Improving Mental Health in the workplace
We talk to Farzana Nayani, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion specialist about the topic of mental and healing within the workplace. She discusses the importance of employee mental health within work and the significance of ERGs for ethnic minorities. She proposes several different ways companies can implement mental health practices and what businesses should be doing to ensure employee mental health and well-being is maintained.
Simran: Hi. My name is Simran and today we are joined, with Farzana Nayani, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion specialist. Her work explores the importance of employee resource groups and the critical role they play in making the workplace a more inclusive work environment. Today we were discussing the topic of mental health and healing within the workplace and what companies and organisations can do to help with employee mental health.
Farzana: My name is Farzana Nayani. My pronouns are she, her and hers. I am a DEI consultant and the author of a new book called The Power of Employee Research Groups How People Create Authentic Change.
Simran: I love that. I love that you brought up your pronouns. Not many people, like it’s becoming more normalised. I love it. So today we’ll be talking about mental health, especially in the workplace. And healing, healing within the workplace. So I guess my first question would be do you think there’s a stigma behind mental health in general? And why do you think, that?
Farzana: Absolutely. There definitely is a stigma behind mental health. People oftentimes don’t want to talk about it. However, it’s also something that is prevalent that we need to address. I think it is getting better, though, as workplaces and the general public tend to be able to talk about it more however, there’s more work that can be done around this topic – always.
Simran: Definitely. I think people are becoming more aware about mental health, and you can see it, like when you look on social media and stuff like you see a lot post, and I think right now it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, so it’s a really good topic to be talking about. Obviously within the workplace, mental health can be kind of hard to navigate. So how important do you think mental health is within the workplace and like what can businesses do to help employees, I guess have a good mental health?
Farzana: Yes, if workplaces make it not as taboo a topic as as people feel like it can be, that would be very helpful. A lot of people actually want to make care for their mental health a priority, and there could be some stigma, as we already talked about, around talking about it or even gaining resources. So as employers look at how to retain the workforce or to provide an inclusive environment that is one that people feel a sense of belonging, one way to do that is to actually offer mental health resources and to even have discussions about it as a priority in addition to physical health and overall, you know, a sense of place at work.
Simran: Yeah, that’s really interesting. What do you think, so if someone has like bad mental health in the workplace or how do you think that can affect the business in general and the employer? So what do you what effect could that have on the employer and his business? I guess and how it’s run.
Farzana: If employees feel that a mental health issue is something that needs to be hidden, they might be coping with it, without actually getting the support and resources they need. If it’s seen as something that proactively we can address and that the employees can receive help with, then it could be an issue that’s mitigated early on before it becomes worse. There are a lot of cases of people who have anxiety, depression, and also with the current times that tragedies in the news and, you know, war and other other types of violence that we’re exposed to, people are retriggered and are feeling trauma again because of that, because of the access through social media and just real time news. So it’s something that is actually becoming more widespread, not only people who have been diagnosed with that, but overall, we’re all feeling a sense of of that exposure as well.
Simran: Do you think there’s like a link between mental health and the productivity of individuals in the workplace, so say if someone has good mental health obviously they’d be more productive?
Farzana: Absolutely. People who are struggling with mental health can be disengaged or can feel left out. There could be issues around communication or, you know, just just having to feel that sense of isolation when really there are so many people that deal with it. So normalising it would be a lot better for the workplace. It also models a sense of how we take vacation days or holidays and how we take the time out of the day to take a break. So if we model practices for self-care around mental health, it won’t be stigmatised as something that’s negative. It’s a part of our personal proactive self-care and it’s something that we can think about as as we interact with others and also take care of ourselves.
Simran: In your book, you talk a lot about like workplace healing, and I saw like when I did research, you know, you talk a lot about workplace healing and can you clarify what that meant? Because I just feel like it’s quite interesting to talk about.
