- There are barriers for specific minority groups to access mental health support in the workplace. Knowing what these barriers are is the first step toward supporting individuals from these groups.
- Personalized mental health support is a solution to improving mental health outcomes at work, but this requires training, understanding, and insight into individual needs.
- A top-down commitment to understanding the needs of all employees can foster a sense of psychological safety at work.
In the U.K., people from some minority backgrounds are more likely to experience poor mental health outcomes because of factors such as institutional racism and discrimination.
These factors can prevent access to quality treatment and the most appropriate care for those experiencing mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. According to Mental Health U.K., ethnic minorities can encounter specific challenges that cause mental health inequalities; for example, cultural stigma, language barriers, less awareness around mental health issues, and a lack of culturally-sensitive interventions.
If this is what people have to confront in their personal lives, what about employees in the workplace? Unfortunately, many barriers to culturally sensitive mental health support at work mirror those outside the workplace.
The issue around the provision of mental health support to diverse communities is complex (statistics reveal that it is not all minority ethnic groups who have lower outcomes). A panel discussion recently attempted to unpick how organizations can develop culturally sensitive mental health support in the workplace. This lively and informative discussion was hosted by one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing media agencies, MediaLab, and held in collaboration with an organization focused on boosting the number of minority ethnic employees in the media industry, Media for All (MEFA).
Speakers included representatives from the mental health sector, media and business. There were several main takeaways from this event:
- Employers must recognize employees as individuals and not merely as members of a particular ethnic or cultural group;
- Employers must get to know their staff on a deeper level to provide more tailored mental health support;
- Employees who are experiencing mental health challenges require empathy — not sympathy;
- Culturally sensitive training must be offered to all staff;
- Finally, employers must empower staff to form their own Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).
The discussion also examined the issue of code-switching (when employees feel the need to conform to certain behavioral and cultural norms at work) and the link between cultural insensitivity and poor mental health support in the workplace.
Tailored support suits culturally diverse workforces
According to the 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) report on mental health at work, mental health interventions in the workplace must be culturally sensitive. In terms of mental health training, this refers to both the content (how relevant it is to each employee) and delivery (how accessible it is to each individual). The WHO recognizes that some socio-demographic groups are more adversely (or differently) affected by mental health risk factors and recommends universal changes to reduce mental health risk factors in all workplaces. These changes include improvements in communications with staff, managerial training on cultural sensitivities within mental health, and de-stigmatizing mental health in the workplace.
Although experiences of mental health might be similar across various groups and communities, there are distinct individual differences within those groups. Providing tailored (bespoke) mental health support is the best way to address the needs of the individual; however, this cannot be effective without first understanding the needs of each employee.
According to MIND UK, an individual’s identity and life experiences will have shaped their perspective on mental health, which could also be influenced by their cultural, religious or ethnic background. Developing a tailored approach is thus two-pronged — it entails getting to know staff members on an individual level, and, secondly, understanding any cultural or religious values the employee espouses.
The notion of personalized mental health fitness plans was recently highlighted in an Allwork.Space interview with Psychologist Dr Bill Howatt. According to Dr Howatt, employees should have bespoke action plans to improve and maintain their mental health, in the same way as individuals have tailored physical fitness programs. This would improve mental wellbeing in the workplace and ensure that employees from all backgrounds feel valued as individuals with unique mental health requirements.
Providing bespoke mental health support at work means ensuring that any intervention is appropriate and relevant to the individual concerned. The right support depends on managers actively listening to employees and providing the conditions and resources for conversations around mental health issues to occur. A lack of understanding could lead to an offer of incorrect treatment or a potentially harmful situation being overlooked. Breaking down any cultural barriers before providing support means that employees will feel valued (at the very least) and could lead to improved mental health outcomes.
The value of a top-down approach to promoting positive mental health for all in the workplace
The onus is on the employer to examine the company’s culture and ensure that a climate of psychological safety permeates the organization. What this means is that all policies, resources, physical spaces, and the company’s ethos and values enable every employee to feel that their wellbeing has been prioritized. During the MediaLab panel event, there was a discussion about stereotyping and how a lack of cultural awareness from management can harm internal communications and jeopardize relationships with staff from diverse backgrounds. This highlights how important it is for employers to understand their own prejudices and biases (we all have them) before seeking solutions to issues requiring cultural sensitivity.
The role of employers in promoting positive mental health for all should not be underestimated. Managers can play an essential role in providing culturally-sensitive mental health support by creating a workplace environment that is inclusive and respectful of all employees, regardless of their cultural background. This includes knowledge of and sensitivity toward the unique cultural and social factors that affect an employee’s mental wellbeing.
Managers can also provide support by being aware of and addressing any cultural biases within the workplace and creating opportunities for employees to discuss and address mental health issues in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Additionally, employers can also play a role in connecting employees with culturally-sensitive mental health resources and services outside of the workplace.
Here’s how employers can facilitate a culturally sensitive environment:
- Prove your commitment by hosting a training session yourself
- Attend informal gatherings with your employees and get to know them as unique individuals
- Acknowledge a range of special days and holidays (this could be an opportunity to teach everyone about topics such as different traditional foods, languages, cultural icons and religious ceremonies).
- Learn about specific cultural norms and values that are different from your own (for example, in China, it is uncommon to criticize workplace superiors; whilst in some cultures, direct eye contact is considered intimidating or even disrespectful).
By facilitating a culturally sensitive environment, employers send a clear message that diversity and inclusion are valued and prioritized by the organization, which can foster a more positive and productive work environment and promote positive mental wellbeing for all.
The role of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in Mental Health Support
An Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a group of employees who share a common characteristic or background, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. These groups are often formed to promote diversity and inclusion at work and provide support and resources for employees who share these characteristics. They may also function to raise awareness of issues related to respective communities within the organization and to advocate for policies and initiatives that support the inclusion and advancement of their members.
The existence of these groups can help to promote positive mental health and psychological safety in the workplace. The employer’s role is to facilitate and empower employees to form ERGs but not take the lead. It makes no sense, for example, if a white male employer attempts to set up an ERG for black female employees; instead, they should provide the space and resources for staff to do this independently.
ERGs can also serve as a mental health support resource for employees by providing access to mental health support services such as counseling and employee assistance programs. Additionally, they can help to raise awareness of mental health issues within the organization and advocate for policies and initiatives that support the mental wellbeing of all employees. Alongside inclusivity, ERGs can also promote a culture of respect and empathy in the organization, which can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.