8 Mental Health Issues Affecting Latinx People in the Workplace

Sep 15, 2021

By Gabriela Nagy, PhD

As a clinical psychologist working in academic medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine and Duke University School of Nursing, my work centers on reducing mental health care disparities experienced by minoritized communities. Using a social justice lens, I believe we can increase health equity by continuing to develop and disseminate culturally conscious, evidence-based practices. My work prioritizes disseminating this research because offering access to this knowledge is just as important as conducting research, if not more. This is particularly important for communities that tend to have less access to education and mental health services.

In this two-part series, I’ll discuss the issues facing Latinx employees in the workplace, and what employers can do to mitigate these problems. First, let’s talk about the need for this awareness.

What does it mean to be Latinx? 

Latinx (the gender-neutral term for people of Latin American ancestry) people make up a little less than 20 percent of the United States population. Latinx people are the second-fastest-growing racial or ethnic minority group (after people of Asian descent), and the numbers are rapidly increasing due to new migration, new U.S. births and the continual establishment of families.

Latinx heritage and experiences go far beyond the single-story narrative surrounding immigration that has been perpetuated by the media. Systemic racism, post-colonialism, cultural stigma, and localized laws can all influence a Latinx person’s health as well as their trust in and access to mental health support. 

With that in mind, supporting Latinx employees starts with understanding their experiences and the unique stressors they face. Here are eight top issues when it comes to mental health for this group:

1. Lack of representation

White men constitute  85 percent of company executives, despite only comprising 38 percent of the overall American workforce. The lack of representation of Latinx people in positions of power and leadership can lead to a number of issues, such as:

  • Tokenism, or hiring individuals of a certain social identity as merely a symbolic effort to be inclusive
  • Isolation in the workplace 
  • Lack of cultural understanding of employees on the part of employers and sites of employment
  • Potential for microaggressions and other sources of race related stress in the workplace that impact mental health.

In addition to these issues, Latinx people may also develop imposter syndrome, which happens when high-achieving people who are objectively accomplishing a great deal, but are systematically receiving messages that the opposite is true.

This phenomenon is not about personal failings–it suggests that these places of employment have not historically been diverse or inclusive of Latinx individuals. For example, in academic medicine, if the pictures  that line the halls are of older, white, male doctors, a young doctor of color may start to draw the conclusion they don’t belong.

Lack of representation also creates a dearth of mentorship for Latinx people In graduate school, for example, I was one of the only people who did health equity research, which meant I was responsible for guiding myself–but I was only a graduate student, so while I needed support, I had little mentorship in this space and had the responsibility of trail-blazing. 

2. Bias, discrimination, and microaggressions in the workplace 

Discrimination can be subtle and ambiguous, as in the case of microaggressions. For example, a Latinx person might be “complimented” on speaking English well, when it’s actually her first language. Or a colleague might express surprise about an accomplishment, as if Latinx people are not expected to excel.

This type of discrimination can also be overt and major, such as when someone is: 

  • Excluded from promotions
  • Left out of meetings
  • Talked over during meetings
  • Mistaken for another BIPOC person and/or called the wrong name
  • Labeled in performance evaluations with coded language such as “not professional” or “argumentative”

Both microaggressions and more significant bias can add to the imposter syndrome already fueled by lack of representation.

3. Exhaustion from code switching at work

In linguistics, code switching refers to alternating between languages, dialects, or styles of speech; in the context of cultural expectations, it’s the idea that a person of color has to change their mannerism, way of dress, hair styles, and more to “fit in”– for example, speaking less enthusiastically or straightening curly hair. This idea of fitting in often overlaps with compliance to whitewashed expectations of professionalism.

4. Acculturation stress 

Statistically, about one third of Latinx people are immigrants, and after arriving in the U.S., they tend to have better health compared to their U.S.-born counterparts (including U.S.-born Latinx and non-Latinx groups like white and Black Americans). 

This phenomenon is known as the “immigrant paradox.” There have been many hypothesized reasons for this, and a prominent one has to do with the innate sources of resilience located within this population. 

