Getting Creative: Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives are Mental Health & Wellness Initiatives

By: Sarah Knarzer, Esq.1

While well-intentioned, many diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DE&I initiatives) tend to struggle to gain momentum and succeed in law firms and other legal organizations, particularly when those initiatives are focused solely on hiring practices. It is no surprise that diversity, equity, and inclusion does not just miraculously occur in the workforce because some leaders have agreed that it is the right thing to do. In fact, employers who have prioritized practices such as employing attorneys with diverse experiences, making success attainable for all employees, and creating supportive communities within their work force, have realized that DE&I initiatives are the formula for a stronger, healthier workplace. It is evident that for values such as diversity, equity, and inclusion to truly become part of firm or legal organization, they must be integrated into everything that firm or legal organization does, including mental health and wellness programs, and vice versa. 

              Diversity and the Workplace

“Despite the increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion within the legal field over the past decade or so, the legal profession remains one of the least diverse of any profession.”2 This is despite the fact that “studies have shown, time and time again, that diversity is good for business.”3 One primary barrier is leadership—without diverse leadership, diversity initiatives will almost always fail. For example, as of 2017, Asian Americans were the largest minority group at major law firms.4 However, “[a]mong Asian Americans, although women outnumber men among law firm associates, men outnumber women by almost twofold at the partner level.”5 

Diversity for diversity’s sake—a numbers game where you achieve a quota of “diverse” employees and call it a day—is doomed from the start. Such initiatives—while necessary—focus primarily on hiring/recruitment practices, are reactive in nature, and don’t address the root of why minority attorneys struggle to find the same success and satisfaction in the work force as their majority counterparts: minority attorneys at all levels of their legal organization don’t often have the resources to start on the same footing as their majority colleagues in an inequitable workplace or to integrate with or feel embraced by their peers in an non-inclusive workplace.6

 For illustration, being invited to the party is the first step, but if you are not invited to dance, or if you do not have the ability to dance in the first place, you will not have as much fun as the others at the party, despite everyone’s good intentions. Accordingly, injecting robust mental health and wellness initiatives into all aspects of your workplace’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy addresses many of the barriers to employee retention, promotion, and public perception as a diverse workspace—but more importantly, it strengthens and empowers employees to be successful on an individual level and as a collective workforce. 

                Need for a Flexible Approach

Mental health and wellness initiatives that take a “one-size-fits-all” approach and ignore the diverse experiences and backgrounds of their employees will not succeed. Minority employees’ mental health can be directly impacted by microaggressions, bias, and a lack of inclusivity that they may experience in their workday. This is particularly true in the legal occupation where many attorneys struggle with mental health—ALM’s 2020 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey showed that out of 3,200 responses, 64% of attorneys experience anxiety, 31.2% experience depression, 10.1% feel they struggle with alcoholism, 2.8% feel they may have a drug problem, and, most concerning, 17.9% of respondents have contemplated suicide during their professional legal career.7 

The legal community has made great strides with destigmatizing some of these mental health concerns and providing resources for attorneys who are struggling, but to fully address the concerns of all attorneys, we must identify the sources of mental health problems and the barriers to receiving help before we can remove them. For example, diverse cultural attitudes and stereotypes often impact the way minorities seek help with their mental health or prevent them from seeking help altogether.8

                      A Supportive Environment   

Feeling included, supported, and capable of success in an organization is critical to strong mental health and well being in the workplace.9 Given the amount of time, energy, and attention attorneys spend in their work, it is impossible to ignore the impact that their work environment may have on their mental health. Injecting DE&I initiatives into all aspects of your workplace’s mental health and wellness strategy addresses many of the negative experiences that are unique to minority attorneys and fosters a work environment that is a source of positivity and personal fulfillment for all employees; and mentally well and happy people are better employees, supervisors, leaders, and attorneys. There is no single approach to solve all mental health, well-being, diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns in your workspace. 

However, mental health and well-being and DE&I strategies must be intersectional if they are to be achieved.10  By incorporating concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion into your mental health and wellness programs, and vice versa, you will start to provide employees and attorneys from all experiences and backgrounds with the resources they need to succeed both personally and professionally at your legal organization. 

    To illustrate, attorneys who manage various disabilities may have experiences that are more challenging than their colleagues’ without disabilities through no fault of any person involved. In addition to the difficulties caused by their disability, these attorneys frequently struggle with both subtle and overt instances of bias and discrimination in the workplace.11 These instances often arise from a lack of understanding of a person’s abilities. 

For example, an attorney who uses a wheelchair to be mobile may not be able to accompany colleagues on a firm-wide hike. A standard health insurance plan may not account for the employee who requires the use of a hearing-aid to participate in a conversation. An employee who is neurodivergent (has autism, dyslexia, etc.) may not be able to integrate socially or professionally without accommodations or support from all their peers. And, of course, while organizations frequently state that they do not permit bullying or harassment in the workplace, it undoubtedly still occurs—and minority communities may endure the most of such unacceptable conduct. 

These are just some of the examples where an individualistic approach would benefit human resources, administrative, and employee development staff in supporting their attorneys within a legal organization. By increasing anti-bias training and education and making small modifications to certain practices—such as health insurance coverage for disabilities, ensuring food options for specialized diets (ex. vegan, kosher), hosting a diverse variety of social functions, permitting flexible leave and floating holidays for those of different religions and ethnic traditions—your workspace can become more equitable and your employees will feel more included, supported, and empowered to succeed.12 

Of course, recruitment, hiring, and retention policies are integral to any diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. Pooling from diverse backgrounds, valuing diverse experiences, and promoting diverse employees to positions higher up in your legal organization are all critical to obtaining a strong, healthy workplace. However, even in this area of your organization’s diversity strategy, mental health and well being concerns can and should be considered. 

