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Minority Mental Health in the Workplace

Dr. Waajida L. Small profile image

Dr. Waajida L. Small

An African American man at his desk, looking out the window.

To say that the past year and a half has been challenging is an understatement. As many of us continue to return to the office, acknowledging the global state of affairs and its impact on the mental health of employees should be a priority for employers. This is an especially important consideration for employees of color.

As many organizations are making strides toward a more inclusive environment, there remains a stark increase in mental illness and mental stressors among minority employees. And while creating safe spaces for individuals to be vocal about injustices is laudable, organizations should also provide the necessary support for any mental health challenges that may arise as a result of the current situation, or any new practices as well. 

Equal access, but an unequal understanding

In most organizations, all employees are afforded the same health benefits; however, this doesn’t mean that they always enjoy the same access. This has less to do with the employer and more to do with systemic racism and the lack of access to appropriate––and culturally responsive––resources that support the “whole health” of people of color.

According to the Center for American Progress, the U.S. has some of the starkest and most prevalent racial disparities when it comes to health. This is because of “persistent racial disparities in health coverage, chronic health conditions, mental health, and mortality.”

In the same study, the Center for American Progress notes that these disparities are not a result of “individual or group behavior but decades of systematic inequality in American economic, housing, and health care systems.” The study found that in 2018, only 8.7% of African American adults and 8.8% of Hispanic adults received mental health services, with lower figures for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islander Americans. This is compared with 18.6% of non-Hispanic white adults having received mental health services.

Andrea Holman, co-author of the Harvard Business Review article “Are You Offering the Mental Health Benefits Your BIPOC Employees Need?” writes about her experience of having to “show up” at work following the killing of Ahmad Arbury. She speaks of feeling the need to manage her distress while at the same time feeling burdened to maintain high performance.

Upon seeking mental health services, Holman made two important discoveries:

  • An appropriate label for what she and many workers of color experience: race-based traumatic stress. That is, stress caused by individual, institutional, and cultural encounters with racism that negatively impact psychological and physical health. 
  • The lack of access to the right resources to heal from that trauma.
“Unfortunately, many Black Americans don’t have access to these same types of resources. Nor are Black Americans the only ones who experience race-related stress. Millions of people from racial minority groups carry the psychological weight of racism throughout their lives, including at work, and very few are able to reach out to culturally responsive mental health providers through their employee benefits.”

Creative coping

In the absence of access to the appropriate resources to support mental-health needs, employees of color still often find ways to cope with workplace stress. A recent Forbes article suggested the following:

  • Focusing on self-regulation. Recognition and control of feelings and emotions to prevent the escalation of emotions and heartache.
  • Finding an outlet. Engaging in activities that have meaning for you, making more time for your current hobbies or finding new ones.
  • Finding a community. Leaning on your close friend or finding a support group to help get things off our chests and talk about new ways to handle situations.
  • Put yourself in the right environment. Proactively choosing whether a position or organization is right for you, or if you perhaps need a change. 

For many, the most effective coping mechanism in coping with mental-health needs is finding community, which oftentimes can be found in the form of an Employee Resource Group (ERG). One study found that while there are costs associated with an employer-established ERG, “when minorities frequently feel valued and embraced by members of their own minority group, they maintain lower levels of anxiety and fewer symptoms of depression overall. A clear benefit.”

What organizations can do for their BIPOC employees

While there are ways in which employees of color may be able to cope with mental health stressors at work, organizations need to do their part by actively taking steps to provide resources to support the needs of employees of color.  

Idealist Career Advice contributor Ashley Fontaine offers these six ideas that organizations should consider:

  1. Talk about it. Mental health is health.
  2. Avoid stigmatizing language.
  3. Address the ways that your policies do (or don’t) support mental health.
  4. Create an office culture that values people first.
  5. Share resources openly.
  6. Advocate for financial resources, health care, and racial equity. 

Organizations should also ensure that their benefits address barriers faced by employees of color and should consider the following dimensions when identifying the right solution: 

  • Access. What is the method for booking and matching employees with the appropriate providers and how fast and easy is it to get appointments? Can urgent issues be addressed quickly?
  • Cultural responsiveness. Are providers culturally responsive, competent, and able to adapt treatment based on cultural needs and sensitivities? Are they trained to do so?
  • Provider diversity. Are your providers racially diverse and do they promote diversity within their networks?
  • Effectiveness. Do they use evidenced therapies and what is their track record of effective outcomes for diverse populations? 
  • Flexibility. Can employees of color have the flexibility to receive care based on their needs and terms? 
  • Specialty coverage. What are the options for specialized treatment? 

When it comes to employee mental health, the needs for BIPOC employees can be quite different. Care and intention are necessary to ensure that the appropriate mental-health services are available for those who need them. And while BIPOC employees should be able to ask for what they need, employers should be the ones taking that first step to start the conversation.


Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to check out our post Combating Microaggression in the Workplace as a Woman of Color.

Dr. Waajida L. Small profile image

Dr. Waajida L. Small

Dr. Waajida L. Small is a human resources executive who has worked in the public and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. She is a certified leadership and executive coach, human capital strategist and certified purpose leader. Dr. Small is the author of "Our Leadership Journey: Shared Stories, Lessons and Advice for Women of Color", a book for women of color on the rise into positions of leadership and influence in their organizations, industries and communities.

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