An ‘Astounding’ Mental Health Equity Crisis – and Actions You Can Take
Corporate leaders and top psychologists share proven strategies for mental health equity.
“We have a huge [mental health] crisis, and that crisis is disproportionately affecting certain groups,” Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association told the audience at our National Business Summit on Mental Health Equity last week.
- People are reporting anxiety and depression at rates 3 to 4 times higher than pre-pandemic levels.
- 27% of Americans are experiencing mental health challenges to the point they can’t function most days.
- That rate is nearly doubled for people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people and communities of color. In other words, nearly half of them say their mental health is getting in the way of their work or everyday activities.
Key Takeaway: “If you’re an employer and you are taking a broad-based approach [to mental health] that treats your workforce as a monolith, you’re going to be missing very important differences between members of your workforce,” Dr. Evans said.
A Strategy: The business leaders and psychological experts on our panel agreed: for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts to be successful, organizations must have a strategy for mental health equity. A mental health employee resource group can be a valuable component of that strategy and help build up psychological safety in the workplace.
Here are some tips from our expert panelists:
- Get a senior leader to sponsor your ERG in a meaningful way — to be part of its work, use their social capital within the company to support its mission and invite the ERG into strategic conversations.
- Understand your employees’ mental health needs. Are you collecting the right demographic data for a full, intersectional picture of your employees? “The pathway to equity is paved by data. What gets measured gets done,” said Wizdom Powell, Chief Social Impact and Diversity Officer at Headspace.
- Encourage collaboration. When ERGs work together, they build more community within your company and can better reflect employees’ multi-faceted identities.
Get more advice — for small businesses, supporting remote workers, tackling stigma and more — by watching the first panel from last week’s Summit and download our brand new Guide to Building a Mental Health Employee Resource Group. Our brand new guide, developed in partnership with the American Psychological Association, will help your organization recruit ERG leaders and members, equip a mental health ERG for success, and identify opportunities for collaboration to tap into the energy and insights of your people.
Did you know: Teams with neurodivergent members — more commonly understood as people diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, post-traumatic stress or on the autism spectrum — can be up to 30% more innovative because they get the benefit of different mindsets and approaches to problem-solving.
And yet: In the DEI statements of Fortune 500 companies, only 30% mention disability — and only 3 specifically mentioned neurodivergence.
Our panel of experts offered advice for supporting neurodiversity in your organization:
- Start at the hiring process. Foster and demonstrate a culture of flexibility to remove any stigma about asking for accommodations. If you know a candidate is neurodivergent, invite a neurodivergent employee onto the interview panel to be able to talk about what it’s like to work at your company.
- Be thoughtful with onboarding. For example, instead of just listing the resources you offer, build them out step-by-step to help employees who may have difficulty processing the information you provide.
- Examine how you handle accommodations. Making clear that anyone can request accommodations will help remove the stigma that many neurodiverse employees feel in asking for them. Also, involve other neurodivergent employees in crafting accommodations. And communicate how workers can ask for accommodations and that they’re available at any time.
- Make accessibility the standard. Simple actions, such as recording all video meetings, may benefit different groups of employees and prevent any individual team member from having to divulge their disability by asking for support.
Go deeper into the conversation by watching our full panel discussion on supporting neurodivergent employees.
Your Questions Answered
Attendees at last week’s summit asked more questions than we had time to answer — but our experts were gracious enough to follow up with written responses.
What are the three most common accommodation requests for neurodivergent employees — and free or low-cost resources to address them?
From Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association (APA), and Dr. Maysa Akbar, Chief Diversity Officer, APA:
Among the top accommodation requests are asynchronous working (i.e. not requiring all members of a team to work at the same time) and remote working. Flexibility is key!
If those accommodations are not an option, then the physical workspace may need to be tailored to the needs of neurodivergent staff. This can include designating a quiet area, considering desk placement, and providing lighting that is adjustable.
For additional information on accommodations, the Job Accommodation Network provides comprehensive information based on specific disabilities. It is important to remember that neurodivergence encompasses more than autism and ADHD.
Part of creating a welcoming, supportive, and psychologically safe workplace is helping your organization better understand neurodiversity and the potential needs of neurodivergent employees. This can be done through the training of all employees, not just managers. These trainings will demonstrate your organization's commitment to creating an inclusive environment. There are numerous free or low-cost resources available online through multiple reputable neurodivergent advocacy organizations.
There is plenty of research to support that investing in an environment inclusive of neurodivergent employees benefits the productivity of the entire organization.
Any tips for starting an ERG at a smaller organization?
Bernard Coleman, Chief Diversity Engagement Officer at Gusto:
Start small with the communities that exist. It can first be a culture committee and, as your representation grows, you can define specific groups that align with your values. Try the “4-C” model of career, commerce, community and culture. You don’t have to do all four dimensions but focus on those that are more resonant with your company.
How does the approach to understand employees' needs differ when you're working with a smaller employee population vs a larger one? And global vs national?
