Expert advice to help HR focus on Black mental health

This week’s insurrection in Washington, D.C., by pro-Trump supporters is the latest alarming national event to impact the psyche of American workers, already strapped by social unrest and a global pandemic. While HR pundits have urged leaders to prioritize employees’ mental health in light of the events, many are also strategizing how to address a population that could be particularly affected: Black employees.

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In a public address the day after the riots, President-Elect Biden highlighted the issue.

“No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true, and it is unacceptable,” Biden said. “Totally unacceptable.”

That’s a reality that can be triggering for many Black Americans and can seep into the workplace, whether remote or not. To address that burden, says author and psychotherapist Asha Tarry, employers, led by HR, need to put compassion at the forefront.

Asha Tarry

“There isn’t something new to do in this situation, it’s something to continually do–and that is to listen,” she says.

See also: How employers can address Black workers’ mental health

Listen to employees who want to express concerns, but understand that those who have faced issues like systemic racism may not necessarily want to right now, she notes. Creating the space where they feel comfortable to do so, however, is important.

Mandy Price, co-founder and CEO of Kanarys–a Black- and female-founded technology platform that fosters collaboration between companies and employees on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion–says that, in times of crisis like these, leaders must communicate with three imperatives: urgency, transparency and empathy.

“Your employees need to hear from you, and it is important to show empathy for the uncertainty and fear your employees may be experiencing during times of unrest,” she says. “Acknowledge the fear that Black and other employees may be feeling and convey a compelling message of hope and resilience to face the challenges that lie ahead.”

Don’t necessarily try to understand the “rage, sadness and despair” that many people of color are feeling “if it feels inauthentic to you and you aren’t motivated to change personal ethics of your own,” Tarry says. But those who do want to challenge themselves in order to connect with employees should heighten their own awareness about the connection between trauma and workplace performance, as well as the red flags for stress, burnout or PTSD.

Ensure all employees know how to access employee assistance programs and encourage them to utilize PTO and be “present to their mental health needs.” At the start of the day, make mention of current events in employee communications and urge workers to take care of their wellness.

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On a broader scale, Tarry says, HR leaders should commit to making “emotional intelligence” a cornerstone of company culture, bolstered by training and a focus on rooting out implicit bias.

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“There’s really no need to wait for executive leadership to set the standard,” she adds. “On a micro level, interrogate yourself and ask yourself, ‘How do I want to lead my employees? And what am I leading them towards?’ ”

Mandy Price, CEO and co-founder of Kanarys

Ultimately, however, executive buy-in is key to dismantling systemic inequities in the workplace, adds Price. Leadership needs to invest real dollars and create both short- and long-term strategies to address diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Although HR can certainly take the lead,” she says, “addressing institutional equity has to be a commitment of the board, CEO, C-suite and leadership of the company.”

Sustainable, systemic change involves “painstaking intention and commitment to consistently gathering feedback from Black employees, intervening, measuring those interventions and repeating,” Price says, while all company policies, procedures and practices should also be examined and potentially revamped. Kanarys clients that have started making real DEI progress have undertaken such efforts as compensating employees who participate in DEI work outside of their regular role, as much of this responsibility often falls on the shoulders of Black and other underrepresented employees.

Properly funding and empowering employee resource groups can also cultivate an atmosphere of belonging, while executives should be held accountable–transparently–to DEI measures.

Organizations should also be “recognizing that Black employees have been traumatized and offering them the resources they will need in the short-term and long-term to cope, heal and thrive,” Price says. “There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting all Black employees either. Time and care needs to be taken to figure out how different groups, such as women, LGBTQ, parents, etc., are best helped in these difficult situations.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].