The Evolution of DEI in the Workplace

Workplace diversity training began soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964,1 which required employers to end discriminatory hiring practices. However, these trainings were ambiguous and unenforced, producing very little change in employment practices. In 1998, Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin reported that, by 1970, just 4 percent of employers had established affirmative-action offices and only 20 percent had established affirmative-action policies.2 While many organizations have implemented diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs over the years, it still hasn’t been easy to establish programs that drive meaningful change.3

However, in 2020, DEI in the workplace became top of mind for employers and employees. The COVID-19 pandemic and a string of movements to address tragic social injustices, including #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #StopAAPIHate, have made it undeniably clear that all are not affected equally. Finances, food security, domestic violence, homelessness, wellbeing, and mental and physical healthcare are just some of the social determinants that disproportionately affect people of color, women, the LGBTQA+ community, and other marginalized groups.4

These events spurred a nationwide, cross-industry urgency to invest in and implement more and better workplace DEI initiatives. DEI in the workplace is now a core business function at companies big and small. In 2020, ZoomInfo, a B2B database, reported that “over the last five years, there has been a 113% increase in execs with diversity and inclusion titles, and nearly 40% of Fortune 500 companies have on-boarded an executive focused on the issue.”5

Social expectations aside, employers have plenty of other incentives to improve DEI. According to McKinsey, organizations that “rank in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above industry medians.”6 GRC, Global Research and Consulting group explains that more diverse and inclusive workplaces benefit from increased employee satisfaction, advantages in talent acquisition, better alignment with customers, and improved decision making and corporate innovation.4

Connecting Mental Health and DEI

Mental health affects us all differently and can be looked at by gender, race, orientation, socioeconomic status, disability, and age. These descriptors are, of course, not the only factor at play when it comes to mental health but the data in each category provides insight into how each group of people lives. When descriptors overlap, such as when someone is a black female with a disability, the work-life issues that affect mental health can be even greater.

Research, reports Columbia University, suggests that a black adult is 20 percent more likely to experience a serious mental health concern than a white adult.7 CARE International’s recent gender analysis found that 55 percent of women reported “a significant impact from COVID-19 related income loss,” compared with 34 percent of men. Similarly, the analysis shares that 27 percent of women experienced increased mental health struggles, compared with 10 percent of men.8 In 2020, Science published research finding that people with low incomes are up to three times more likely to experience depression and anxiety.9 This is just the tip of the iceberg on the connection between DEI and mental health.

Beyond the data on who is disproportionately affected by mental health concerns, we also need to look at the why. Employees from diverse backgrounds or belonging to marginalized groups often deal with microaggressions, unconscious bias, a lack of representation, and other stressors10—all of which play a role in their overall mental health and wellbeing.

How Access to Care is Affected by DEI

As employers become more aware of the multitude of ways that belonging to different groups and with diverse backgrounds can impact a person’s mental health, they are leaning into their commitment to improving DEI in the workplace. There are various ways employers are doing this, not the least of which is improving access to effective mental health care services.

Just as demographics have an impact on mental health, they also affect access to mental health care, which is why understanding the connection between DEI and mental health is important. In this context, too, we need to look at both the who and the why.

For example, take a look at the data reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Of the adults who accessed mental health services over one year, 16.6 percent were white, 15.6 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native, 8.6 percent were black, 7.3 percent were Hispanic, and just 4.9 percent were Asian.11

The reasons for such low rates of access to care among BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) groups are many: lack of transportation or childcare, fear of racism and discrimination, different cultural perceptions about mental health, hesitation about taking time off work, language barriers, to name just a few. Additionally, employees who belong to these populations face many barriers to finding mental health providers who understand their culture, background, and identity. Case in point: the majority of mental health professionals—80.9 percent—are white.12

While this is just one example based on race, there are infinitely more research-backed examples that connect the dots between lack of access to mental health care services and gender, age, LGBTQA+ identity, and other demographics. It’s not only important to ensure that employees have access to mental health care but that they can access culturally appropriate providers in a way that makes them comfortable, such as through a digital mental health platform. Likewise, work-life services that are designed to serve diverse employee populations are essential to addressing the many barriers that people on your team may face when seeking access to mental health services.

There’s no way around it: supporting DEI means supporting mental health. Organizations must ensure that employees have the support they need to thrive. But making effective, accessible, and culturally appropriate mental health care available is just the beginning. Leadership needs to be educated and empowered to respond appropriately to DEI and mental health issues. The stigma around mental health needs to be reduced. EAP and mental health benefits should be easy to understand and access. To create a truly healthy workplace, employers need to fully embrace DEI and mental health, together.

If you’d like more resources on creating a healthy workplace, check out our on-demand webinar, How to Have a Thriving Workplace in Turbulent Times, discussing steps to creating a healthy workplace.