April 7th, 2021, has been designated World Health Day by the World Health Organization. This year’s theme is: “Together for a fairer, healthier world,” meant to promote diversity, inclusion and equity as these concepts relate to health care. Sadly, even in countries with universal health care like Canada inequity in many shapes and sizes impedes access to effective care, including gaining access to support for mental health problems and illnesses. While stigma on its own is a huge barrier to wellness, members of marginalized groups often experience additional barriers when reaching out for help for a mental health issue. The stigma around mental health is compounded by other types of prejudice and discrimination related to race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, culture, socioeconomics and more. Those struggling with their mental health are all too often “othered” and misunderstood by their peers. A workplace environment is (unfortunately) a good example of where this frequently happens.
As I’ve said time and again in previous blog posts, the workplace is uniquely positioned to support employees in maintaining positive mental wellbeing. We spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else and most working Canadians have some sort of psychological, emotional and/or social attachment to their job, meaning at the end of many or most workdays we’re able to experience some degree of pride and accomplishment. It’s part of human nature to seek meaning in the work we do. When an employee is struggling with a mental health problem the nature of the issue may make it difficult or impossible for them to complete their job tasks the exact same way they did when they were well. Employers have a duty – not just ethically, but also a legal obligation – to make appropriate accommodations that support their team members in regaining their wellness to the point where ideally they’re able to get back to business as usual and once again do their job in a way that’s satisfying to both them and the employer.
I work with clients to improve psychological wellness at work and this typically involves taking an in-depth look at workplace culture. After all, it’s pretty tough for employees to feel their best if organizational conditions and the overall vibe in the work environment is dominated by hostility, fear, unhealthy competitiveness or other stress-inducing feelings. In workplaces where morale is less than stellar a sense of “fairness” (or what some believe to be fairness) is sometimes a hyper-focus of employees. In these work environments management and HR professionals frequently hear complaints such as, “Why does Bob get extra breaks in the morning? That’s not fair, I only get one break – I want what Bob’s getting!”. The folks fielding these inquiries (or demands, as they’re sometimes presented) may have a hard time responding in a way that satisfies the asker and also respects Bob’s right to privacy, as obviously a leader can’t disclose that an accommodation for a mental health problem has been made.
Remember: SAME doesn’t equal FAIR.
In the workplace sameness is often mistaken for fairness. Treating everyone the same neglects to account for our differences as human beings. A focus on equality essentially means sameness: behaving on the assumption that we’re all carbon copies of one another. A focus on equality in the workplace is outdated and just doesn’t make any sense knowing how diverse our needs are as humans with different personalities, strengths and areas for improvement, likes and dislikes and the fact that life can throw us curveballs when we least expect them (hellooo pandemic!).
Equity not only recognizes our differences but honours them. A truly equitable workplace means all employees have ready access to the tools they need to thrive in their roles. This may well mean that Bob takes three 5-minute breaks while Suzy take one 15-minute break. We’re all different. That’s not just a fact we have to acknowledge and deal with, it’s actually a real asset to the workforce. Our differences help us to be effective when working as a team. Imagine your team is troubleshooting some specific work-related problem – if everyone’s thought process was exactly the same, the issue would take a lot longer to resolve or perhaps never would get resolved. Troubleshooting the problem with a group of people who all think differently spurs innovation. Diversity is something workplaces should not just accept, but should promote and work to understand the unique advantages it presents for the organization and its team members.
You may not think that discussing these concepts is relevant for everyone in your workforce, or it might not seem directly related to the work your organization does. I would argue that as long as you’re employing humans and not robots, these are issues that are bound to surface in one way or another and safe, open discussion is a vital for being proactive and nipping potential problems in the bud. Equity, diversity and inclusion are hot topics right now but it needs to be much more than “checking a box”. Breathing life into these concepts requires making it a priority at work, open dialogue, consistency and sometimes acknowledging unpleasant truths, like policies and practices within your organization that aren’t necessarily inclusive or fair.
This is my favourite visual depicting how approaches that sound like they’d work don’t actually work for everyone, and how meeting diverse needs sometimes requires outside-the-box thinking:
For more info on this year’s World Health Day theme and the WHO’s general aim for this annual day – to reminds us to tune in to and care for all components of our wellbeing – visit their page HERE.
Happy World Health Day! Looking forward to chatting with you again next week.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.