Emotional well-being in the workplace: An equity perspective

September 2, 2022 · NCQA Communications

By Neepa Patel, CEO of WellRight, and Vanessa Guzman, president of SmartRise Health

If you’re reading this, chances are you or your employees are stressed out.

The pandemic significantly increased the number of people in the U.S. facing symptoms of anxiety and depression, while record levels of burnout led many to leave their jobs entirely.

It’s no wonder a vast majority (86%) of employers polled by Willis Towers Watson earlier this year named mental health, stress and burnout as top priorities for 2022. While only 35% already had a behavioral health strategy and action plan in place, nearly half said they’re planning on implementing one.

The most common way organizations handle employee mental health is by providing an Employee Assistance Program (73%), according to a 2022 HR.com survey.

But traditional offerings like EAPs may be falling flat. A recent McKinsey survey shows that while 65% of employers thought they supported employee mental health well or very well — just 51% of employees agreed.

How can employers bridge those gaps and make emotional and mental well-being programs better? By approaching offerings with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind.

Building equity into emotional well-being programs

Worried young businesswoman at corridor office

Organizations tend to build well-being programs with equality in mind — offering blanket support to all employees.

But we find employees often don’t access those types of offerings — they want something more. Each employee carries their own stigmas and needs with them into the workplace. To truly support and improve emotional well-being among employees, organizations need to think with a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lens when crafting their offerings.

DEI in the workplace should be more than just a program. At its core, it’s about fostering a culture where people feel represented, have equal access to offerings and benefits, and feel like they belong despite their differences. That attitude should shine through when evaluating and updating emotional well-being programs.

People in certain racial and cultural communities may be more reluctant to seek help for their mental and emotional well-being because of stigmas and their unique lived experiences. Studies show Latinx Americans are less likely than white Americans to use mental health services, for instance. And while Black adults in the U.S. are more likely to report emotional distress, only 1 in 3 Black adults who need mental health care actually receive it, according to NAMI.

Employees of different ages also have different needs from an emotional well-being program. For example, the “sandwich generation” is taking care of children and aging parents at the same time — they may appreciate more tailored, intensive support than someone not experiencing that level of stress.

And while members of these communities or cohorts have shared experiences, we can’t forget that each person has their own individual needs and life story, and need different levels of support at different times.

That’s why a one-size-fits-all approach to emotional well-being in the workplace doesn’t cut it. Here are three things employers can do to make their emotional well-being programs more equitable:

  • Conduct broad surveys to identify gaps. Employees can be a wealth of information — all you have to do is ask. The information gathered from broad qualitative surveys provides invaluable information about your employee base and their needs. Incorporating a health assessment as part of an overall well-being program can also help tailor offerings to employees’ specific needs. But organizations shouldn’t rely on formal surveys alone to gather information on what employees are yearning for. When leaders engage with their staff and teams on a regular basis and make it a point to promote well-being programs, they can gain real-time feedback and help employees access the support they need.
  • Think beyond an EAP. Four in 10 employers are already considering redesigning their EAP, according to the Willis Towers Watson survey. Resources like emotional intelligence training, access to third-party digital mental health vendors, parental and caregiver support and more are becoming more popular.
  • Actively integrate mental health resources into the overall well-being program. Emotional well-being is just one pillar of a whole-person wellness program. The more integrated these types of offerings are with the rest of well-being resources; the more likely employees are to access them.

An equitably built emotional well-being program helps give every employee a fair chance to improve their mental health. And today, that can mean the difference between an engaged, productive workforce — or being the next employer affected by the great resignation because of high rates of burnout.

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