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An Inclusive Approach to Mental Health and Well-Being in the Workplace

The foundation for a strong partnership between DE&I and well-being teams is to have a clear sense of where their work intersects. One starting point is to focus on how stigma and discrimination can create a sense of exclusion and isolation in individuals with mental health challenges—which could also cause or exacerbate mental illness. An executive interviewed for this study commented: “For us, the link between mental health and D&I was not obvious, until we started to think about it! If someone feels excluded, their health and well-being will suffer.”


One of the few positive legacies of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the recognition that mental health issues have had a disproportionate effect on some groups and communities, for example ethnic minorities, and teenagers and young adults.  Data are shedding light on how the risk of poor mental health, nature of illness, and access to support are influenced by multiple factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, and culture. Underrepresented groups in society can face additional difficulties—such as harassment and discrimination—that can take a toll on their mental health and well-being.

For employers, offering varied and flexible well-being benefits, while important and necessary, may be insufficient to ensure that employees from underrepresented groups benefit from these provisions. Additional strategies viewed through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) need to be adopted to ensure an inclusive approach to the design and delivery of mental health support.

These include:

  • Diversity—ensuring mental health interventions meet the needs of all employees, including those from underrepresented groups;
  • Equity—ensuring workers with mental health challenges (either temporary or ongoing) are not penalized but have equal access to employment and career opportunities;
  • Inclusion—ensuring a culture of inclusion, which enables individuals to be open about their mental health needs and confident they will receive tailored and appropriate support.

Taking an inclusive approach to mental health requires joined-up thinking and joint action between leaders and practitioners in well-being and DE&I. Both communities have complementary expertise and experience in supporting culture change, inclusive practice, tailored interventions, and ways to combat prejudice and stigma. Pooling this expertise is an opportunity to build healthier and more inclusive organizations, leading ultimately to a sustainable and socially responsible business.

For some companies, this collaboration is beginning to happen at the informal, interpersonal level. However, solidifying this partnership through formal collaboration and dedicated resources will go much further in extending the reach of mental health interventions to diverse groups of workers—and in the process help make the workplace more equitable, inclusive, and ultimately more productive.

This research was sponsored by the Diversity and Inclusion in Business Council of The Conference Board Europe. The insights and recommendations within this report are distilled from two focus groups with council members; individual interviews with DE&I and well-being leaders in Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Barilla and Hilti; and guidance on best practices for mental health workplace interventions. The data presented in this report are drawn from countries that record mental health data against various dimensions of diversity (typically North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom).

Insights for What’s Ahead

COVID-19 has shed new light on the inequalities of mental health, potentially accelerating progress in workplace inclusion and mental well-being strategies. The disproportionate effect on the mental health of some groups and communities, for example ethnic minorities, and teenagers and young adults, highlights the urgent need for businesses to review their mental health policies and processes to ensure they are inclusive and offer appropriate and tailored support for all employees.

Employers have a new opportunity to create more openness and dialogue about mental health. The collective experience of lockdown and social isolation and the rising levels of anxiety and burnout have created a new awareness of the complex and individual nature of mental health. The current focus on mental health is providing new data and insights into how mental health is affected by individual differences such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, caring responsibilities, culture, and belief. This is providing new momentum to create an open and inclusive workplace culture around mental health and well-being.

Taking an inclusive approach requires renewed effort to combat stigma around mental health. This entails recognizing how the nature and experience of stigma is influenced by individual differences such as culture, or sexual orientation. The stigma around mental health per se can prevent employees from speaking about their difficulties and accessing treatment and support.

To help create inclusive and healthier workplaces, organizations need to intensify their efforts to root out prejudice and discrimination. There is growing evidence that the experience of prejudice and discrimination, which could include harassment, bullying and even violence, can trigger mental ill-health. As a result, businesses need to amplify training and awareness about prejudice and discrimination and ensure that all employees understand the link between inclusion and mental well-being.

DE&I and well-being leaders must come together to pool their expertise to create more inclusive policies and programs. A practical starting point is to review well-being program design. They can also work with external partners to design inclusive mental health policies and interventions.

Organizations with diverse leaders can gain a head start in creating a more open and inclusive attitude towards mental health. Diverse leadership can enable leaders to become champions and ambassadors. Speaking authentically about their own experiences is a powerful lever for change. Storytelling also helps capture the complexity of personal identity. It is important to ensure diverse leadership and governance of well-being efforts, and within culture change initiatives, such as mental health first aiders.

The lack of diversity data is a barrier to more joined-up efforts between well-being and DE&I. The sensitivity of personal data in some parts of the world means that companies have little insight into whether their mental health provision is meeting the needs of employees, especially those from underrepresented groups. Employee Assistance Programs yield only aggregated data, which are of limited use. Companies can draw on national data for guidance, although these data are often both limited and siloed, for example reporting about the mental health of a specific group, such as ethnic minorities. DE&I and well-being need to explore potential sources of internal data (such as engagement surveys, sentiment analysis, talent data) with data analytics teams to try to identify inequalities in provision and access, unmet needs, or hot spots in the organization; as well as increasing the supply of qualitative data through storytelling, discussion forums, and enlisting help and insights from Employee Resource Groups.


  • Bring together stakeholders from across HR and the business to discuss the overlap between mental health strategies, mental well-being, and an inclusive culture.
  • Encourage business ownership and accountability for mental well-being by establishing a cross-enterprise council, which focuses on inclusive mental well-being and is accountable to the C-suite.
  • Establish communities of practice across HR and tap into employee resource groups, regional advocating agencies, and community-based programs, to identify opportunities for joint action and to build a shared mindset and language around inclusive mental well-being.
  • Design inclusive employee assistance programs. Ensure a diversity of clinicians, therapists, and call center staff, and require them to be trained in cultural competency.
  • Link with specialist organizations that reach out to different underrepresented groups or intercultural therapy organizations.
  • Encourage an understanding of the intersection between inclusion and mental health and wellbeing with personal storytelling, linking training in mental health awareness with DE&I training programs, especially in resilience, unconscious bias, and inclusive leadership.
  • Take a data-informed view of the intersection between mental health and workplace demography to identify and respond to needs of diverse employees.
  • Encourage self-disclosure by using well-established schemes such as workplace mental first aiders and external campaigns to break down stigma and encourage people to share their experiences.
  • Pursue the ultimate goal of normalizing conversations around mental health and well-being.




Marion Devine

Senior Human Capital Researcher, Europe
The Conference Board








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