Designing a Mental Health Strategy to Meet Diverse Needs

People do not experience identical mental health issues, yet many workplace mental health programs are built on an assumption they do. One size does not fit all, due to generational, diversity and other differences.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened what was already a major workplace challenge – mental health. The normal stress of managing personal and work lives, coupled with pandemic-driven stressors and fears, has led to compounded mental health issues. Traditionally, mental health strategies have been a one-program-serves-all approach, in which the unique needs of different groups of people are not taken into account. The reality, however, is that people experience psychological stressors in different ways, especially in regards to generations and diverse people. A one-size-fits-all program leaves substantial gaps in providing the best resources to fit various needs. This does not mean employers must offer different mental health programs, but they should offer diverse resources to close the gaps.

Recognizing Differences

In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, more than half of employees participating indicated that mental health was a company priority, and even more did not view their leaders as advocates. 86% of the respondents believed the company’s culture should support mental health. For Millennials and GenZers, the percentage was even higher. In fact, 75% of GenZers and half of Millennials indicated they had voluntarily or involuntarily left jobs due to mental health reasons, with almost 60% having experienced symptoms in the previous year. The populations of LGBTQ+, Millennials, and GenZers were more likely to experience mental health issues, and were also more open to talking about them and how to diagnose and treat them. This is a diversity concern also. Nearly half of Black and Latina/o respondents had left a job for reasons that included mental health. The study authors concluded that improving mental health in the workplace means mental health is a Human Resources issue and also a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion issue.

People’s life and work experiences vary, but most mental health programs offer one set of resources, and address mental health as if it is the same experience for all employees. Magellan Health suggests a customized multi-faceted approach, supported by a supportive culture, will be more effective. They made two suggestions for building a culture of positive mental health use technology to reach all employees, including the younger employee groups. First, employers should use communication channels where employees get information, such as social media and instant messaging platforms. Second, employers can offer virtual mental health counseling and mental health apps, to offer mobile-friendly and more accessible support services.

Range of Resources

The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health published policy advice in Mental Health in Canada: COVD-19 and Beyond. A large portion of the report is dedicated to recommendations for support resources which includes employers and workplaces. Once again, expanding access to virtual mental health services is recommended. Virtual mental health support enables employers to access all employees – remote and in-facility – and to provide access to mental health support services that better serve different demographics. Virtual care can be combined with in-person care.

The availability of a variety of resources is another area where employers can improve. There are resources like Wellness Together Canada and BounceBack that employees may not be aware of. Prioritizing workplace mental health in the workplace is important at all times, and especially now that the pandemic has led to increased employee stress and anxiety. Before the pandemic, half a million Canadians were missing work each week due to mental health issues. In its policy paper, CAMH points to the pandemic worsening the situation by causing stress concerning adapting to “new ways of working, returning to the workplace, changes in routine, and the potential loss of coworkers.” Available resources for employers include CAMH’s Workplace Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders, which offers guidance on leadership mental health training and developing mental health support for different mental health issues, diverse identities, and different types of workplaces. Creating a culture free of mental health stigma and discrimination is essential to success.

CAMH makes more recommendations in Workplace Mental Health. Tailored mental health supports are essential to ensuring employees can access the mental health resources that best suit their needs. Firstly, employers should be aware that different mental health issues are best treated with different approaches. For example, a workplace cognitive behavioral therapy program can help people with depression in a cost-effective manner. Programs offering a continuum of support for different stages of mental health are also beneficial.

A tailored workplace mental health program will also address support for diverse people, such as underrepresented groups of people such as women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the LGBTQ+ communities. Since underrepresented groups may not have familiarity with mental health care, a culturally sensitive approach is needed. Use of employee assessments or feedback and demographics can guide the development of the support system. Also, ensure that field workers, remote workers, and deskless workers can also access mental health support resources. Finally, employers need to recognize that different levels of employees need different mental health support systems, i.e., leaders versus frontline workers.

Taking Practical Steps

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s Mental Wellness in the Workplace offers a number of practical steps to addressing mental health in a tailored approach. It includes steps like investing in mental health and cultural sensitivity leadership training, creating team building opportunities to foster social cohesion, encouraging employees to practice self-care, launching a formal workplace peer support program, and encouraging leaders to model authentic and open communication about their own mental health challenges. There are many more practical steps.

These types of suggestions are made because a mental health program is not just about treating mental health issues. It is also about developing and maintaining employee mental well-being. The mental health strategy is integrated with workplace policies in areas such as flexible work arrangements and remote work. There are so many free resources available for employers today. Take advantage of them, because so many employees are likely struggling with mental health issues and are afraid of seeking help. No one wins in that situation.