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A colleague asked me recently, “How are you doing–really?” Between the dramatic life shifts from the coronavirus pandemic, changing work expectations, the pre-existing plague of racism now at the forefront of awareness, mental gymnastics to see if my white leaders and coworkers would supportively respond to anti-racism discussions, and significant stress from personal concerns, I feel like 2020 is winning the race and my emotional reserve batteries are running low. My Black community and I have been hit hard. I couldn’t mask my pain–and didn’t desire to–in the middle of the workday. I candidly shared, “I’m struggling.”
Let’s pause to consider what it means to be Black at work in America. The professional standards Black Americans are expected to upload at work often require extensive limiting of emotional expression, among other double standards, to navigate systemic racism in the workplace. In fact, many Black employees cannot authentically show up at work as full versions of themselves without facing professional ramifications, adding another layer of stress on top of normal job demands. This balancing act in the workplace is rarely properly addressed by employer-provided mental well-being programs.
This experience only intensifies with an ongoing normative productivity burden following exposure to horrific racist events, which can go ignored or minimized in workplaces that predominantly employ non-Black individuals. Recently, the term racial trauma has gained public attention to describe the heightened stress and trauma impact from events related to racial discrimination. These events can be real or perceived, and don’t require the individual to have been directly involved to negatively impact their mental well-being. Racial stress exposure can prompt a range of symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, headaches and body pains, fatigue, sleep problems, a general sense of anxiety, and fear for the future.
Many Black Americans have or will experience race-based stress. So how can we support our Black colleagues as they show up to work in the best way they can right now?
Now more than ever, employers must listen to Black employee voices. If individual Black employees or employee resource groups (ERGs) are providing clear requests to their employers, that’s a strong starting point to understand how best to provide support. However, the burden also is on organizations to do more of the heavy lifting. I suggest addressing the needs on two levels:
When navigating ways to quickly “help” after a tragedy or concern arises, I recommend focusing first on identifying what style of help would be most beneficial or is being requested.
While most people have a style preference depending on their personality and the needs at hand, providing one and not another can mean even the best-intended offer of support misses the mark.
Next, consider how every layer of the organization can champion Black mental health, creating a full net of support. Often, if these efforts are only demonstrated at one organizational level, the attempt rings hollow. To build and maintain systemic trust, every facet of your organizational culture needs to implement actions to cement and amplify the message. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll consider three layers: the organization, smaller team or department leaders, and among individual colleagues.
After determining the style of mental health support– instrumental or emotional– and what levels of involvement will be seen across the company, you can begin identifying who is best positioned to provide what resource or opportunity. The ideal aim should be to have at least one instrumental and one emotional support action at each level.
Organizations can use internal levers to promote inclusivity and alignment to promote Black mental health. These can include policies, health benefits, messaging, employee resources, and the pipeline of recruiting to promotion. For example, at the instrumental level, companies can expand and market leave policies to encourage employees to take leave time for mental well-being. Companies can also work with formal and informal Black leaders to create identity affinity groups, (the aforementioned ERGs) designed to serve as safe spaces to discuss current workplace needs, organize initiatives, and provide community celebration opportunities to bring Black employees together.
Company leaders can communicate emotional support through internal and public-facing statements and actions that acknowledge the emotional burdens Black communities face. Aside from timely and direct public statements committing to anti-racism efforts, creating organizational guidelines on how managers can communicate with and support their Black team members can help prevent missteps that may occur despite good intentions.
Additionally, it’s important for managers to stay aligned, connected, and prepared to respond to Black team member needs. Team leaders are positioned to have the most direct influence on work demands and routine interaction with Black employees. Staying emotionally attuned by routinely checking in allows managers to both convey empathy and provide flexible instrumental support when needed, such as capacity for team members to carry out work tasks and adjust workload expectations. By remaining aware of their employees’ changing emotional needs, they can remind workers of available resources, such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), or encourage self-care efforts. Keep in mind that employees may not always feel entirely comfortable in sharing their experiences, and respecting feelings for privacy can also be a powerful form of support.
Lastly, among individual team members who are not Black, carrying out many of the same check-in strategies as managers can signal to Black colleagues that safe spaces are available within their team and company. During particularly rough times, if coworkers are close and have built up trust, a non-Black team member can offer to shoulder the burden of a small task for that day to provide instrumental support. Coworkers can also remind employees of relevant employer resources that can support them during a critical moment.
All of these actions of visibility and accountability let Black employees know that their organization cares about making their work culture and community safer. More importantly, many of the response efforts employers undertake can and should become sustainable and long-term. While not a salve to the deep racial wounds of American culture, these efforts can make showing up to work more bearable and contribute towards greater resilience in the face of a race-based trauma cycle that won’t end soon enough.
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The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Brittany Linton is a licensed psychologist and serves as the Director for Primary Care & Mental Health Integration for the San Francisco Veterans Healthcare System. She works on interdisciplinary health teams to ensure every person has access to meet all of their needs–physical and mental–in one location. She also lectures on resiliency strategies, workplace team dynamics, and addressing diversity, inclusivity, and healthcare disparity for communities that have historically experienced mistreatment or lack of access, including the Black and LGBTQI+ communities. You can follow her on Twitter @doctor_brittany for infrequent, insightful postings.