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The effects of diversity on mental health in the workplace

April 18, 2024

Workforce diversity and mental health are hot topics these days, but it’s not very often that we examine both through a single lens. But given how strongly interconnected they are, that’s what we’ll be doing in this article.

This article was made possible with support from Relief a non-profit organization that has been supporting people living with mental health issues for 31 years.

Social identities 

A person’s social identity comes from who they are in terms of which social groups they’re assigned to. When a person belongs to one or more marginalized groups, other members of society may harbour prejudices against them, consciously or unconsciously. Marginalized groups include, but aren’t limited to, groups that experience discrimination and exclusion due to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or physical ability.

For example, you may consider men as a majority in your workplace. But, if a man is gay and black, his sexual orientation and race put him at risk of experiencing discrimination. If he is also part of other marginalized groups, it creates a unique combination of overlapping types of discrimination he could be victim of.

What is intersect­ionality? 

When a person experiences the effects of multiple forms of discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, physical or intellectual disability, etc., their experience is unique to them. This experience is based on the intersection of their various social identities. This is called “intersectionality”.

People with intersectional identities are likely to experience different types of discrimination and stigma, as well as prejudice, all of which can put them at greater risk of mental health issues.

What is unconscious bias? 

Biases, which can be positive or negative, are created through our experiences, our education, and the norms and messaging we see all around us in society. We may be conscious of some of our biases, but most are unconscious. Having an unconscious bias doesn’t mean you don’t think inclusion is important. The important thing is to try and be aware of our thoughts and feelings, and to examine our behaviours, especially towards people in marginalized groups, to create a work environment that’s safe for everyone.1

Microaggressions: Know them when you see them 

Microaggressions are a subtle form of discrimination against people who are part of one or more marginalized groups. They can be indirect and unintentional. It’s possible to commit microaggressions without even realizing it, especially if we’re not aware of our own unconscious biases.

Examples of microaggressions:

  • Assuming a person’s language or ethnicity based on their appearance.

  • Commenting on a person’s accent or having them repeat several times. 

  • Misgendering someone or telling them they don’t look “gay or lesbian”.

  • Making a joke about the mood of a person struggling with a mental health disorder.

Unconscious bias, microaggressions and mental health at work 

Unconscious bias and microaggressions can have a negative impact on employees’ mental health and wellness, as well as on their productivity. When people feel like they don’t belong or like they’re not safe, they may become anxious or depressed and may feel the need to be constantly on their toes to protect themselves.When people feel excluded at work, they may come to believe that they don’t have the power to change things. That’s why workplace mental health policies and programs need to take diversity and inclusion into account.3

“The more welcome people feel at work and the more they feel appreciated, the greater their sense of belonging and well-being. Organizations that invest in and place a value on a diverse workforce are helping to create a psychologically safe and healthy work environment for everyone,” says Jean-Rémy Provost, general manager from Relief.

Show your support 

Mental health, diversity and inclusion should be considered collective and organizational priorities that are inextricably linked. Leaders can share their own experiences to help create an atmosphere of openness and to raise awareness.4 You can also take advantage of inclusion-focused professional development opportunities to find new ways to support your employees.

Some ways to show your support:

  • Trauma awareness and support 
    Be aware of how stigma can affect individuals and learn how you can help make access to mental health professional easier.

  • Social responsibility 
    Encourage your team to volunteer and commit to supporting social causes.

  • Resource groups 
    Make sure there are safe spaces available where employees from marginalized groups can feel comfortable opening up and participating in listening and dialogue sessions.

Preventing micro­aggressions and providing support 

A respectful, supportive environment that protects everyone is key to an open and diverse work culture. Not only does it create positive experiences, but it also improves productivity, performance, mental health and workforce retention. Maintaining an open dialogue about mental health issues (and how different groups are affected), being empathetic and truly caring help to build an inclusive work environment. And when you create a safe environment where your employees know they have your support, you’re also creating a culture of employee wellness.

Relief for business

Relief offers services to companies and organizations in Canada to support them in creating a healthy, balanced and safe work environment with respect to mental health. The Relief for business program is tailored to senior management, managers, and employees, and features a combination of awareness, training, information, support and intervention, philanthropy, and cutting-edge research.

1. Government of Canada, Facilitation Essentials: Unconscious Bias, February 16, 2021.

2. ENAR (European Network Against Racism), Race and Mental Health at Work - Ensuring Wellbeing and Equality in the Workplace, 2020.

3. Forbes, DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION, Why Workplace Mental Health Policies Must Take LGBTQ+ Experiences Into Account, July 17, 2019.

4. Harvard Business Review, VSPCA - Mental Health It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work by Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, October 4, 2021.

Desjardins Insurance refers to Desjardins Financial Security Life Assurance Company.