World Mental Health Day: How to create an inclusive wellbeing strategy

Important conversations surrounding mental health have grown, particularly over the past year, however this is not always translating into meaningful actions that support and protect everyone in the workplace. 

Considerable inequality still exists surrounding mental health with unequal access to support services, lack of investment within quality mental health care and continuing stigma can impact the ability of those who experience mental ill health to access education, jobs or other opportunities. This is why the theme for World Mental Health Day 2021 as chosen by the World Federation For Mental Health is “Mental Health In An Unequal World”. 

To reflect on how we can create an inclusive wellbeing strategy in the workplace, we have asked 6 experts for their practical tips for putting inclusion at the heart of wellbeing. 

Base your approach on the link between physical, mental and social health 

“So many organisations neglect the direct correlation between employee wellbeing and sustainable performance and the positive impact that high levels of inclusion, belonging and happiness have on both” argues Lesley Cooper, management consultant and Founder of WorkingWell

Lesley highlights that wellbeing is a state achieved when the physical, mental and social aspects of health meet. 

“Poor physical health undermines emotional health, which in turn impacts on the ability to interact with others, focus, and regulate responses. Social isolation, a lack of belonging or discrimination drastically undermines emotional and mental health, with predictable impacts on wellbeing, creativity and engagement. There are many interrelationships to be considered when formulating your strategy” said Lesley. 

The pressures embedded within our ‘go faster’ and ‘do more with less’ world increase the possibility that one or more of these health dimensions will become misaligned. Lesley is keen to remind organisations that recognition of the relationship between social, emotional and physical health is fundamental to an inclusive wellbeing strategy. It provides a platform of understanding on which to stand for wider inclusion efforts across areas such as reward and talent management, which will in turn bring their own health, wellbeing and performance benefits.  

Inviting external perspectives from completely separate industries

An essential part of inclusion is inviting in completely different perspectives to your own. Many still focus this close to their own organisation — perhaps a talk from someone in a different geography, department, or job role, or bringing in someone from elsewhere in their industry.

Christy Kulasingam, management consultant and founder of In•Side•Edge, believes this can be helpful, but it already places limits on what can be learned. “To really create an effective inclusivity strategy, invite people from completely separate industries or those with completely different experiences to work with your board or teams” he says. 

“I have seen first-hand how successful it has been in bringing diverse sportspeople into professional services firms to work with them on their strategy, for example. This should be grounded in practical exercises and carefully planned discussions, not simply a ‘lazy’ keynote without truly focusing on follow up and outcomes. Broadening your viewpoint by bringing in insights from completely new industries can give unexpected learnings and unearth wellbeing best practices. They can also act as a sounding board, highlighting areas for improvement and perhaps a catalyst for new ideas.

Invest in your foundations, not just flashy perks 

“The past year has certainly laid bare the wellbeing provisions of many organisations. With home and hybrid working, the sleep pods, pool tables and gym membership perks some businesses have relied upon were no longer available to plaster over fundamental wellbeing issues” comment Karen Meager and John McLachlan, organisational psychologists and co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy

“These flashy perks are often provided with great intentions of enriching the employee experience, yet the pandemic has shown us what truly matters is supportive leaders, psychologically safe discussion, collaboration and access to support services. Without these foundations, an organisation cannot say they have an inclusive wellbeing provision.”

Karen and John recommend that senior leaders take stock of their entire workplace culture and how this could be impacting wellbeing, such as approaches to time management, working hours or taking holiday. Survey line managers and teams, both in the office and remotely, on how safe and comfortable they feel discussing their experiences through a variety of channels. If this safety is not there, no amount of additional benefits will be able to create an inclusive wellbeing strategy.

"The organisations best placed to manage workplace mental health issues will be those who recognise that there is a lot more behind the problem than workload. Change fatigue and mental and emotional overload are all psychological impacts of a pandemic - which is why the prevalence of burnout has skyrocketed. A truly inclusive wellbeing strategy needs to acknowledge this.”

Don’t neglect the ‘invisible’ employees

The growing number of organisations implementing remote and hybrid working have tremendous potential to increase the inclusivity of their organisation with increased flexibility, however there are considerable challenges ahead when creating a virtual sense of belonging, reminds Teresa Boughey, Founder of Jungle HR and Inclusion 247

“Even when employees were all in one place we have seen organisations struggle with DE&I, and this challenge is intensified with a dispersed workplace. There is a real risk that employees working remotely, or those who don’t feel psychologically safe to share their concerns will not be appropriately supported.”

Wellbeing strategies should be tailored and inclusive ensuring their impact and reach spans all employees including those who continue to work in different locations. Technology can be an enabler for virtual support. However the Inclusion 247 “Accelerating Inclusion” Research Report found that more than half (51%) of organisations do not use technology as a vehicle to create a Diverse and Inclusive workforce. 

Teresa recommends that organisations blend the delivery of wellbeing solutions, remembering that the ability to spend time and connect with others on an in person basis will be important for mental health and wellbeing, therefore providing designated time for non-work related conversations is also important.   

Build the celebration of differences and diversity into your company culture  

“Too often we find ourselves working toward a particular rigid image of success and believing that it alone should be conformed to. Although this seems a fool-proof way to achieving a high standard of work, it perpetuates a baseline average, where individual strengths are ignored, and uniqueness side-lined”, says Andy Woodfield, author of This is Your Moment.

A key part to creating an inclusive wellbeing strategy is building it into the wider culture of your organisation, including the expectations placed on employees, explains Andy. No two people are good at the same things, and businesses should intentionally seek to recognise and help employees grow in their unique strengths.

“A successful inclusive wellbeing strategy acknowledges everyone’s differences and encourages them to thrive in their uniqueness. No-one should be pressured into the same mould”, states Andy. “Individuals should have the room to cut their own path, do work in the areas their talents lie and pursue their own image of success. Alongside other actions for an inclusive wellbeing strategy, facilitating employees’ autonomy to pioneer their own futures is essential”.

Instil empathy as a core attribute of senior management

Having empathy doesn’t mean agreeing with everything, rather it’s the ability to understand another’s emotional state, and it is a skill worth nurturing in the workplace, explains Margo Manning, one of the UK’s top Leadership & Management Coaches and author of ‘The Step-Up Mindset for Senior Managers’. 

“Knowing and responding authentically and honestly will gain you a level of respect that is only given when the other person feels they have been heard, understood and respected. 

Within the workplace this is taking the time to acknowledge how a team member may feel about a decision; they may be elated or crushed, you recognise this, and give the individual time and consideration to deal with the emotion. 

This will give you a greater appreciation of the diversity and multi-cultural sensitivities within your team and the business.”