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Supporting Your Employees’ Mental Health: How to Factor for Intersectionality

Learn how you can transform your operations to create a culture of belonging.

Highlights:

  • It is mentally taxing to sacrifice parts of your identity in order to advance professionally. Great leaders encourage psychological safety amongst their teams to ensure no one feels the need to hide.

  • When different types of -isms (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.) intersect, they don’t add. They multiply.

  • Check out the 5 practical ways we’ve outlined to support the mental health and wellbeing of your employees, with an intersectional lens.

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For many employees, a festive or tropical Zoom background isn’t enough to hide their home life. With dogs barking in the background or kids busting into that meeting with the board of trustees, working from home comes with the added stress of trying to maintain a professional facade from home, and that’s hard when it comes at the expense of hiding parts of your life. Both the feeling of needing to sacrifice part of yourself to get ahead professionally and the work to do so compounds into a heavy mental tax, so how do we create a more accepting, inclusive workplace so no one has to feel the need to hide?


This Mental Health Awareness month, we’re looking at the need to extend compassion not only in how we treat the minor Zoom faux pas of an unmuted mic but in how we empower employees to care for their own mental health. One survey by leading on-demand mental health provider Ginger found that nearly 70% of workers feel more stressed during the pandemic than at any other point in their entire professional career. That ends up hitting the workplace, with a third of U.S. workers reportedly losing two or more hours of productivity per day from the increased stress.


Effects of Mental Health in the Workplace

The Center for Disease Control defines mental health as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and the way it affects our abilities to make good decisions, build relationships, and handle stress makes it equally as important as physical health. Mental health is intertwined into how we maneuver through the world and so when it’s in disarray, it naturally affects our work. Poor mental health in the workplace can negatively affect job performance and productivity, engagement with work, interpersonal communication, and daily functioning.


While an individual’s relationship with their mental health is personal, it’s in your best interest as a leader to make it easier for them to maintain by reducing unnecessary stress, creating a safe work culture, and providing strong mental health support.


While studying the link between team learning and performance, professor Amy Edmonson coined the term psychological safety, which means “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” This might look like the financial specialist being afraid that upper management won’t see her as fit for promoting if they know she’s a single mother of two. It might look like a company unknowingly scheduling their big fundraiser on the Islamic holiday of Eid, putting their Muslim employees in an awkward spot, not knowing how to ask for that day off.


In a 2 year assessment of their employees and practices, Google’s People Operations identified psychological safety as one of the key dynamics to its successful teams. Psychologically safe workplaces allow employees to feel comfortable being their full selves, be confident in speaking up without fear of humiliation, and have fostered trusting, respectful relationships with colleagues. Research and surveys have shown that these all result in naturally higher rates of productivity and increased retention rates.


Likewise, neglecting this aspect of your workplace will likely yield the exact opposite effects: employees are scared of being wrong, prefer to remain silent rather than share new ideas, and feel the pressure to go with the status quo. And it will likely cost you more. The Center for Workplace Health Research and Evaluation found in a 2019 study that “The cost of doing nothing is higher than investing in evidence-based prevention and treatment.”


Fostering a psychologically safe workplace takes an active commitment but the list of benefits is both promising and highly predictable if we believe at our core that successfully-supported employees support successful businesses.


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Factoring for Intersectionality of Your Employees

As you start considering the mental health support your employees need, your next question should naturally be, who are my employees? What identities do they hold, which ones do you know less about, and how does our workplace support or overlook them? Your approach must be employee-centered, meaning it must take into account the holistic and complex view of an employee, including factors such as their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, neurodiversity, disability, and more.


UCLA professor Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how oppressive forces collide into those with various marginalized identities, like standing in a busy intersection with oncoming cars from both lanes. Crenshaw described the example of how Black women face a specific type of dual discrimination. For Emma DeGraffenreid, an intersectional lens might have made all the difference. When she argued that an employer did not hire Black women, the judge dismissed the case because the employer did hire (white) women and they did hire Black (men). Taking a one-lane approach to viewing -isms, the judge did not recognize how sexism and racism converged to render the oppression of those in the cross hairs virtually invisible.


The key takeaway is that when different types of -isms (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.) intersect, they don’t add. They multiply. They become more than the sum of their parts, so your solutions must be specific and unique to the problem.


