Normalizing Mental Health in the Workplace
Trust, training, and authenticity are all important factors for bettering mental health for employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic that struck almost two years ago changed the workplace landscape as we knew it. Corporations sent their employees home to work remotely, daily Zoom calls became a thing, and everyone adapted to staying at home. For some, working from home resulted in loneliness and isolation, while for others it meant that daily workplace microaggressions disappeared and creating their own schedules was a newfound employee perk. In fact, an April 2021 survey from McKinsey showed that more than a quarter of participants reported that they would consider switching employers if their organization returned to fully on-site work after the pandemic.
In short, companies are realizing both the good and bad effects that the workplace can have on employees’ mental health, especially for underrepresented employees dealing with gender and racial bias in the workplace. As companies return to working in the office, employee mental health is finally getting a seat at the table.
Dr. Terrence Underwood, the founder and president of the National Association of Minority Speakers, recently spoke at BlogHer’s virtual panel on mental health in the workplace and said that many employees deal with an emotional tax while in the workplace. An emotional tax is the state of being on guard and preparing to deal with bias and discrimination based on your gender, race, or ethnicity. “This can be draining and start to impact your performance at work, as well as your wellbeing,” he states. Minaa B., a writer, licensed therapist, wellness coach, owner of Minaa B. Consulting, and fellow speaker on the panel, says she’s experienced emotional tax many times in the workplace. As a first-generation Black American with immigrant parents, Minaa notes she was raised to have her guard up and have concerns about how to integrate into the country. Aysha Alawadhi, a global culture and organization effectiveness specialist and the third speaker on the panel, echoes these opinions. “Being a Muslim, Middle Eastern woman, my family always told me I could do anything, but then I was told by everyone else that I wasn’t Arab enough or I wasn’t American enough or Muslim enough or feminine enough, and it took a lot of strength to overcome what everybody else was ‘should-ing’ on me,” she says.
And all of this emotional tax takes its toll on employees’ mental wellbeing. A recent study from Catalyst shows that a majority of men and women across racial and ethnic groups, 58%, report feeling on guard at work. This impact, called hypervigilance according to Minaa, is a symptom of PTSD. Workplace microaggressions and racism also play into emotional tax, all of which can result in stress and burnout, which in turn impacts our immune system. “So now, we’re dealing with mental health issues as well as medical health issues,” says Minaa.
Since 2019, the World Health Organization has labeled burnout as a medical condition due to it rising from workplace stress. Workplace stress and depression can lead to psychological trauma, which in turn could lead to diabetes, heart disease, and musculoskeletal problems. Stress and depression can also cause metabolic, endocrinal, and inflammatory shifts in the body, which means that workplace mental health issues are metastasizing into more worrisome health problems for employees.
Another aspect of mental health issues in the workplace stems from unfair wages for women. Alawadhi states that females make about 89 cents on the dollar, and Black women make about 62 cents on the dollar. “That free work that you’re asking them to do created levels of anxiety,” she says. “It affects their mental health, and women who make less money than men for the same type of job are two times more likely to experience depression and anxiety.”
So, what can corporations do to better the mental health of employees? Lots of things. Dr. Underwood would love to see businesses value people for their differences, rather than punishing them or removing them altogether. He also says employers should trust their employees to do their jobs, without monitoring them constantly on Zoom or in the office. He also says that companies should allow employees to be their authentic selves at work, because if not, it’s like coming to work with a mask on. “If I have a mask on every day, how can you really get to know me? And if you can’t get to know me, how can you offer me opportunities in high-profile assignments?” he questions. Lastly, he notes that companies should provide employees with psychological safety. “Give me the opportunity to push back when I see something happening without the idea that I’m going to be reprimanded for it.” Alawadhi agrees, and says employers can lead the way by speaking up for injustices. “It behooves people in positions of power to speak up louder than everyone else because they have some measure of protection,” she says. “If you cast that shadow and people realize they can speak on issues because the person above them is showing them it’s okay, you’re perpetuating that kind of culture and you’ll be creating a culture that’s much healthier. People will feel respected and valued and heard rather than this culture of fear.”
Alawadhi also notes that HR organizations should create policies that allow people to be their true selves at work, which make sure that inclusivity is being brought to the table and not just diversity numbers that are “super easy to make look nice,” she remarks. Minaa adds that trainings, lectures, and workshops for all — including upper management — is also important, and not just once a year during mental health awareness month. “Mental health is an everyday practice, so companies should implement these lectures and workshops quarterly and hire mental health consultants to come into the organization and teach what mental health looks like,” she said.
Holding leaders accountable for progress on employee mental health is another way to take action. In a 2020 article by McKinsey on mental health at work, it is suggested that visible plans with accountability for progress make mental health a priority on the company agenda. Michael Fenlon, the chief people officer at PwC, reported that PwC asked its teams to create wellbeing plans using the framework of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing, with spiritual referring to having a sense of purpose. PwC asked everyone to have personal and team goals, and then collected the goals so that teams could check progress on those goals regularly. They made sure to include leaders in this, who openly shared goals of things like taking vacations, for example. “The combination of visible plans with accountability for progress ensures that mental health receives the attention it deserves on the company agenda,” the article concludes.
Recognizing that we all have unconscious biases and educating all employees and management on unconscious bias is another way to tackle mental health issues at work. Unconscious biases are stereotypes about certain groups of people that we form subconsciously and stem from mental scripts we’ve learned throughout our lives. An example of unconscious bias would be favoring male candidates over female candidates for a job, even if they have the same skills and job experiences. Unconscious bias training can help everyone at the organization see where their biases are causing harm and preventing growth and success. “Until we get to the root of that work and realize that our biases inform our decision making and policies and how we judge people we’re trying to hire, promote, and pay, we’re going to continue this cycle of harm in the work environment,” Minaa says. “We all have negative ideologies that impact our interactions. We all harbor that and make assumptions, which is why we all need this training. It’s an ongoing practice, and we all need to be a part of it.”
Watch the BlogHer Inclusive Future panel Prioritizing Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace
The Inclusive Future content on BlogHer is sponsored by Philip Morris International (PMI). BlogHer has independent editorial responsibility for the content. The views expressed by the authors and contributors may not represent the views of PMI except for those quotes directly attributed to PMI executives.