Farzana: Absolutely. The Western methodology around talk therapy or individual access to ways to gain healing can work for for many people. There is also the need to support, you know, folks of colour and people who might have different practices that involve community based care and a holistic sense of, you know, collective healing. And one thing that I do in my work as a diversity equity and inclusion consultant is I foster and hold and facilitate healing spaces for organisations in groups. So it can be helpful with a community of a certain background to come together and be able to have a discussion or to let out what is on their mind, especially if it’s around a current issue. Or a specific need, and that safety in the space that’s created and the trust that’s built can actually permeate through the organisation because they feel that support beyond an individual experience where someone might feel isolated. So that community bonding that happens is really powerful and what we’re finding is that it can create that transformational organisational change within companies and organisations overall.
Simran: It’s quite interesting that like just bringing together, I guess if you implement some dynamics in a workplace and bringing people together to make them understand that, you know, you can talk about things at work and if you’re feeling quiet not sad I guess, yes, sad, and stuff like it’s OK to talk about it. I feel like when you go to work with the taboo that you shouldn’t talk about, like how you’re feeling and if your mental health is bad, it’s kind of like you have get on and work But I guess implementing practises like that could create an overall experience for the individuals who work in the business?
Farzana: Yes, the barriers to getting care around mental health is that it can actually feel like more labour, like having to set up an appointment and show up and, you know, process through things that might be buried or harmful or hurtful to actually live through again. So what we find is that in these community based spaces, someone can attend and can actually listen and observe and they receive the healing from the process that’s going on through things even like storytelling or breathing or, you know, having someone sing a song that has a certain melody that can create that healing at a cellular level. So there are ways that this can be done that doesn’t involve and require labour from the person who’s already going through so many things. So it’s a matter of right looking at how we can set this up so people can participate without needing to expend more energy.
Simran: Within your blurb you talk a lot, you talk about code switching. Could you clarify what that means?
Farzana: Yes, code switching. It came originally from linguistics and the use of language and switching between languages or even how you express yourself. And now code switching is used to talk about behaviours, how a person dresses in that when they’re in certain environments that they switch into that that environment or that group or that aspect of society and what can happen is people who constantly have to code switch if they’re, let’s say from a minority community and have to code switch into the majority community, they feel more of of that strain and it can be tiring, exhausting and can actually create long term effects. So the ways to overcome that is to create a workplace where people can actually show up in a more authentic way and not have to cover themselves. This could be anyone from, let’s see that LGBTQ+ identity who have to cover because maybe their environment isn’t appreciative of their orientation or their identity. It could be someone who maybe is of a minority category, someone, a person of colour, maybe who’s in a predominately white Caucasian space. And that can be difficult and tiring, but it’s something that is done naturally and we don’t realise the effects of that until let’s say we go home and we’re completely shattered from having to do that all day long. So that exhaustion can actually affect the productivity of the employee. And until we have spaces that you know, people can feel like their culture is being appreciated or the manner of speaking or even how they dress or hairstyles, if all of those things can be received and appreciated as normal or even celebrated and welcome, then we can actually have a more healthy environment for everyone.
Simran: I remember when I went to university I was surrounded by dominantly Caucasian people and I never I never understood what code switching was until one of my friends told me and then I remember that when I was at uni, I would always have to fit into like what they would talk about and I wouldn’t be able to express like how much like I love my culture. I couldn’t even talk about things about within my culture and the Indian community, and I didn’t realise how much that affected me until I moved back home and I was surrounded by like my family and my grandparents and it’s so nice to be in a space where you can feel like it’s authentic self and not have to fit into like a little bubble.
Farzana: Right. And it can be minor things like someone mispronouncing someone’s name, which is not really minor, it can be major, it could be misgendering someone, which again is another major thing. And so things like shortcutting someone’s name because you can’t pronounce it and calling them by an initial instead to be funny or cute, although it might come with the positive intention of being cordial and collaborative. It actually isn’t. It can really harm a person. And again, until they go home, like you just described, they won’t feel that they can be who they are so that that code switching can add up. And it it’s actually a result also of any type of experience that externally people have.
Simran: What do you think employers can do in order to overcome the microaggressions that marginalised groups may feel within a company?
