Why you need to think about intersectional mental health

The mental health of employees should be a concern for all companies, regardless of size. Creating a culture that supports mental health is not only a moral - and often legal - imperative, but also business savvy. The consequences of a workforce with poor mental health are expensive. Proactive, innovative strategies in relation to employee mental health should therefore be part of all company toolkits.

From the multinational organisation to the startup in its infancy, the costs of a lack of address of mental health are substantial:

  • As a result of absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover, UK business loses £45bn annually.
  • 14.3 million working days are lost each year due to sickness absence caused by stress, depression and anxiety.
  • During 2020 days off because of mental health increased by 10%.
  • In the past 18 months, 10 million people required new or additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic.

As a startup, these effects can be even more crippling to the company operation with a reliance on fewer people. 

At a time when concerns about the nation’s mental health are paramount, and when we do not yet understand the extent of the impact of the pandemic on mental health, it is crucial for companies of all sizes to do all they can.

Why intersectional mental health?

Some have been saying the pandemic has put us all in the same boat. But the reality is, some of us are weathering the storm in a dingey, some in a canoe and some in a yacht. Intersectionality simply means considering the impact of various inequalities and differential experiences colliding and looking to individuals to understand the whole person and their entire experience.  

We spend a lot of our lives at work (whether virtually or physically). It would be remiss as an employer not to note both the impact of employment and, crucially, that outside of work each of us have different experiences, some of which we are navigating or attempting to deal with.

Recognising the experiences someone has because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and whether they are disabled, have a small family or are the survivor of assault or abuse in or outside of the home as an example, is one step towards thinking intersectionally. To take a truly intersectional approach would be to think about the layers of experience and the factors which shape a person’s identity in combination.

The experiences of the younger, Black, Trans female who has an unstable employment contract are likely to be different to her older, White, male colleague who has a permanent contract. Whilst of equal importance, research also indicates that the mental health challenges for these two hypothetical colleagues are likely to be different. When we consider combinations of group factors and experiences, we can better understand a person’s needs and accommodate them. An employer who recognises this is one step closer to creating an inclusive culture where business and people thrive together.

But who is to be responsible for such a weighty task? (HR who?)

Understandably, this may sound like a task for the HR department, whose job it is to attend to such matters and see strategies to improve mental health rolled out to staff throughout the organisation. This might be flexible working policies, recognition of current social issues that may be impacting some employees more than others, or harassment and bullying policies.

It can also include HR teams undertaking assessments of their current wellbeing and mental health offering and considering whether it is fit for purpose for the specifics of the business and the unique roles their staff undertake for the company and the communities it serves. But what of the startup world, where there are smaller and less traditional set ups often without a formal HR department and therefore no one to take responsibility?

The answer starts with culture. The workplace environment can exacerbate mental health challenges and this is something within your power to manage and control. As a result of COVID-19 and the intersectional challenges experienced by so many people, it is a growing risk area for employers that they need to have greater focus of. By having the focus, staff and employers both benefit.

Employers who consider their employees as individuals, as people who are part of different groups with different factors influencing their mental health, are building a place where employees can be themselves, where difference is valued and accepted, and that different experiences we all have are recognised with mechanisms and systems in place to support those needs.   

All organisations with and without formal HR departments would do well to understand this point on culture, on the environment that is cultivated, on the attitudes that are encouraged, the recognition of different and the lack of tolerance for discrimination. Your company is a sum of its people and that includes you as the business leader.

You are not alone

This is a point of learning for employers who are thinking about the health of their workforce and the goals of their business, and it is our position that these cannot be separated out. The pandemic did not cause the mental health issues that employees were and are experiencing but served to highlight and exacerbate these and the impact that this can have on businesses. Employees cannot leave their lives at the door as they enter the workplace. Employers need to recognise this in order that organisation and people flourish.

As an employer it is crucial to remember that as both people and as organisations we are not insular, independent entities. Whilst you have the power to work towards cultivating a culture that embraces and recognises difference, a cultural shift will also come from working together as a community, seeking advice and looking to experts where necessary in order to advance your people and your business.

At Howlett Brown, we recognise the importance of intersectional mental health being embedded as a practice of workplace culture for employers. Our forthcoming research report (September 2021).

The Whole Truth; Intersectional Mental Health will feature further insights based on current research and practical insights and actions for employers. Readers can sign up to receive the report here.

Co-authored by Dr Vicky Byrne, Culture and Research Intelligence Manager, Howlett Brown.

Startup Details

Startup Details


Howlett Brown

Howlett Brown is a people intelligence company specialising in employee investigations, culture and HR consulting solutions. 

  • Headquarters Regions
    London, UK
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  • Founders
    Charlene Brown
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  • Number of Employees