The past two years have brought unprecedented attention to the issues of mental health and social justice. The combined strain of the pandemic and racial injustices across the US forced many people, especially millennials and Gen Zs, to reexamine their priorities about work and career. As a result of the Great Resignation, many employers are facing shortages of workers and difficulty attracting skilled talent. To adapt to the shifting priorities of the workforce, companies are trying to address the issues most important to their employees. Mental health and diverse, inclusive culture are among the top issues on the list.
Employers have traditionally addressed the issues of DEIB and mental health separately, but as the importance of company culture is top of mind in many employees’ hiring decisions, it is important for people leaders to understand how the two are related.
One of the companies most familiar with these issues is Headspace Health, which has emerged as a market leader after the 2021 merger between Headspace and Ginger. Headspace is one of the most recognized consumer brands in mental health, especially in the mindfulness category, but how are they supporting their own employees through these challenging times? Cornell Verdeja-Woodson, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Belonging at Headspace Health, has shared with us the roadmap he’s helped to create for DEIB-informed employee mental health at Headspace Health.
Headspace Health’s roadmap for DEIB-informed employee mental health:
- Understand the connection between DEIB and mental health
- Define company vision and objectives for DEIB
- Understand where the company is currently on the path to DEIB goals
- Implement a plan for achieving goals and identifying systems that may be getting in the way
- Hold people accountable for making the necessary changes
- Assess progress by communicating with employees
- Don’t rush: make sure systems have been upgraded before moving forward
- Align business case with moral case for DEIB and mental health
Connecting DEIB and mental health
To build an inclusive, supportive culture, companies must understand the role they play in the personal lives of their employees. A good place to begin is understanding the impact of DEIB on employee mental health. While issues of diversity and equity are commonly addressed in some form by most companies, some business leaders view the current volume of discussion around social justice as a distraction. By ignoring the downstream effects of your business practices on society and on your employees, your company may be fostering the type of default workplace culture that so many employees are rejecting. Headspace Health realized that to foster an inclusive culture, their decisions around DEI and mental health needed to be intentional, as Cornell explains:
“[With] organizations situated in a community, where we often displace people with the building of our buildings and make housing expensive, there’s a DEIB issue or DEIB intersection with how we do business, and I think it’s the same thing with mental health… we don’t understand that [peoples’ personal lives] don’t leave or sit at the door when we come into the building or come into the virtual Zoom room.”
One effective way to support the mental health of your employees is to understand and address the sources of stress in the workplace. Biases, both unconscious and overt, can place LGBTQ+ and BIPOC employees at higher risk for mental health challenges on the job. When mental health services are needed, cultural barriers to seeking care due to stigmas around mental health and lack of culturally relevant services are additional factors that may be contributing to stress in underrepresented communities. Cornell’s role at Headspace Health is to help weave this type of awareness into the cultural fabric of the company. It’s not a simple task; it requires rethinking the role a business is willing to play in taking care of its people. “The struggle that I’ve seen is, ‘how far do I go as an employer in being involved in the mental health of my employees?’”
Define vision and objectives
Cornell started at Headspace several months before the merger with digital health startup, Ginger, in 2021. The challenge of combining two cultures with distinct identities and DEIB initiatives has forced both companies to reexamine their priorities. Cornell and the leaders from both teams wanted to maintain aspects of each company’s culture while building new systems that could address the new company’s goals for strengthening and supporting a diverse team of employees. It was important to resist moving forward too quickly and take the time to be deliberate with their planning:
“How do we lay over DEIB into every area of this in order to really make sure that it is woven throughout and not just something that is happening tangentially, or parallel to the business strategy, but really embedded into it? Figuring all that out and wanting to move was a big challenge.”
Headspace has a unique insight into the importance of diversity and equity in the development of their products and services. Recognizing that there are many cultural barriers to accessing mental health services, their vision included actively building inroads to underserved communities. They also wanted their products to represent these communities by offering a diverse group of therapists, coaches, and meditation teachers. This understanding is key to their goals for supporting their internal organization as well. Headspace knows that providing for their employees’ mental health requires care models that are relevant and accessible to each employee, including diverse representation and reducing friction and the stigma around seeking care.
How far do we have to go?
Before setting out to achieve these goals, the company needed to take stock of where they were on the path to these objectives. For Cornell and his staff, that meant gathering data from both Headspace and Ginger and determining the combined diversity metrics of the new company.