Farzana: There are a lot of ways that employers can overcome microaggressions and bias, and one way is to bring awareness to it, to have a commitment internally to make sure that that is either prevented or interrupted as it as it comes. It’s something that naturally happens and I’ve done a whole course on on how that these things can actually show up in the workplace, how these microaggressions and bias can implement be implemented in processes like hiring or interviewing and actually having, you know, a stereotype around, let’s say, someone who is quiet is being unassertive, but actually that is maybe cultural maybe in that person’s culture they are showing deference to authority. And we may miss that because we don’t know enough about the range of cultures that are out there. And therefore we lose out on that person, that candidate, as someone who is talented, who could contribute to the team. So really increasing knowledge and awareness about this, at an overall, you know, larger scale is important. And then at the individual level, really kind of reflecting and interrogating how we interact with others, are there things that are uncomfortable and having these open discussions can really start to mitigate that bias.
Simran: Do you think that code switching at work can affect an employee’s mental health and I guess their overall productivity as well?
Farzana: There’s something called imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome, and there’s pushback on that as the idea of the imposter syndrome or imposter. The imposter phenomenon is that people don’t feel like they belong. And the reason that people feel like they’re an imposter, whether it could be a woman in a male dominated workplace or a person of colour in predominately white or, you know, other space, what can happen is that someone can feel that they’re not good enough. And so the code switching is tied to that because in order to fit in, you have to change yourself to fit into that majority group. And what can happen is then who are you really when you’ve succeeded in your career and let’s say you’re being promoted, but you’ve lost yourself along the way, and then people who come into the space who see that you’ve had to code switch along the entire way, don’t feel comfortable being there themselves. So it becomes an iterative effect that creates, you know, a widespread larger magnitude of this, you know, impact over and over and over again. So until we are able to pronounce names properly or to show up in our whole selves or to be proud of, you know, who we love and in terms of our sexual orientation and who we partner with, et cetera, that is actually signalling to other people that they may or may not be able to be who they are as well. So that code switching plays into it. Now, that’s not to say that we we don’t do that. You know, people need to put a suit and tie on when when they need to. People need to be formal in their language and they need to absolutely however, in an everyday working way, on an everyday basis, how are we allowing for, you know, a range of behaviours that communication styles or how people dress or their hairstyles, et cetera? That’s the question at hand when some of those things really are on the employer’s culture to set and it can be actually cultivated in a positive way.
Simran: It kind of almost seems like code switching is kind of like a snowball effect that happens a lot and it needs to be stopped kind of at senior levels, not other people. When they come into a workplace, they can be like, all right, you know, if you had like a person of colour, person of colour who’s at senior level and he is authentic in himself at work, I feel like if you have other people join in, they will feel more welcomed I guess.
Farzana: Right. Well, it’s the environment also that has to receive that as being professional, as being something that is celebrated and welcomed and, you know, even communication styles around rather than just being direct and getting to the point of the task, having some relationship time, having some, you know, relationship and conversation building time, some of that is seen as unprofessional when it can be, you know, not not just a pleasantry, but a cultural norm, you know, to have some of those conversations in that way. So storytelling, for example, in a lot of ethnic communities is a norm. There’s a lot that needs to happen in terms of explaining the wisdom that gets passed down. But perhaps in certain other mainstream places, we don’t use storytelling because it’s not seen as professional. And so let’s say someone from a Latino, Latino, Latinx Latina background, who in that culture there’s a lot of, you know, storytelling that’s done and, you know, maybe a circular communications style maybe that could be perceived as someone who’s unprofessional and who doesn’t get to the point and isn’t good at leadership. And that gets double down when you’re of a certain gender. Let’s say you’re a woman and you come from that ethnic background and that’s your communication style. You might be seen as someone who is flaky or someone who isn’t assertive, et cetera. So that’s how these things don’t get understood. And because they’re misunderstood, they turn into bias and they turn into a prevention of someone advancing in the workplace.
