Three reasons to tackle ‘minority stress’

Workplaces that force people to hide parts of themselves aren’t just less inclusive and productive, they’re also unhealthy, argues Dr Wolfgang Seidl

Today is World Mental Health Day, but unfortunately poor mental health is a year-round issue. It’s clear British workers have never been so stressed, with ‘minority stress’ – the stress we experience when we feel like we have to hide parts of who we are – a particular problem.

According to the 2019 Mental Health at Work report from Business in the Community and Mercer Marsh Benefits, 79 per cent of LGBT+ employees have experienced a mental health problem where work was a cause or factor, and 30 per cent of BAME employees feel they have had a negative experience at work in the last year because of their ethnicity.

Young people are disproportionately affected by loneliness, with nearly half of 18 to 29-year-olds (48 per cent) saying they feel lonely or isolated, compared to one in three workers in general. Women are also more likely to experience mental health issues linked to financial worries.

With the problem so widespread, it’s clear that businesses need to do something. There are three overarching benefits to tackling minority stress.

Better business results

Study after study has shown that diversity at work, where people feel safe being themselves, leads to more creative teams and improves a company’s bottom line.

Unfortunately, current diversity and inclusion initiatives often stop short of genuine inclusivity by focusing on broad categories of race, gender, age, disability and religion. People are just as worried about discussing their social background, caring responsibilities or health concerns, such as mental illness or the menopause.

Instead of focusing on traditional diversity and inclusion demographics, employers that want to become genuinely inclusive are instead taking a ‘whole person’ approach by focusing on creating psychologically safe workplaces. These transcend typical diversity initiatives by ensuring everyone feels safe bringing their whole self to work, without having to hide any part of their identity, thoughts or background for fear of negative consequences.

Reduced mental health issues

Research into why diversity in wellbeing matters shows that employees are more worried about being discriminated against because of their mental health than almost every other diversity indicator, including gender, age, race and religion. A recent poll revealed that more than half of all workers who take days off for psychological illness disguise it as a physical illness

Given the importance of making employees feel safe asking for help to deal with any issue causing them acute stress or anxiety, before it spirals into something more serious, organisations where employees don’t feel safe asking for help will inevitably see more mental health issues arising among the workforce.

Conversely, psychologically safe workplaces, where people not only feel safe asking for help but also feel comfortable talking about what’s on their mind, openly discussing problems and sharing what is and isn’t working without fear of recrimination, have a greater chance of preventing people from getting ill in the first place.

Increased management capability

Inclusive workplaces have managers who can see the whole person in front of them and exude a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for their differences or for speaking up.

Contrary to popular belief, managers don’t have to be born with these skills, or to have experienced minority stress themselves to be effective. They simply need to be trained to recognise when someone is out of sorts and how to enquire kindly, so they can direct them towards appropriate support services, adjust their working conditions where possible or address any discrimination, bullying or exclusion issues within the team.

By making people feel comfortable talking about their whole self, managers with good empathy skills can also make employees feel safe opening up about any other workplace issues, to ensure mistakes get flagged up as quickly as possible, blame culture is kept at bay and employees feel good about sharing their ideas and supporting each other.

In this sense, tackling minority stress doesn’t just help individuals and the business to thrive, it also enables managers to reduce the prevalence of mental health issues and create cohesive teams that are much more effective because of their ability to learn from one another.

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer Marsh Benefits