Why diversity in health matters

With some areas of society more likely to experience certain physical or mental health conditions, it’s time we stopped the ‘one size fits all’ approach to wellbeing, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl

Most employers are now keenly aware of the business benefits associated with employing a diverse workforce. However, outdated wellbeing policies primarily aimed at older white males, are not only undermining diversity and inclusion credentials, but also putting lives at risk.

For example, education around heart attacks typically describes the symptoms as including a tightness of the chest, with pain radiating down the arm and shortness of breath, even though when a woman experiences a heart attack, her symptoms may be more subtle. As a result, many women fail to recognise the symptoms when they first suffer a heart attack, with the undiagnosed heart attack being dubbed a ‘silent’ heart attack later on. In reality, it wasn’t silent, or any less detrimental. It was just experienced in a very different way that would have been much less likely to be missed if educational materials had been tailored towards both genders.

Similarly, even though prostate cancer is twice as likely to kill black men as white men, with one in four black men at risk of developing the disease during their lives, most organisations are still distributing generic warnings about prostate cancer, populated by images of older white males. Not only does this approach fail to engage with an audience it really needs to educate, but it also misses an opportunity to make everyone feel like their health is equally valued.

What is more, these are not one-off examples: People of Southeast Asian origin have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes; people of Irish descent are at increased risk of developing dangerously high iron levels (haemochromatosis); black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with advanced breast cancer; and being white is a risk factor for developing an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation). 

Add to that different ways in which people from different age groups and genders want to access wellbeing materials and the new health needs being presented by the LBGTQ+ community, such as the extent to which employers’ healthcare schemes should help to pay for transgender operations or fertility treatment, and there are numerous practical reasons why an increasingly diverse workforce needs an inclusive approach to health.

Another reason for building more diversity into wellbeing policies is that health is an important diversity consideration, with employees experiencing poor health feeling more discriminated against due to this than almost anything else. For example, despite the prevalence of mental health issues, the Mental Health at Work report 2017 shows that employees experiencing poor mental health feel more comfortable talking about seven other diversity indicators, including their race, age, physical health and religious belief. Just one in 10 (11 per cent) employees feel able to disclose a mental health issue to their line managers.

Similarly, a report by the Government Equalities Office has highlighted the extent to which women affected by menopause feel at risk of ridicule and gendered ageism, causing one in four menopausal women to consider quitting work because of their experiences.

This makes health a new frontier in diversity at work. Employers who are serious about boosting their D&I credentials must therefore take a step back from offering broad wellbeing strategies and start making their wellbeing policies personally relevant and compelling to the health concerns faced by different genders, the health risks faced by people from different ethnic backgrounds and people affected by specific health concerns that remain taboo, such as mental health issues, the menopause and HIV.

Only by supporting the wellbeing of all individuals in this way, can we hope to prevent costly and debilitating health issues, in a way that also makes everyone feel more included, understood and accepted.

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