistreated because of their personal characteristics, it can have wide-ranging negative impacts on their mental and physical health. Discrimination can lead to anxiety, psychological distress, cardiovascular effects, and poor self-reported health status. Evidence also shows that mothers who experience racial discrimination are more likely to have babies with low birth weight (which in itself predisposes that child to more inequality). Workplace discrimination can also cause:
- Diminished psychological well-being
- Increased risk of psychological distress
- Pronounced depressive symptoms
The pandemic exposed yet more discrimination in the workplace, adding new challenges to employee mental health:
- Socially, culturally, or sexually diverse employees in the U.S. have experienced an average of 1.6 “acute challenges” during the pandemic. This compares with only one for incidents among their non-minoritized colleagues, according to McKinsey.
- The same McKinsey investigation highlighted that two out of three self-identified LGBTQ+ employees report either acute or moderate challenges with mental health. They are also 1.4 times more likely than heterosexual and cisgender employees to cite challenges with fair performance reviews, workload increases, and losing workplace connectivity and belonging.
- One in 10 women with young children quit their jobs because of the pandemic. The rate is nearly double (17 percent) for single mothers, according to KFF research.
- The Latino community represents only 18 percent of the U.S. population but accounts for 29 percent of the COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC.
- COVID-19 also disproportionately affected Black workers. According to McKinsey, 39 percent of jobs held by Black workers in the U.S. were defined as “vulnerable” because of the pandemic. Comparatively, three percent of white workers holding similar jobs were subject to furloughs, layoffs, or being rendered unproductive during periods of high physical distancing.
Workplace Discrimination Has a Broader Impact
Discrimination affects each person’s mental health. It also inhibits their ability to access support for their challenges and stifles their capacity to remedy the root cause of their injuries.
Obviously, employer-sponsored mental health solutions are more important than ever–and for everyone in the workforce. It’s critical to ensure the solution you choose is accessible and suitable for your entire population. But it’s equally important to realize the limitations of the traditional “either-or” model of mental well-being–that we’re either mentally well or mentally unwell.
Fortunately, psychology is embracing a model of mental well-being that draws a wider net. It will also help remove the barriers built by social and cultural stereotypes. Finally, and over all else, it will more readily enhance employee mental health and well-being and company success.
Employee Mental Health Is Not A Yes-No Question
Since the 1950s, mental health has been guided by what’s called the “single-spectrum model.” It’s a paradigm that says mental health and mental illness are opposite ends of the same spectrum. In other words, it says mental health is the absence of mental illness. This model has been useful in helping people understand that everyone’s mental health fluctuates. But the either-or picture it paints can also be too simplistic and potentially stigmatizing.
This model automatically implies that someone cannot experience positive well-being if they are mentally ill. The evidence tells us otherwise. Today, we more fully appreciate that the single-spectrum model of mental health:
- Inhibits employees from getting help with mental health conditions (because of its either-or mindset toward mental illness)
- Doesn’t foster the potential of nurturing a healthy mind (but focuses instead on “fixing” mental health problems)
- Creates discrimination (by continuing the stigma around mental health)
The reality is that:
- Every single employee is unique
- Everyone’s mental well-being picture is different from anyone else’s
- Everyone lives in a vast landscape of mental well-being. A yes-or-no response isn’t always appropriate when it comes to whether they’re mentally healthy.
So, it’s time to look at employee mental well-being from a perspective of whether someone is flourishing at work and home (that is, they feel good about their life and are functioning very well) or if they are struggling and languishing in life. This is a much more equitable and inclusive view of mental health and how it affects employees.
This Mental Well-being Model Help Remove Discrimination
With the right treatment and tools, someone experiencing chronic depression can feel purposeful in life. They can make valuable contributions to their team and the wider community. On the other hand, consider someone with no mental health diagnosis–or someone who has no symptoms they associate directly with mental illness. They can be ungrounded and disconnected from their work and family, and perform well below their norm.
This dual-spectrum model is underpinned by years of research and is about 20-years-old. It can help us stop pigeon-holing employees as being either mentally ill or mentally healthy. Instead, we have the opportunity to look at someone’s entire employee experience as a field on which those two areas play out. It makes us realize that positive mental health and mental illness are not necessarily polar opposites.
The dual-spectrum concept of mental well-being means having positive feelings and functioning. This needs to happen at home and at work, in personal relationships, and in colleague interactions. It also acknowledges that we can experience positive well-being regardless of any mental health condition. In other words, employees with mental illness aren’t always struggling. And those with no defined mental condition aren’t always doing well.
But in almost every case, and regardless of the model you subscribe to, the solution to discrimination’s harsh impact on mental health begins in the same place: with awareness and understanding. By appreciating that each individual carries their own experiences, identities, cultural and social richness, and viewpoints, we realize we have more that unites us than what separates us. With understanding, we can create empathy. From there, we can begin to overcome barriers, break stigmas, and smash glass ceilings.
There is no such thing as normal. We’re all unique. Everyone has the right to a healthy mind.