However, the longer immigrants reside in the U.S., the worse their health becomes, thereby eroding the health benefits experienced by this group. There are numerous reasons why this is the case, but two common explanations include: 

  • Acculturation: As Latinx immigrants adapt to life in the U.S., they adopt both positive and negative aspects of the “mainstream American” culture. The research has shown that they adopt behaviors like having a more sedentary lifestyle, binge drinking, eating more fast food, eating less fresh fruits and vegetables, and more.
  • Acculturation stress: The stress that comes from the process of immigration and adaptation can have negative health consequences for them as well as for their offspring. To cope with this stress, Latinx immigrants may engage in behaviors that may have short-term benefits but long-term health consequences like binge drinking, emotional eating, and smoking.   

5. Barriers to utilizing mental health care

To cope with a range of stressors, Latinx people may need support in the way of specialty mental health care. However, this population faces a range of barriers and these are the three largest:

  • Lack of availability of culturally competent, bilingual, and bicultural providers: only 5 percent of the psychology workforce comprises Latinx individuals
  • Cost: The costs of specialty care may be unaffordable for many, especially in light of lower rates of insurance that could cover such services. Because Latinx people experience more financial strain and are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs, it may be more challenging for them to allocate money toward specialty mental health care compared to white people.
  • Access: People in need of specialty mental health care may have to wait months to be able to even receive an intake appointment. This timeline is even more pronounced in the case of Spanish-speaking services.

6. More caretaking responsibilities

One source of resilience within the Latinx community is a culture marked by a strong collectivistic orientation, meaning that members of the community have strong relationships with their family members and members of their community. Moreover, the decisions and priorities someone chooses within this orientation are made in light of one’s community (rather than individual) wants or needs.

These strong community ties can buffer against stress and improve mental health. But, the additional caretaking responsibilities may also increase stress. With that in mind, Latinx people often have more family members they need to care for, including siblings and elders, that their non-Latinx counterparts may not.

7. Disproportional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic has exacerbated already problematic conditions for Latinx people, including: 

  • Over-representation in frontline/essential jobs, without proper protection from employers.
  • Less likely to be granted time for quarantine, even when sick.
  • Less ability to work from home, especially in industries that are high risk and low paying.
  • Economic pressure to sustain living conditions, particularly with sole breadwinners in a family.
  • Lack of access to safety-net programs for undocumented immigrants, such as COVID stimulus checks.
  • Fear of asking for help or getting COVID tests by undocumented immigrants.
  • Immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations have been carried out consistently during the pandemic.  
  • Insufficient infrastructure to provide culturally-competent services , including services in Spanish.
  • Lack of infrastructure for COVID-19 vaccination including reports of white and more affluent individuals cutting in line
  • Experiences of discrimination in the health system (before and during the pandemic).
  • Lack of adequately-translated official information regarding COVID-19 and the vaccine,  leading to misinformation. 

Family is typically a resilience factor, but during the current pandemic, these deep connections are negatively impacting communities because of the difficulty that physical isolation causes. Women are particularly impacted by this, because they have more childcare responsibilities than their male counterparts. For example, in academia, males and people who didn’t have children were able to publish more papers, and be much more productive during the pandemic. This will likely have major implications for long-term career growth, further exacerbating disparities. 

8. Discrimination outside the workplace 

Unfortunately, discrimination doesn’t stop when a Latinx person leaves the workplace. Racism is pervasive everywhere. Keeping intersectionality in mind, there may be sub-groups of the Latinx population who are more vulnerable to discrimination in all of its forms, such as: Afro-Latinxs, LGTBQ+ folks, undocumented immigrants, women, and low-income people.

The chronic and compounding nature of all of these issues deeply impacts the mental health of Latinx communities. However, there are several steps employers can take that can make a significant and meaningful difference, and we’ll look at those in the next blog post.

CONTACT US

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Gabriela Nagy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine and at the Duke University School of Nursing. Dr. Nagy received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee prior to moving to Duke wherein she completed her pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral training. Dr. Nagy has two primary lines of research: First, she is a health disparities researcher whose recent work has focused starting to develop psychosocial interventions to reduce acculturative stress for Latinx immigrants. Second, she has led efforts to optimize learning methods in multicultural education.