The Centre for Community Organizations’ 2018 study, “The ‘Problem’ Women of Colour in the Workplace” depicts the common journey of women of color in the workplace, which explains the sometimes high turnover rates and the cyclical repetition of the problem. While it might start with seemingly small passes - being addressed less professionally than white, male counterparts or having your judgement constantly second guessed in your area of expertise - these microinequities compound, holding women of color to higher standards of work with less credit. These dual dynamics happen to different employees everyday, negatively affecting their mental health and making it harder for them to do their actual jobs.



5 Ways You Can Support Employees’ Mental Health With An Intersectional Lens


Credit: Mimi Thian on Unsplash


1. Audit Your Policies and Healthcare Benefits To Ensure They’re Robust and Practical

Ensure that your policies, healthcare benefits, and mental health resources are practical and comprehensive, especially for any of the specific employee groups you are trying to better serve.


2. Use Strong Communication To Make Your Mental Health Resources Abundantly Accessible

Open communication about the resources you offer not only helps your employees access these benefits with ease but also destigmatizes mental health in the workplace, demonstrating your company sees this as valuable and necessary. And you can even get creative about how you go about spreading the word.


One example we love is New York’s YMCA of Greater Rochester sending out a monthly mental health newsletter, reminding employees of benefits available to them and how to access them while also providing tips for stress management.


Ultimately, your employees should be able to answer three questions:

  • What health benefits and mental health resources are available to me?

  • Where can I request these resources anonymously?

  • Who or where do I go to make a request? Who or where can I go to learn more?


3. Train employees at all levels on how to manage their own mental health and spot signs of distress in others

A 2019 nationwide survey revealed a large demand by employees for both workshops and a more open culture about mental health. In addition to offering employees resources they need to be successful, trainings are great to help employees feel engaged and see a company’s values at play. One easy way to gauge what kind of workshops your employees would want is to send out a company-wide survey with a few starter options and space to input their own ideas. Here are some ideas to get started.

  • Stress Management

  • Mindfulness and Meditation

  • Resiliency

  • Building Healthy Habits

  • Learning About Your Mental Health

  • Avoiding Zoom Burnout

  • You can also offer mental health workshops that are specific to certain groups such as parents or caregivers, young professionals, neurodiverse employees, and more.

  • For your mid-level managers, specific trainings on how to spot signs of distress and offer help to their supervisees would be useful as these are the people with the most face-to-face contact with employees.


4. Apply an Intersectional Lens On Your Policies and Workplace

Part of making your policies robust and practical is making sure they are realistic and helpful for employees of all races, genders, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, neurodiversities, immigration statuses, ages, and more. While this includes your healthcare benefits and mental health resources, it also goes beyond to touch all of your policies because that ultimately affects your employees’ mental health.


For example, HBR emphasizes that policies must be interpreted and employed in a realistically effective way, noting how, for example, nondiscrimination clauses on the basis of gender identity necessitate an employee must “out themselves for their own protecting, exchanging their privacy for support.” Policies that enforce dress codes or access to gendered facilities, for example, often exclude nonbinary and gender-nonconfomring people when they require employees to identify as either male or female. For this example, DEI consultant Lily Zheng stresses that dress codes should remove gendered language and be more focused on functionality or legitimate business purposes.


Policies can help create transparency and structure but they can easily turn into barriers when they’re not calibrated to center the people they serve. How are your policies factoring in the various experiences of your employees? How may some of your policies be barring your employees from accessing the same safety as others?


5. Build a Psychologically Safe Workplace

It takes strong interpersonal skills to navigate any culture but to intentionally shape one demands leadership. It’s an exciting task to help shift an entire workplace culture, cleaning it free of stigmas while promoting wellbeing and acceptance. Consider, for example, how media depictions of mental illness as just something a person needs to “try harder” to “overcome” may show up in your workplace. What effect may it have on an employee with anxiety and depression in asking that manager about mental health benefits? And what do you need to know to combat these stigmas?


Building a psychologically safe workplace will look different for every organization but a great place to start is responding to the needs that already exist. It may start with:

  • Supporting affinity Employee Resource Groups by financially supporting their initiatives, offering bonuses to leaders who take on extra work and formally recognizing their contributions.

  • Acknowledging national trauma (Ex. mass shootings or police brutality, especially if a marginalized community was targeted) and offering mental health resources and concrete help to employees who may be affected. Some examples of concrete help may be:

  • Postponing deadlines of nonessential projects

  • Personally stepping up to take tasks off people’s plates.

  • Be open to accommodations for different situations, especially for issues that you weren’t aware of.



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