Simran: That’s so sad. I remember during my time at university, I did my dissertation on racism within the UK and I interviewed a lot of people and one of my friends, he said he’s Indian, and so he said he feels like he hasn’t been promoted. He’s been working within the NHS for a long time and he feels like he hasn’t been promoted due to the colour of his skin and just certain attributes to how he acts and stuff at work. And it’s quite sad to think of. I guess my next question would be do you think employee resource groups are important within the workplace and do you think they’re important for BAME employees?
Farzana: Employee research groups or affinity groups or employee networks are a great resource for individuals and for organisations. How they form is they are formed around a certain demographic. It could be gender or it could be that you’re a parent, it could be you’re a veteran or you’re from a black Asian minority ethnic group, et cetera. And what can happen when you convene in these groups is you have this sense of community, of belonging, a sense of camaraderie and also a place to gather, to voice any concern about issues, to process events in the news, and to also really reach out to the public and to be that vehicle of connection to, you know, a larger marketplace even. So, the employee research groups as like a vehicle for all of these things are super powerful. And in my book, I talk about how to form them. I talk about the impact they have. I also talk about how to operate them effectively. So it’s not just seen as, you know, a food, fun and flags celebratory social club. They really do have a purpose at companies and they can create huge impact. So I’m a big believer of them and they they are popping up more and more in companies. If companies don’t have them, it’s something to seriously explore. And for those who have had them for a long time, it’s always good to look back at them and think about, you know, what purpose they have and who they’re serving and how. So I am I’m a big proponent of them and absolutely believe that they are supportive of people in the workplace.
Simran: Do you think there’s a positive correlation between employee resource groups and employee mental health?
Farzana: Yes, absolutely – there’s a correlation. When people feel a sense of belonging, they can actually raise issues that maybe people wouldn’t know. So I’ll give you an example from a physical to mental health issue. So from my understanding, the NHS allows and supports and pays for fertility treatments for people of opposite sex backgrounds if they’re in a couple. However, for a same sex couple, that actually is not the case. So someone who wants to receive fertility treatment cannot get that funded through the NHS this is what I’ve been told by employees who are facing this right now. As a result, there’s actually discrimination against people and they have to go and fundraise and pay for this out of pocket and maybe be reimbursed later. So if there was an employee research group that at a company raised this issue and looked at the policy, not only number one, could the employer create an internal policy where maybe some of that subsidised, or two we can all push back and say, hey, you know, these are archaic policies that maybe were instituted at the time before people had awareness about this. You know, that needs to be changed. So there’s a lot of advocacy that can be done and you know, as we examine these things, these these these long time processes and issues that can be actually overturned. I’ve seen this happen at companies who maybe had maternity leave, but not paternity leave, not for know, parental leave. So it took actually that employee research group to raise the issue in order to make that extend it out beyond, you know, who we think we’re serving, but actually are not.
Simran: Do you think there are other areas in which employee resource groups could become involved in?
Farzana: You know, there are so many aspects of this, and I talked about in my book The Five Pillars of how employee research groups can impact organisations. The first pillar is the workplace itself. So creating that environment of belonging and understanding and inclusion. The second one is the workforce. So creating you know, a supportive place for the actual people in organisations. The third one is the marketplace, which I was starting to allude to around how to reach out to customers, to the public and partners that you work with. The fourth pillar is around community and how people can connect with community causes or charitable organisations, and the fifth one is around supplier diversity and how employee research groups can be the bridge to utilising vendors and small businesses that maybe are black owned or could be veteran owned, et cetera. So there is such a brilliant way to be able to connect to the rest of the aspects of the business if they’re done organically and with purpose and with planning. So there’s just a lot of creativity and a lot of opportunity with them.
Simran: Do you think within the workplace do you think if a workplace has a lack of mental health resources, it can affect an employee’s decision to continue working in that workplace?
Farzana: There is there is not a suite of resources for for mental health. Some individuals might turn to work somewhere else where there is that offering of resources. People are not looking just for pay anymore, as we can see from the great resignation. People want balance. They want, you know, a home to be at where they feel that belonging, where it works with them in their lives beyond just trying to get a paycheque. And what people are valuing is their health, their mental health, time with family, access to childcare, and these benefits. In terms of time off or as we’re talking about mental health resources, those can all be, you know, a huge package for drawing candidates to an employer. So in order to be an employer of excellence, we have to look at what we’re offering and really highlight the great things that are being done around mental health resources.
