How to spot mental ill health among Black workers and provide support

While all workers can experience mental health issues, racism plays a key role in impacting poor mental health among Black workers

While workplace mental health is a growing discussion, employers must learn to spot the signs of mental ill-health among Black employees to lead more inclusive organisations following the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in all areas of life.

But before employers can spot the tell-tale signs of mental ill-health among Black workers and better support their mental health, they need to understand the mental health issues facing Black groups in the US and UK and their long and short-term causes.

Black people and mental ill health

In the US, among Black Americans with any mental illness, 35.9% had a serious mental illness, according to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health found that Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental illness than the general population while, according to the University of Michigan, suicide is the second most common cause of death among young Black men.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has stated that depression can heighten the risks of sufferers developing a range of mental and physical illnesses, including various cancers, heart disease or stroke, and drug abuse. This means that if employers can spot the warning signs of declining mental health in Black workers, including depression, and manage it through increased support, organisations could prevent the growth of even more serious mental and physical illnesses for this group, reduce absence and employee turnover, and increase employee wellbeing for this cohort.

Long term causes of mental ill health

The U.S. surgeon general’s 2016 report entitled “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health” states that Black Americans “are over-represented in populations that are particularly at risk for mental illness” and NAMI, “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organisation,” has attributed bad mental health in the community to the racial trauma Black Americans have experienced “throughout history.”

These long-term legacies of trauma include slavery, colonialism, and the racial segregation laws from the early to mid-twentieth century, while mental illnesses such as depression and substance abuse can be caused by external factors that Black Americans are more likely to experience than other groups today, including anti-Black violence, overrepresentation in incarceration, and the foster care system.

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that trauma can be passed down through the generations via chemical imprinting on genes, which suggests that the mental health impact of historical and structural acts of violence and racism against Black groups has to be taken seriously in the workplace.

Issues in the workplace today

In the contemporary workforce, more immediate issues can impact mental health for Black and other ethnic minority workers, including lack of psychological safety and ethnic minority groups being severely impacted by COVID-19.

In the UK, a 2021 study by City Mental Health Alliance and Lloyds Banking Group entitled the “Mental Health and Race At Work Research Report” found that 45% of Black people have experienced racism at work while 44% of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers feel they need to change aspects of their behaviour to fit in.

Furthermore, respondents said doing this made them feel “isolated”, “anxious”, “frustrated” and “sad” while 52% of Black workers who have experienced poor mental health over the last 12 months said that “not fitting in at work had been a significant factor.”

The same study also found that COVID-19 had created more stress and trauma for BAME groups than their white counterparts, where 14% of Black people experienced a bereavement compared to 9% of White British people.

How employers can help Black workers

To help Black workers on their mental health journey, employers have to first understand the cultural nuances at play, including the fact that for many Black groups, seeking help for their mental health is still a taboo subject.

In the US especially, financial restrictions could prevent sufferers from seeking medical support. At the same time, some religious communities may promote religious institutions as the best places to support people with mental health issues, despite not always being trained to do so.

Employers can help increase Black participation in mental health services by having a racially diverse team including Black counsellors and mental health workers available for Black staff to speak to anonymously.

In fact, the UK “Mental Health and Race At Work Research Report” found that 60% of Black staff said they would be “more comfortable accessing mental health support if those providing support came from more diverse backgrounds and if the support was promoted in a more diverse way.”

The UK report also offers employers five points to start their journey on supporting the mental health of Black and other BAME employees where DiversityQ has added extra suggestions.

  1. Recognise the specific challenges that employees from Black and Minority Ethnic groups are facing – this could include family issues around COVID-19 and related illness and bereavement, and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement including issues of racism and racial violence in society.
  2. Be actively anti-racist and prioritise inclusion – this could include communicating the organisation’s mission to be inclusive and supportive of all groups and publicising your intention to crack down on any racist practices in the business immediately. Communicating support of ethnic minority workers following major racist incidences in public life, such as George Floyd’s murder, is a good idea too.
  3. Promote and design inclusive workplace health and wellbeing systems – this could include parterning with wellbeing service providers such as mental health counsellors that are diverse and can provide ethnic minority workers with mental health support they feel comfortable accessing and where they feel understood.
  4. Allocate Board level responsibility for mental health and inclusion – this could ensure that mental health support for minority workers becomes a priority policy and one that is impemented and measured for success.
  5. Measure and be transparent about progress – No one organisation’s diversity and inclusion efforts will ever be complete or perfect, the same goes for mental health support. Simply communicating your organisation’s desire to continually support and improve staff mental health, especially for ethnic minorities, is a good place to start. Asking these groups what services would help them through internal questionnaires and company-wide emails from leadership could work. Gaining feedback from these groups about what services and implementations they find effective is crucial.

To read the UK “Mental Health and Race At Work Research Report” in full, click here. To access free or low-cost resources for the mental health treatment of the Black community in the US, click here and scroll down to Black Mental Health Resources. For more information about mental health services for BAME groups in the UK, click here.

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