On October 10, the world observed World Mental Health Day and it brought to mind a growing interest among Caribbean entities in embracing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as a key part of their corporate and Human Resources strategy. This interest in DEI could signal some hope for mental health policies in the workplace and is thus commendable as the Caribbean has often lagged in relation to its neighbouring North American counterparts in this respect.
Just recently, in a meeting with the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) Florida chapter, where I serve as board member, I lamented that the Caribbean still had quite the way to go with DEI policies that can truly meet the needs of it’s often very diverse employee core. The general interest and engagement in the subject across social media and in boardrooms is therefore welcomed. Even more important is ensuring that mental health matters are included in DEI policies to get the much needed attention it deserves.
The world health organisation defines Mental Health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”1. This broad definition points to several things being likely to affect one’s mental health; including cross cutting DEI issues such as workplace discrimination, gender inequality, disrespect and employee disregard. It is therefore important for Caribbean entities to keep empathy as a key starting point for all attempts to be inclusive.
Empathy being the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes or to understand and share the feelings of others is critical for any organization keen on demonstrating DEI in the way it engages with all staff within its organisations, including those with mental health struggles.
My mind rings back to a young lady who outlined callous treatment by her place of employment. While at work, she received the alarming news that her newborn child needed to be rushed to the hospital. Dazed. She headed to the boss’ office and was met with angry words about the work to be done. She made a hard decision to be by her child’s side at the risk of losing her job. Her biggest grouse, “I was emotionally drained, couldn’t focus at work and my boss was stone cold. How could she not understand that my child needed me?”.
Her comment is unfortunately reflective of a larger issue in many Caribbean workplaces where basic empathetic skillsets are lacking and can easily morph into leadership that is void of positive emotions and understanding. This is amplified in some Caribbean societies which often downplay or demonise mental health struggles. From limited definitions of what constitutes mental health to negative descriptions such as “mad”, “insane” “idiot”, empathy is especially not reserved for those with mental health challenges, such as the young mother whose mental faculties are shattered because of her ill child.
Further afield, this deviation from empathetic approaches is also reflected in business to business interactions. I was once invited to participate in an event, then a genuine family emergency emerged. I was shaken and unable to focus, but hating to disappoint I poured out a sincere apology to the fellow business leader only to be met with an “ok”. Similarly, I have witnessed situations where someone expresses a family emergency which is no doubt affecting their mental health to a Human Resources trained personnel who either did not respond or gave a very curt response. This is not ok. It reeks of disregard and goes against the very fibre of what an inclusive organisation would embrace, further justifying the need for all HR and management personnel to be given DEI sensitivity training.
As a reminder, humans need to feel appreciated at the basic level. At the more specific rungs on Maslow’s needs hierarchy, people need a mix of safety (including health), love and belonging and esteem to get them to the pinnacle of self actualization. In the work context, these traits can be fostered by starting with empathy, which can set the tone for an employee who is dying to leave, an employee who simply needs a mental health break to perform their duties better and one who values the work that they do and feels valued by their organization.
Some key starting points to get DEI policies right include:
- Equip people in management and especially Human Resources roles with basic empathy skills for diverse staff issues, including those linked to mental health. Start off by assessing internal biases to determine how this affects the way people treat each other.
- Commit to listening, actively, without assumptions that every employee issue is a ploy to gain sympathy or avoid work. There will be genuine challenges and an employee who feels constantly disregarded, is one who will feel dismissed.
- Try to see things from another person’s point of view. Visualise yourself in their situation and note some likely challenges you’d experience in their spot.
- Be genuine. If you are truly sorry for someone’s loss, express this in a way that shows you care and looks less like a reply was copy and pasted from online. Importantly, reply.
The Caribbean still has quite a way to go in increasing its diversity, equity and inclusion approaches, but the steps being employed by some organizations and the interest by others is commendable. By starting with empathy and acknowledging mental health as a legitimate issue, those involved in guiding and maintaining solid DEI policies will get much closer to getting it right.
Shanoy Coombs is an Intercultural Communications/DEI professional who helps executives, entrepreneurs and organisations to develop key competencies across the Caribbean region. She is CEO for Infinity Integrated Communications, a Development Communications agency and a 2019 Chevening Scholar.