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D&I professionals: if you really want a culture of inclusion, stop putting people in condition-specific boxes and start looking at their actual needs

I’ve spent a decade working with people who have a range of different mental health conditions as well as those that look to support them. Amongst the advocates, I’ve noticed a theme emerging. Something that almost looks like a condition in itself – preventing otherwise well-meaning people being effective in their advocacy. What happens is the advocates get weighed down by medicalisation, looking at the minutiae of what causes people’s impairments and how they’re categorised, and they start overlooking what really matters.

Some background knowledge can be useful – especially if you’re looking to identify risk factors and avoid unnecessary triggers. But knowing everything there is to know about bipolar, for instance, doesn’t actually help when an employee is struggling with their memory or with managing their time. It doesn’t help us provide them with tools to manage their mood, keep control of finances or stay on task when they’re stressed. It neglects to deal with the real problem: how the condition actually affects the person.

Prioritising outcomes to boost inclusion

We need to respond to the difficulties mental health presents in a way that prioritises outcomes. This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (8–14 May) will kick off the Mental Health Foundation’s new campaign to distinguish between ‘thriving’ at work with a mental health condition or just ‘surviving’. And I think this rather nicely underlines my point. Once we’ve survived and treated the acute phases of an illness, what about the (sometimes lifelong) effects that remain?

The Equality Act recognises that a ‘disability’ is not defined by the condition someone has, but by how that condition affects them in their daily lives. After all, an impairment is very often the result not of the condition itself, but of the barriers presented by attitudes and others’ lack of support and understanding. Over one person’s lifetime, how their condition affects them can change dramatically not just according to their physical health or life events, but because of changes in their environment and societal attitudes and what tools they have on hand to help.

Embracing individualism

No two people are affected by the same diagnosis in the same way; our individualism is part of our beauty as human beings. When you think about it this way it sounds like a challenge to include everyone. But once you get down to the nuts and bolts you start seeing that even for the most disparate conditions, the effects can be strikingly similar.

I discovered this recently when writing two guides to workplace adjustments for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health. They ended up being remarkably similar. Yet because we’re so focused on looking for ‘depression’, for instance, in a list of conditions, people with mental ill-health would probably assume the ASD information wasn’t appropriate for them, and vice versa.

A quick search of most company intranets usually reveals an upfront distinction between mental and physical conditions. This then further splits into sensory, mobility, learning and cognitive and so on, until people are funnelled into a very specific stereotype of their condition. A stereotype which may completely miss their individual needs. Sometimes this even puts them off asking for support because they may feel their case isn’t serious enough to be deserving of workplace adjustments.

Designing accessibility tools for the widest audience

Changing the way we present this information improves access to it. But it also underpins a culture of inclusion by helping employees recognise that many simple adjustments benefit more than one type of disability.

A good example of this is transitioning from talking about ‘dyslexia, dyscalculia and learning disabilities’ to talking about ‘using words and numbers’. That way people instantly know where to go if they’re having language difficulties or struggling to memorise numbers. That covers people with any impairment whose symptoms result in brain fog or memory loss of any kind, whether temporary, situational or permanent – they don’t even need a diagnosis.

The best kinds of tools are the ones designed with the widest audience in mind. You only need to look at the exponential growth of apps like Headspace to see that. Most people cannot relate to what it’s like to have chronic depression but many of us can relate to being stressed and unable to remember where we left our keys.

A diagnosis is a label and a label comes in a pre-defined box. As everyone’s condition is different, removing these expectations from both the person and the employer brings a more effective support system, and a culture of inclusion that allows talent to flourish.