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Establishing an intersectional understanding of mental health

Nov 09, 2021

In the corporate landscape, our understanding of mental health can often be somewhat one dimensional. It's time to think differently.

Most places encourage you to reach out to colleagues for mental health support. Many have employee assistance programmes. A few even have dedicated mental health first aiders and other measures in place to support and assist employees experiencing struggles.

But it’s rare you come across a programme that acknowledges how the intersection of our varied and diverse identities, backgrounds and experiences play a pivotal role in how we interact with our mental health.

Mental health is culturally contextual

Take race, for instance. According to the Mental Health & Race toolkit, compiled by the City Mental Health Alliance, 58% of black and minority ethnic employees have experienced actively non-inclusive behaviours in the workplace. Of those, 11% ended up leaving their organisation.

The same toolkit highlighted that this experience may negatively impact the mental health of black and minority ethnic employees in a different way, and can be compounded by stigma and a lack of knowledge around mental health in some communities. Understanding positive mental health is culturally contextual, and any corporate mental health programme must actively recognise the needs of the cultures that make up its employee base.

Access to mental health services also varies between communities, sometimes dramatically. Sadly, it remains the case that many people from ethnic minorities are more likely to fall below the poverty line. Paying for mental health assistance is a luxury that many can’t afford, and thus it is forcibly deprioritised outside of the workplace.

Gender is another layer we cannot ignore

According to Professor Jo Brewis, co-author of the Government Report on Menopause, women experiencing the menopause are the fastest growing demographic in the workforce in the UK. If that’s the case then why does “menopause” feel like such an inappropriate word to use in the workplace? Why does it feel as though this perfectly natural hormonal process that almost all women will go through cannot be discussed, or have provisions made for it?

If someone’s sick, they take a sick day. But if someone is experiencing difficulties adjusting to perimenopausal or menopausal life, then that’s a hush-hush situation. The stigma still attached to this vital issue, including its impact on mental health, is stopping many women from being able to engage fully within our workplace.

Three out of four women experience menopausal symptoms. One out of four experience serious symptoms. Coupled with the fact that black women in particular go through a longer menopausal period on average then our white colleagues, have more hot flashes on average, and have a higher prevalence of symptoms, it’s clear that we can’t extrapolate the varied understandings of mental health, race and sex from each other.

Taking action

We know that bringing one’s full self to work is a vital part of a happier and more fulfilling work life. It’s time we enshrined an intersectional approach to mental health into our corporations. So what can we do to proactively address these issues in the workplace?

I believe that the first thing is knowing that you don’t have to be an expert to have a general understanding and compassion for those going through issues relating to any of these subjects.

Talk about it. Make it known to your workforce, your direct reports, your friends and family: you are an ally to black and minority ethnic communities, to those with mental health difficulties, and to women experiencing menopause. Encourage senior leaders to talk about it, to implement clear policies. Transparency around these issues is how we let those we care about know that it’s okay, and that you’re there to support them if needed.

Fostering workplace flexibility is key too in this new hybrid world we live in. For example, are women experiencing the menopause able to take breaks or work from home when they need to; have easy accessibility to water; or able to opt for a desk fan. By managers making sure employees know they can take a rest in a private area if they need, all contributes to an open, honest and understanding atmosphere.

Finally, to tie it all together, you must consider the intersection where all these issues come together. With the proper support and understanding in the workplace, employers can reduce the risk that the menopause or mental health issues come between employees of any race, and their ability to excel in their role.

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