“I think with any organization it really has to be about understanding where we are right now, going back to that data [and asking] where are we currently?… So some of the more tactical things that were challenges were just merging our systems.”
How do we get there, and what’s getting in the way?
With their goals defined, and an understanding of how far Headspace Health needs to travel to achieve them, the next part will be the hard part. This is where Cornell has found companies experience the most resistance:
“There’s a difference between an appreciation and an understanding of why diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is important and actually doing something about it… and with many clients I’ve worked with, with many organizations, when you get in and start doing the work, there’s this disconnect like, ‘wait, I know we said we wanted to do this, and this is the utopia that we’re trying to create, but I didn’t know we had to do that in order to get there.’… It requires us to relinquish privilege, to relinquish power in order to make it happen. That’s where we really get into a lot of trouble because people fear that and what that means.”
This stage of the process can be uncomfortable, but it’s the work that has to be done to root out the systemic causes of inequities and lay the groundwork for a more inclusive culture. This requires diligence and asking tough questions, like, “what are the systems and the cultural pieces of the processes that might be barriers to us having a more diverse workforce?… What are the systemic reasons that might exist that prevent us from advancing in that way?”
Hold everyone accountable
After identifying where the changes needed to be made, Headspace wanted to ensure that they were holding themselves accountable. To that end, they recently hired Quincy Amekuedi, vice president for talent acquisition, who is tasked with keeping a critical eye on the company’s hiring procedures:
“We have a vice president for talent acquisition who’s all about holding people accountable and really doing the hard work of saying, ‘no, we cannot move forward with that process because look at your pipe. Look at how we are reaching out to the communities that we know your team lacks in order to make sure that we’re creating an equitable opportunity for folks from different backgrounds to be able to join our team.’”
Even with buy-in from hiring managers and executives, the amount of energy it takes to break the inertia of embedded systems can hijack even the most praiseworthy strategies for change. Having someone in place to play taskmaster can be extremely valuable for companies who want to make a difference for their employees but often default to business as usual in pursuit of the bottom line.
Assess progress through communication
Evaluating progress from the top down is important for accountability, but the most effective way to measure progress is to ask the customers themselves, in this case, Headspace Health’s own employees. The company is building communications systems to monitor employee feedback on many workplace issues, including DEIB and mental health.
“[We are] looking at our engagement surveys, looking at how our employees are being impacted by the work and through the business so that they can show up in their best way… We’ve implemented various things for our employees to make sure that we’re also taking care of them as well, and we’re always in conversation around what else that might look like in order to really show up for them as they show up for our customers.”
Don’t be afraid to say “nope.”
It can be tempting to move fast, especially in today’s startup culture where scaling at all costs is often the battle cry, but just like technical debt can eventually delay production and increase costs, the price of business as usual can be fatal when it comes to DEIB and mental health. If you are not taking the time to build an inclusive, supportive culture, you will have trouble keeping your best workers. Cornell sometimes falls prey to hurry-up culture himself:
“I’m a little impatient. I like to go, ‘let’s go!’ But I really have to step back and go, ‘no, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing this right and make sure that we have everything in place to be able to do it right.’ So, being willing to say, ‘nope, we can’t move forward until this is right,’ that is a hard decision to make, and that’s how we are really putting our flag in it to say, ‘this matters to us and we’re willing to pause in order to get it right.’”
Moving forward – how to align incentives
With years of experience helping organizations in academia and now in tech, Cornell has brought leaders together at the table to discuss the value proposition of building a culture based on DEIB principles. For those who have a hard time understanding the dollar value of these initiatives, he has argued for the business case of inclusivity. But he senses things are starting to change:
“I think we’re really trying to move away from the business case for diversity, equity, inclusion and [toward] the moral case. And I believe the intersection between DEIB and mental health helps present that moral case… we’re having real impact on people’s health—physical and mental.”
Cornell may be right, but even if this change is only just emerging, the business case for retaining employees is clear. Part of what has forced so many people to reconsider their career choices in the last two years is the extent to which workplace culture has contributed to their mental health issues. To stay competitive, employers will need to pull on more of the levers that influence the mental health of their employees. One very large and accessible lever is the one labeled “DEIB.”
As Headspace Health shows, being intentional about creating an inclusive culture and supporting the mental health of each unique individual on your team takes time but can have real payoffs. To learn more about the impact of DEIB on mental health in your workplace, check out the full video of Mentera’s webinar.
For more information and a framework for how your company can manage mental health services for your employees, check out Mentera’s article on The Care Stack.