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Race, culture and mental health—how DEI can unlock change

Susan Johnson, The Hartford
Susan Johnson
Susan Johnson is head of diversity, equity and inclusion at The Hartford, a leading provider of employee benefits products and services, including leave management, group life and disability insurance, as well as other voluntary products.

Microaggressions. Imposter syndrome. Code-switching. You might think of these behaviors in the context of racism and discrimination. But these are not just DEI-related issues; they can affect the mental health of many working Americans—and, therefore, the bottom line of many companies today.

There is a tangible connection between building a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce and workplace mental health. The Hartford’s newest research with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explores how race and ethnicity affect individual perception and experience of mental health, and highlights the need for greater workplace equity and inclusion.

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Mental health among Black, Latinx and Asian American-Pacific Islander (AAPI) employees is a critical business and societal responsibility. Our research shows that 26% of Black U.S. workers rate their mental health as fair or poor, more than any other group, while 29% of Black and 42% of AAPI workers agreed that mental health stigma prevents people in their companies from seeking help. Earlier this year, we found that 71% of employers said the deteriorating mental health of their workforce is having a negative financial impact on their company.

I’m moved by the troublesome findings and remain committed to helping more companies create more inclusive, diverse and equitable workplaces. In my many years as a diversity leader, I have heard numerous instances of how professionals of color face additional emotional burdens in the workplace because of bias, lack of inclusion or being “the only.”

Regardless of where businesses are on their DEI journeys, they can take steps to build inclusive workplaces that consider the unique mental health needs of all employee groups. Companies that have established initiatives in place can be more intentional about progressing around mental health. And for employers who are just starting their DEI work, now is an ideal time to embed inclusive mental health initiatives into their strategies. A work environment that promotes good mental health for all is essential for business productivity and recruiting, while bolstering employees’ relationships with their families and communities.

These actions will set up businesses and employees for success:

1. Create psychological safety. Many workplaces are not psychologically safe for Black, Latinx and AAPI employees. Our research showed that these employees often suffer from daily stressors of microaggressions, stereotypes and imposter syndrome. Many would not turn to their employers for help. For example, Latinx women are more likely (37%) than any other group to say they don’t have mental health resources available at work. In a psychologically safe environment, employees won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or concerns—even about mental health. Creating a psychologically safe environment takes training leaders about mental health essentials and making employees knowledgeable about taking action when they see something that is not right.

Mental health organizations can supplement employers’ efforts. For example, we have partnered with NAMI to guide the use of inclusive language and other steps toward creating a stigma-free workplace.

2. Be authentic about DEI initiatives. Many companies stepped up DEI campaigns following the 2020 summer of racial reckoning. Today, many employees still hesitate to bring their whole selves to work. Three Black women in our research described facing societal pressure by being stereotyped as the “angry Black woman.” As a result, they feared speaking out about troubling incidents, such as being passed over for promotions while training new managers. Embedding DEI into company culture builds an environment in which people can be respected for who they are, recognized for how they contribute and motivated to engage and collaborate. Now is not the time to scale back, especially when recruitment challenges make it difficult for some companies to maintain the employee mix they already have achieved.

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3. Encourage peer-to-peer support, such as programming by employee resource groups (ERGs). These groups are vital—for both employees and companies—as they provide employees opportunities to share unique perspectives and their diverse experiences. ERGs help to influence and improve our workplaces, businesses and communities. Asian American-Pacific Islanders and Black workers were 14% and 11%, respectively, more likely than their White colleagues to agree that aspects of their identity make it or would make it hard to discuss mental health at work.

We have embedded DEI into our culture by focusing on helping managers demonstrate more empathy, flexibility and inclusion. While this is not new work for us, we are continually looking for ways to live our values.

The time is now for listening and working to better understand the unique aspects of mental health that can arise as a consequence of race or ethnicity. When facing challenges in and outside the workplace, people of color need to feel that their employers provide opportunities and resources to help them feel safe sharing their mental health concerns and connecting with others on issues important to them in the wider business community.