For example, it is important not to tokenize the diverse employees that are currently a part of your workforce in advertising materials and/or recruitment.13 Tokenization occurs when a minority person is hired, promoted, and/or advertised “only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly” and without any real intention or practice to treat them in the same capacity as a majority counterpart.14 Doing so is not only misleading to potential employees by setting them up for expectations for their employment that can only fail and disappoint them, but it is also exhausting for one or two choice people to be the beacon for diversity in their organization (often without a paycheck to reflect that additional work,) anxiety-inducing to feel the need to be the perfect example and a mentor to any and all other diverse employees, and discouraging to feel that they were only hired to be a statistic or photo opportunity and not for their skills, abilities, and strengths as an attorney. This does not mean they cannot or should not be a part of those hiring and recruitment practices but doing so should be on their terms and they should feel free to speak honestly about their experiences, even the negative ones. 

Another example is for hiring managers to truly value diversity as a policy, not as a statistic. In a recent study, 76% of new job seekers and employees have reported that a diverse work environment is a crucial factor in considering offers of employment.15 (Speaking for myself, I certainly considered diversity initiatives—and the opportunity to become involved with diversity initiatives—in accepting my current position as an associate at my law firm.) This statistic indicates that now, more than ever, it is important to have a concrete DE&I strategy that can be used as an incentive for diverse and diversity-minded candidates to work at your organization. However, it is also important for interviewers and hiring managers to be honest with potential employees who inquire about DE&I initiatives in your workplace. 

If an employee accepted a job offer partially on the impression that they were joining an organization that had strong diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, only to learn that such policies were not, in fact, valued or practiced by the organization as a whole, they may grow to resent their employer, thus impacting their mental health and well-being as an employee. If your organization is not where you think it should be in terms of diversity and inclusion, but you and others are working to improve that and are looking to hire those who feel the same, then say so—candidates may be excited about the opportunity to leave an impression on their firm and, if given the opportunity and an environment to do so, they may feel fulfilled and empowered by their organization to be a successful employee. 

                    In Closing   

The methods in which your legal organization can strengthen both mental health and wellness initiatives and DE&I initiatives by intersecting the goals of each may be critical to supporting attorneys at your organization. How your firm or organization accomplishes this will require creativity and commitment from all levels—and your strategy will have to be unique to your firm or organization’s workforce, resources, and environment. However, the first step is to view each initiative not as mutually exclusive of the other, but instead as compatible and harmonious goals that, if achieved, will cultivate a workspace where employees can flourish both professionally and personally.

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  1. Sarah K. Knarzer is an Associate Attorney with McCandlish Holton’s Civil Litigation Group in Richmond, Virginia. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion in the legal community and is happy to discuss this article and other initiatives with anyone else who is interested. For inquiries, please e-mail sknarzer@lawmh.com.
  2. Allison E. Laffey & Allison Ng, Diversity and Inclusion in the Law: Challenges and Initiatives, American Bar Association (May 8, 2018), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/jiop/articles/2018/diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-law-challenges-and-initiatives/.
  3. Id.
  4. Chung et al., The Portrait Project: A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law (2014).
  5. Laffey, supra note 2 (citing Chung, supra note 3, at 18).
  6. Dr. Heather Bolton, DEI That Ignores Mental Health Is Doomed, HR Daily Advisor (Nov. 6, 2020), https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2020/11/06/dei-that-ignores-mental-health-is-doomed/.
  7. lex Andonovska, Lawyers Reveal True Causes of Mental Health Struggles Beyond COVID-19, JDJournal (May 7, 2020), https://www.jdjournal.com/2020/05/07/lawyers-reveal-true-causes-of-mental-health-struggles-beyond-covid-19/ (citing Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, ALM Intelligence (2020)).
  8. For more examples of the way diverse backgrounds affect mental health, see Jayne Reardon & Bree Buchanan, Lawyer Well-Being: An Uncharted Path to Increasing Diversity and Inclusion, American Bar Association (Feb. 19, 2018), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/diversity-inclusion/articles/2018/winter2018-lawyer-well-being-alcoholism-self-help/.
  9. Patricia Silva, Mental Health Efforts Will Support Diversity In Legal Industry, Law360 (June 9, 2020, 10:09 p.m.), https://www.law360.com/articles/1278451/mental-health-efforts-will-support-diversity-in-legal-industry.
  10. Garen Staglin, The Essential Role of mental Health For A Diverse, Inclusive Workplace, Forbes (July 14, 2020, 9:00 a.m.), https://www.forbes.com/sites/onemind/2020/07/14/the-essential-role-of-mental-health-for-a-diverse-inclusive-workplace/?sh=72e0da4bac4d.
  11. For examples and statistics, please see Blanck et al., Diversity and Inclusion in the American Legal Profession: First Phase Findings from a National Study of Lawyers with Disabilities and Lawyers Who Identify as LGBTA+, 23 Univ. D.C. L. Rev 23 (2020).
  12. For other examples, see Making Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion a Part of Your Corporate Wellness Program, WellRight (July 8, 2020), https://www.wellright.com/blog/making-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-a-part-of-your-corporate-wellness-program.
  13. Five Ways to Avoid Tokenism in Diversity and Inclusion Work, The Network (Aug.19, 2020), https://www.the-network.com/five-ways-to-avoid-tokenism-in-diversity-inclusion-work/
  14. Avoiding Tokenism when Promoting Cultural Diversity in the Workplace, Thomas (Nov. 26, 2020), https://www.the-network.com/five-ways-to-avoid-tokenism-in-diversity-inclusion-work/.
  15. What Job Seekers Really Think About Your Diversity and Inclusion Stats, Glassdoor (July 12, 2021), https://www.glassdoor.com/employers/blog/diversity/.

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