Dr. Wizdom Powell, Chief Social Impact and Diversity Officer at Headspace:
Organizations with smaller numbers of employees need to keep in mind that we often have to work harder to protect employee anonymity when analyzing and sharing feedback. Focusing here on creating the right needs assessment approaches is key. Similarly, organizations with a global employee base should recognize that a one-size-fits-all strategy for assessing and benefits offering will not be effective.
How do you motivate employees to participate in surveys?
Christy Nittrouer, assistant professor at Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business:
I think there are two approaches to this: (1) Concentrate your efforts on one big launch a year, work hard to make sure it’s not too long (we always shoot for 15-20 minutes max), and get support for participation from leadership.
If leaders champion participation, it should spill down hierarchically through the organization, and each successive supervisor should be championing participation in their group (and potentially carving out 20 minutes for them to take the survey).
If your company has an internal dashboard or ways to track internal communication, post a leaderboard! Show the groups that have the most participation, as well as the response rate for the company as a whole.
Also, send targeted reminders to the incompletes.
In one organization I’ve seen, they tie employee engagement to supervisor performance. I don’t think you necessarily have to go that far, but getting management to encourage employees to participate, and making sure to not oversample them throughout the year, has been effective in my experience.
Option (2) You might consider pulsing employees (launching periodic 1-3 question polls, to get a sense about the workforce right now). I’ve seen organizations launch these on their dashboards, which employees see all the time, and then it’s quick and easy to do it. The cons might include watering down company-wide interest in the big annual engagement survey, or making sense of data from a limited number of items, but it offers a current sense of the workforce at that moment and helps you measure data over time.
If you’re talking about making sure employees feel safe enough to be honest in a survey, you’ll want to ensure anonymity: don’t force a response to all demographic questions in case people have intersectional identities that make them highly identifiable.
Also, if you ask people about their condition, rather than disability, response rates increase. And striving not to “other” people in your answers — for example, rather than listing “other” as an answer on demographic questions, rewording it as, “I prefer to identify another way,” and then allowing the person to specify — can do a better job honoring people’s individual identities.
The APA adds:
- Involve staff in the process by allowing them to suggest topics for the survey
- Demonstrate how the survey will help inform company policies
- Guarantee anonymity
- Share results when they become available and communicate what has changed since your last survey
- Try not to make it overly long, and set expectations for how much time it will take
- Offer a small reward for the department or team with the highest response rate
How does high turnover affect the work environment and other employees’ mental well-being? And how can we address these things?
People often think compensation is the strongest driver of turnover. While it certainly matters, it is not the only — nor, would I argue, the biggest — driver. We found contributors to job satisfaction, engagement and turnover included (1) perceptions of the organization’s respect for diversity and valuing multiple points of view and (2) employees’ experiences of being treated with respect. Employees in the particular organization we studied reported feeling especially burnt out and overworked, and they identified the high turnover in the entry-level positions as being a strong contributor to this.
Turnover has the potential to feed on itself, leading to ever-increasing turnover, but not always. When there is turnover, the impact on the remaining employees can depend on factors such as who is leaving, why they are leaving, and how they are treated when they leave. A few tips that organizational psychologists regularly give employers include the following:
- Keep in mind that employees often quit their boss, not their job.
- Be respectful toward departing employees, treat them well as they depart, and consider how they may help you after they have moved on.
- After some time has passed, if an employee was good, consider trying to bring them back. It sends a strong message to remaining employees when a good person leaves only to later decide that was a mistake and then return.
How should we make onboarding more effective for neurodivergent employees (especially if they don’t disclose their condition)?
This begins the moment you start recruiting new employees. An organization can signal a lot about their inclusive practices in the way they advertise jobs, where they are searching for candidates, and during the interview process. When it comes to designing or updating onboarding practices, it is critical to include neurodivergent staff in this process.
During the recruitment and staff orientation processes, you will want to be up front about the accommodations and other types of staff support that you offer. This not only indicates to your neurodivergent employees that they are welcome and included, but it also does not force anyone to "out themselves" when asking if these accommodations exist in the first place. You will also want to provide clear information about the process for requesting accommodation and emphasize that there are no repercussions for making these requests.
Consider recording new employee training sessions and giving the staff the option to view them later. If staff are required to attend live virtual trainings, do not require cameras to be on, consider making ice breaker activities optional, and allow for plenty of breaks. It is better to schedule two or three smaller live onboarding sessions versus one very long session. Additionally, provide any onboarding materials, including the slide deck, well in advance of any live new employee training sessions. During live or recorded new employee training sessions, ensure that captioning is enabled.
Mentoring for new employees through a "buddy-system" can also be beneficial; however, if offered, it should be optional to participate.
The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, or EARN, provides excellent information about creating a supportive work environment for neurodivergent employees.
How can an organization weave together all the different people functions (e.g., HR, learning and development, DEI, coaching, and many more) to support employee health?
We encourage summit attendees to read up on the organization-wide ways in which employers can strive for workplace mental health excellence through these six actions:
- Train your managers to promote health and well-being
- Increase employees’ options for where, when, and how they work
- Reexamine health insurance policies with a focus on employee mental health
- Take a critical look at equity, diversity, and inclusion policies
- Develop programs and policies that support employee mental health
- Listen to employees and give them a voice in organizational decisions