Traditionally, Black people in professional spaces—or any other part of society for that matter—have culturally internalized hiding our anguish and anger.
As microaggressions persist and traumatic racial events unfold, we tend to do our best to ‘grin and bear it’.
There is a lingering cultural stigma around the need to “stay strong” and avoid help. Taking a "mental health day," or obtaining mental health care and support, especially at work, may feel unfathomable. Generally, by presentation and productivity, Black employees are happy stoics.
Except we aren’t.
When it comes to Black mental wellness, the struggle is real.
- Racism and discrimination via microaggressions contribute to poor health among people of color, resulting in increased rates of depression, prolonged stress and trauma, anxiety, even heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- After the video of George Floyd’s murder went viral in May 2020, the number of Black Americans experiencing anxiety or depression rose to 41% from 36%—an increase of 1.4 million people.
- Black adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults.
And yet, only about 25% of Black people seek mental health care, compared to 40% of white people.
Employers can help support Black employees’ mental health in three key ways.
Although Black people disproportionately experience workplace bias, and microaggressions in particular, employers still can create a safe environment for Black employees to seek and receive the care and support they need to recover from these and other mentally disabling experiences.
- Meet culture with culture. It’s important for employers to recognize not only the signs of mental health struggles but also acknowledge the deep-rooted stigma around seeking mental health help, particularly for Black employees.
“A lack of cultural sensitivity by health care professionals, [has left] African Americans feeling marginalized,” psychiatrist Christine Crawford, who is Black, said in an interview with McLean Hospital. “From those historic misconceptions, we learned to ignore mental illness or call it other terms, like ‘stress’ and ‘being tired.’” Indeed, 63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness.
Combatting the stigma in racial culture with a transparent and safe organizational culture is a big first step to helping Black employees find the mental health support they need. Building and maintaining a workplace environment where this history is understood and discussed, while disavowing stigmatizing language, can help foster psychological safety among Black employees in seeking mental health help.
- Remove the burden of ‘seeker.’ Ensuring that mental health is discussed openly and equally to physical health—with workplace resources, supports, and employer-sponsored benefits to match—can also be a step forward in stabilizing and improving employee mental health, regardless of race. For Black employees, though, where stigma is an even bigger obstacle, employers can help by removing the guesswork that too often comes with seeking a provider.
As it is, Black Americans are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to receive an accurate mental health diagnosis, and less likely to receive treatment for depression than white Americans. Additionally, only 2% of psychiatrists and 4% of psychologists in the U.S. are Black.
Employers that help Black employees do the homework by highlighting medical plans that cover mental health visits (virtual and in-person), networks that feature Black mental health providers, and culturally competent questions to ask in their provider search can remove burdens and barriers to seeking and receiving care.
- Embrace empathy. Black people are only 8% of the U.S. professional population, and even fewer are in leadership roles. It’s most likely, then, that Black employees do not have a leader that looks like them. However, genuine empathy from leaders can go a long way in helping Black employees feel safe and supported in speaking up about news events involving race, bias/microaggressions, and—by extension—seeking mental health help in coping with those issues.
Spending time getting to know employees on a more personal level—asking about their lived experiences and perspectives, then actively listening to their response—is a great an easy way to start building empathetic relationships.
“You may not be [a person of color] but, in order for you to understand that person's journey, you have to gain empathy to yield authenticity,” Blair Taylor, a partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, said in an interview with SHRM. “If you spend time with people who are not like you, you start to understand that they are more like you than you realize, and you start picking up stories that you can tell in your own voice.”
I had one such conversation with my friend and colleague Marcy Klipfel as well as Tanisha Harell, DEI Consultant at ComPsych during a recent episode of Businessolver’s social media webcast “Brews with Bruce.” Listen to the conversation below, and share in the comments how you’re doing the work within your own organization.