Jul 29, 2021
By Cierra Gillison, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Lyra Health
Many industry leaders are curious about how their work culture impacts the mental health of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in their workforce. Studies have yielded clear outcomes: focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) makes companies stronger and delivers impactful employee experiences.
A key component of an effective DEIB strategy involves recognizing the unique mental health challenges historically marginalized employees face at work and proactively working to overcome them. As Director of DEIB at Lyra Health and a member of the BIPOC community, I’ve spent countless hours working to prioritize BIPOC mental health and wellness and counter systemic barriers for this population. I’ve learned many lessons (some through personal experience and others through trial and error) about ways workspaces can do better to value, include and advocate for their BIPOC employees and their health.
BIPOC employees need access to culturally responsive therapy
Systemic oppression and societal microaggressions contribute to ongoing race-related stress, placing BIPOC individuals at a greater risk for mental health challenges than their white peers. In fact, one in four U.S. adults who identify as more than one race report struggling with their mental health.
With the knowledge of these historical barriers, it is important to note that BIPOC individuals are less likely to have access to mental health care. Among U.S. adults with a mental illness, 50 percent of white survey respondents receive mental health services, compared to approximately 33 percent of Black and Hispanic respondents and 23 percent of Asian respondents. Racial disparity in healthcare coverage, along with mental health stigma in BIPOC communities, may contribute to this gap.
For many BIPOC individuals, workplace experiences have contributed to poorer mental health outcomes. Workplaces have caused harm (intentional or otherwise), and many BIPOC employees may carry older wounds into new workspaces.
Employers have the opportunity to create a workplace where BIPOC employees feel seen, valued, and heard, including those who have previously experienced workplace race-based discrimination. Here are six steps I’ve learned to take to achieve this goal:
Consider whether your company’s BIPOC workforce roles counter or reinforce the narrative that these bodies exist primarily to serve others. Historically, BIPOC individuals have often been limited to frontline-service roles, such as customer support or caregiving. This sole positioning can unintentionally perpetuate racial stereotypes and bias. Working to build BIPOC representation across all levels of your company is a great first step to countering this narrative.
Increasing BIPOC representation across all institutional levels can:
Throughout my career, I’ve often been the only Black, cisgendered female in my immediate work environment. The more I’ve advanced in my career, the less I see peers who look like me. This dynamic impacts my ability to be authentic at work and brings up concerns such as:
When BIPOC populations are represented across teams and departments at your organization, BIPOC employees have the opportunity to thrive in their work. Representation has potential to increase BIPOC employee engagement and confidence in our contributions to company successes.
Community and social support deeply impact mental health, and the quality of community at work contributes to an inclusive and emotionally healthy environment. Helping your BIPOC employees find belonging amongst colleagues is a crucial part of championing our health and wellness.
Mentorship programs, dedicated Slack channels, resource groups, or even grassroots-supported community spaces can provide an outlet for connection. At Lyra Health, we’ve taken steps to learn what community-building looks like, with the goal of expanding our Slack communities and launching employee resource groups (ERGs).
Employers, it is your responsibility to ensure that the people who need community can find it. Community engagement information should be available to all employees, even during an interview process and orientation sessions. Moreover, following up with employees to ensure they understand how to get involved (if they so desire) will be a great step in exemplifying your value of employee community engagement.
BIPOC individuals are statistically more likely to face barriers to access to mental health care. When the full scope of benefits are presented habitually and in a straightforward manner, it can be a powerful move in the effort to remove some of the barriers to care. The following reflective questions can be helpful in assessing how well informed employees are about company benefits:
Inquire with your employees about these questions, and make sure the answer is yes.
Finally, be alert for barriers to access. Information about employee benefits should be easy to access and navigate; an employee in mental distress struggling with mental illness may not have the capacity to search through mountains of content. This is especially important with a robust benefits package that has many options. Lastly, confirm that your mental health benefit provides an option for employees to select a provider based on their specific needs; this could include racial background and/or specialization in working with a specific need, like race-based stress.
Every workplace develops a culture, whether intentionally or not. Just as BIPOC employees can feel obligated to assimilate into social cultures, they may face similar pressure at work to blur their boundaries or abandon elements of their cultural identity to fit in.
I have learned to encourage room for the boundaries and systems that help BIPOC employees thrive and encourage us to express our needs. When we do, I encourage company leaders to respond with a spirit of positive collaboration.
Ask yourself: Do your BIPOC employees feel empowered to share with their managers what they need? How can they be more of an active participant in shaping workplace culture?
For example, when I started working at Lyra, I noticed that our company culture encouraged employees to “grab time” with each other by scheduling meetings on our shared public calendars.
Hopping from back-to-back meetings was quickly becoming overwhelming; I spoke to my manager and asked if I could handle my calendar differently. Rather than expecting me to assimilate into workplace culture, my manager made room for an alternate approach, allowing me to request that colleagues reach out to me via email before scheduling a meeting. This change has empowered me to take breaks when needed and have adequate time to prepare for each meeting. I’ve improved my work productivity and my manager’s receptivity and respect for this boundary have improved my work outcomes.
Historically, BIPOC communities have been forced to engage in survival mode to endure systemic oppression; they have also had less access and ability to afford mental health services. What’s more, many BIPOC individuals may have experienced cultural communication that mental health care is a luxury and/or sign of weakness.
For several years, I relied on a “fake it till you make it” attitude and suppressed my internal stress, hoping those around me would think I was thriving. One of the most important lessons of my life was that caring for and prioritizing my mental health directly impacts the quality of my work.
This is why it’s crucial to prioritize mental health and normalize using services in a workplace setting. Reassure employees that they can be transparent about their needs, and encourage managers and colleagues to support employees who disclose their struggles with the resources your organization has to offer.
With that in mind, ensure there are resources in place to support obstacles or crises employees may disclose. It can erode trust if you tell your employees to be authentic at work yet don’t have resources to help them share concerns about their mental health. Discretion and safety are paramount in these efforts, so that employees trust in you, your company and the resources offered is reinforced after communicating their needs or their distress.
Treat mistakes and missteps as an opportunity to learn and evolve, rather than a reason to avoid the work. You will inevitably experience obstacles on your path to growth. Explore any perceived failure(s) as an opportunity to learn and make progress on the long journey toward a more inclusive and just workplace.
Key questions to consider:
You have the power to create change
Your organization’s commitment to DEIB speaks volumes to BIPOC employees about how you will value them. Although a diverse workforce faces great challenges, it’s within our power as employers to be catalysts for and sustain change.
BIPOC employees may walk into a new workplace setting carrying hurt and harm from past experiences. Commit to prioritizing our mental health, building community, and increasing access to mental health care. This intentionality will make your workplace—and ultimately your company culture—stronger and much more inclusive for all employees.
If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Cierra serves as the Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Lyra Health. Before joining Lyra, she served as an Assistant Director for Student Life at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. She joined Stanford University in 2017 as a Program Associate, where she led the Education and Equity team and supported the Faculty in Residence in Residential Education. Cierra is a trained Student Affairs professional and specializes in using design-thinking for building creative learning experiences. Cierra is also a small business owner of Believe in the Journey, LLC, which centers on international education as an exceptional opportunity to engage, learn, and grow across differences.