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Understand Workplace Concerns of Black Employees

In a few days, the month typically set aside for national recognition of the history and achievements of Black people in the United States will come to a close. It is indeed a unique year for this celebration, following the barrage of physical, social, cultural and economic upheaval we have experienced over the past 12 months.

Black history month is typically a time of reflection. A time to acknowledge the challenges and celebrate the triumphs. Yet, our current circumstance is anything but typical. Our reflection should not applaud the resilience and strength of those who have overcome adversity without also acknowledging the psychological impact of their struggles on their lives, families and communities—both then and now.

Especially in the workplace.

From the COVID-19 pandemic to the nationwide calls for racial justice to the political turmoil surrounding the presidential election and the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, there is a lot to reflect on at work, and there’s no surprise that people report experiencing crushing levels of stress and anxiety. A new survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), “Stress in America: January 2021 Stress Snapshot,” found that more than 80% of Americans report emotions associated with prolonged stress.

Whether working remotely or working onsite essentially, data suggests that many Black members of the workforce are also carrying an additional emotional burden, which may not be experienced by their colleagues. In the APA survey, almost three-quarters of Black adults (74%) said the Capitol breach was a significant source of stress, compared with 65% of white adults and 60% of Hispanic adults. In addition, a CDC survey released last August showed that 44% of Black Americans reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, and 15% said they had seriously considered suicide—a significant increase since 2018.

As we observe Black History Month, it’s important that businesses acknowledge that for many reasons – including structural racism – Black Americans are disproportionately being impacted by historic and current environmental stressors. It’s also important to understand what providing tangible support might look like in our workplaces. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides several comprehensive suggestions for organizational leaders who want to know how they might be supportive, generally.

Here are a few additional concepts that employers can keep in mind when addressing the mental wellbeing of Black personnel:

Be open to discussion and prepared for the response.
Support in the workplace is not asking how someone is doing, then failing to acknowledge the identified concerns or provide help. The “A,” in the Mental Health First Aid action plan (ALGEE), reminds us that providing support begins with approaching someone honestly and with empathy. We must be willing to listen non-judgmentally (“L”) and acknowledge the feelings of others, even when we may not have shared identities or fully understand their experience. Employers can create the space for honest conversations but should be prepared to also invite silence. Allow people to designate a space as safe, or not, for themselves.

Start with statements, but continue with action.
Support in the workplace is not creating statements, committees, or work groups, then neglecting to follow words with actions. Committees and employee resource groups focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are elements of progress. However, they must also be set up for success by clearly defining goals and objectives, then getting out of the way. This means allowing them to dig deeply into an organization’s protocols and procedures as they seek to boost equity. Employers can also encourage self-help and other support strategies (“E”) by obtaining and regularly sharing available resources, like employee assistance programs (EAP), benefits information or articles that offer tips on self-care to support a culture of wellness.

People do not leave pieces of themselves outside of the door when they come to work. Many Black members of the workforce are navigating the workplace with added stressors that impact their mental wellbeing. In the remaining days of Black History Month, employers still have an opportunity to reflect, listen and offer support, in tangible ways.

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