Diversity and mental health are fundamentally entwined: where we begin to work deeply with one element, we usually at some point stumble upon the other. Perhaps because where we are working authentically in either area, we are touching on peoples’ identities, their very sense of self. It’s big stuff.
Why diversity programmes are failing
Thankfully companies finally seem to be waking up to the desperate need to think about their approaches to both issues. But although they have risen up the agenda, they are still usually siloed off. Companies will have an I&D plan or policy, and a leader tasked with improving outcomes. Perhaps nowadays in some organisations there will be a similar provision for mental health.
And while it is good news that both mental health and diversity are receiving attention, raising awareness is only part of the battle. Because while mental health efforts are only just getting going, over the past few years it has become clear that established diversity programmes are not working. There is now ample evidence that the usual response - training, or awareness-raising – doesn’t work.
Increasingly we can see that top-down approaches to ‘teach’ or ‘tell’ people how they ‘should’ feel or behave will often actually entrench views. Unconscious bias remains unconscious, or shame and guilt may even make recipients more defensive.
There is evidence that this makes change harder, or may result in a surface-level behaviour shift – likely not to become a long-term or deep-level change – without the underlying transformation in someone’s understanding and personal approach.
And this is at the root of why, after years of diversity initiatives and programmes, change is proving stubbornly difficult to achieve.
But there is an opportunity here. It is in facing the reasons behind this that we can also build new, more holistic approaches, linking diversity with mental health and broader employee wellbeing.
Moving beyond silos
The exciting thing is that where the approach is right, companies are in a unique position to have a huge impact on their employees’ wellbeing.
Our experience suggests that a successful approach to both issues will be integrated. No longer positioning I&D and mental health as separate ‘issues’ to be solved with training or top-down approaches, the smart organisations of the future will see their employees as whole people. They will embrace processes that allow employees to explore, reflect on themselves and their patterns, and be empowered to create change for themselves.
Top-down approaches have had their day. We are entering the age of holistic, human approaches to employee wellbeing. And radical new digital tools are making this possible on a scale not seen before.
We recently worked with a large multinational services company on their diversity programme. We were focussing on high-potential employees from diverse backgrounds, and were tasked with working out why previous diversity programmes had stalled. What was holding people back?
Our programmes combine a human relationship with AI feedback, all online. We started by building strong, trusting relationships between users and their Untapped accelerators. In this safe space, open communication, reflection and AI insights began to build a picture of the obstacles this group faced.
Despite on-going diversity initiatives within the organisation and a public commitment to I&D, BAME employees were struggling. They were fearful of not fitting in, and this was compounding a lack of confidence - meaning these employees were often not speaking up, for example in meetings. They felt unseen and unheard, and unsure how to break this pattern.
This created feelings of isolation in teams. On top of that, unconscious bias from team members often showed itself through well-meaning advice, without an understanding of the deeper sense this created in recipients that they were being patronised or singled out as ‘different’.
Fitting in and standing out
These tensions go to the root of who we are as human beings. Most of us want to fit into the wider group while also wanting to be valued, to be authentic, and to be heard as the individuals we are. For diverse cohorts this can be a particularly difficult and painful balance.
And this is at the core of preventative mental health work too. Where individuals feel unable to speak, isolated and inauthentic, their wellbeing suffers. This can lead to mental health problems, or exacerbate existing issues.
While each issue brings specific challenges, addressing them effectively involves a similar approach. It is in truly listening to individuals and their unique perspectives and experiences that we can begin to address complex, knotty problems like diversity, and improve wellbeing.
In our case study example, the group worked with their accelerators to build self-awareness and confidence. In the safe space of video calls and online chat, they were able to voice their anxieties, and begin to work out what might be going on for them in their environment.
The sense of not fitting in, of being singled out as ‘different’, could be unpacked a bit. How might their difference be acknowledged and celebrated, allowing their authentic voices in teams and meetings?
As this unfolded, their confidence grew and they began to find the courage to speak about their vulnerabilities, rather than withdrawing. This showed itself in relationships with colleagues and in meetings.
This growth also brought more self-assurance to be creative and innovative, as they felt less afraid of making mistakes, more free to experiment and be playful. Their productivity and creativity improved, as well as their confidence.
Working with the whole person
While we may present subtly different versions of ourselves at work, at home, with our friends or family, it is in accepting the different parts of ourselves and reflecting openly on ourselves that we can build emotional intelligence – not to mention a greater capacity for acceptance and understanding of others and their complexity.
That is why a holistic approach can be so powerful.
It is in this open, non-judgemental space that we can explore the roots of complex individual issues around difference, link these into broader mental health approaches, and from there step back to see how problems are playing out across larger groups, teams and whole organisations.
As in the case study here, we regularly find that as confidence and productivity increase, so too do people start to feel more creative and free to play with possibilities, with knock-on effects on innovation and strategic outcomes for companies.
We are only just beginning to see the potential for working with people in this holistic way, using digital tools to allow deep work at a scale unimaginable just a few years ago.
The possibilities for organisations to unlock complex issues around diversity, wellbeing and mental health are huge, and the payoff in preventative impacts could be enormous.
It is in the combination of digital tools, AI insight and human emotional intelligence that we can truly embrace our own and others’ authenticity, and so create real change.
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