Simran: I think that’s quite interesting. I think also during the pandemic, remote walking began, and I know a lot of people then realised that like with this remote working, they can have more family time, they can have more downtime to have like self care. And I feel like the pandemic showed a lot of people that mental health is important within the workplace and it should, it’s something that should be capitalised on, I guess. That should have like great significance placed on it, I guess?
Farzana: Absolutely. There’s so much that now, not only as a result of the pandemic bringing this to light, but that the pandemic has caused, you know, there’s a big line up to receive care in terms of a therapist or counselling or you know, any type of, of care that involves mental health. These resources are strained. So what we need to do is expand access to them to make it easy for people to not only acknowledge them but to avail of them and also to know that this is something that the employer supports. So people feel at ease and feel welcome to actually use the resources. So it’s a matter not only of having the resources but communicating about them and modelling that through leadership.
Simran: That’s very interesting. I guess the question that I want to close off with is obviously within the past, mental health was quite a taboo topic and currently I feel like it’s quite the environment, it’s still quite prevalent in today’s society. Do you think there’s anything that businesses can do or implement in order to make mental health less taboo within society?
Farzana: I learnt a lot from reading about mental health through people who practise it and even social media that makes it really accessible. It can make the conversations fun or it can make them normalised in a way that, hey, have you taken a break today? It doesn’t have to be a really strong formal approach all the time. It can be inserting it in an integrated way and that’s how we will be able to sustain it in the long term. So it’s not just during May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s not just when there’s a crisis where, you know, usually we see that influx of support and resources and attention but it’s something that can be a habit that we form on a daily basis or check in every month. So I encourage every workplace and leader to to think about how to do that in an organic way. So it is something that can be here for the long term.
Simran: That’s really interesting. I really like the idea that like it’s always the small things that help out and not just the big things. Like you also need to put time into the small things in order for your employees to feel appreciated and welcomed in the workplace. I guess, do you have any other things you’d want to touch upon, like within mental health in the workplace?
Farzana: There’s been a range of tragedies in the news and the sequence of how rapid we’re seeing these tragedies, whether it be mass shootings or whether it be you know, war in different countries as people are exposed to that through news, through through talking with colleagues or friends or family, what we’re seeing is that the closer you are in identity to the community that is being you know, in that conflict, it can create a triggering of trauma. So a one size fits all approach will not work because of this, you know, created empathy that can that can happen or that sense of connexion to to that conflict or that tragedy. So we have to really look at it also in a case by case basis, depending on the community and demographic that is is affected and really offer more support and love and care to people who match the identities of those who are being victimised and those in those news current events and tragedies. So my heart goes out to everyone who is facing that. We’re at a time of still the pandemic and the onslaught of of the consequences of that. But I just want also address that in the news. There’s just been a lot lately and you know, my heart goes out to everyone who is experiencing that firsthand or second hand.
Simran: I guess it can be quite heavy when you see so much tragedy within the news and then you have to, you know, go to work and seem quite normalised, even though it could also be something that triggers you, just triggers your trauma.
Farzana: Right. The business as usual approach doesn’t work for people. And what we can do though, is acknowledge that it is difficult and we have different reactions. I wrote a piece recently about that, about how our reactions can be ranging from anger or detachment and or being analytical about the cause of the tragedy, or it could be being distracted or could be sad. And so people grieve in different ways and we cycle through these these different, you know, ways of reacting. And a person can have a completely different reaction than someone else. So it is something that we have to be definitely on our toes about to watch that, you know, we can be of support to other people around us and also in ourselves.
Simran: It was lovely speaking to you today and discussing the topic of mental health in general, as well as within the workplace. It’s a very interesting topic and one that I think should be discussed more so that there’s no stigma behind it. I feel like a lot of people can take a lot of things away from this conversation and try to implement those things within their business that helps their employees with their mental health.