Why managers are critical in the fight to promote Black mental health at work

Each week of February, HR Dive will publish a story in its Black History Month series. Last week’s installment examined compliance regarding and inclusion of different hair styles and textures at work. This week’s installment details the challenges Black workers encounter when seeking mental health resources and the role direct managers play in addressing them.

Employee mental health represents a broad challenge to HR departments with incidences of anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorder having increased since the pandemic. A 2023 Business Group on Health survey of large employers found that 77% had seen higher rates of mental health issues; BGH president and CEO Ellen Kelsay said at the time the metric represented “a stark jump” from just one year prior. 

As a result, employers in the survey planned to respond not only by increasing access to resources generally, but by expanding provider networks to include more diverse care providers — signaling at least some understanding of care equity concerns.

Just weeks before the BGH survey results were published, a separate report shed further light into the mental health support barriers specifically faced by Black workers.

Insurer The Hartford and the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that Black workers were more likely to rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor” compared to White, Hispanic and Latino, and Asian American and Pacific Islander workers. Black workers were also more likely to report instances of exclusion, hostility, microaggressions, inequity and discrimination at work that affected their mental health, according to the report.

In an interview, Kendra Mack, VP of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at DEI solutions firm Kanarys, told HR Dive that Black employees confront a multitude of issues that directly affect their well-being throughout their careers.

“Bias, having to work harder to prove yourself and being more micromanaged than other employees,” Mack listed. Black talent faces these challenges in addition to external factors.

The world caught a glimpse of that reality in 2020 during the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Mack added. Many employers responded to the fallout by stepping up their DEI investments, appointing executives to newly created DEI-specific posts and working to help employees cope with the trauma that followed. But events in the years since indicate lasting progress might be a challenge.

How HR can ask the right questions

When addressing mental health barriers specifically, though, Mack said that understanding demographic data is a good place to start. Employers can conduct assessments that show how employees voluntarily self-identify themselves.

HR information system data may present a more complete picture of what an organization’s Black population looks like regarding age, household status and family structure. All of these identity factors play a role in employees’ mental health and what they’re struggling with, Mack said.

Employee resource groups “can play a great role in spotlighting the conversation if they’ve been established as a safe place,” Mack said. The report by The Hartford and NAMI similarly recommended ERGs as a way to create safe and accepting spaces for Black workers.

On the employee benefits front, some have identified telehealth as a way to help diverse employee populations access care more efficiently. Employee assistance programs are common go-to for employers seeking to expand care options, but EAPs have their own limitations, such as the availability of diverse providers who accept the employer’s insurance plan.

“I do notice companies starting to at least inquire about how they can do that if they’re looking for therapist groups who cater to diverse audiences,” Mack said. “If I’m going to seek out mental health resources, I want somebody who is empathetic or familiar with my lived experience. It is an important factor for organizations to consider.”

Still, these steps are just part of the larger cultural changes needed to fully address Black mental health. The list of factors that influence mental health disparities is a long one, Mack said, and organizational cultures that lack two key elements — empathy and inclusion — will have a tougher time tackling those factors.

“So many organizations have such a focus on diversity in the area of recruiting, but what we find is that many organizations end up spinning their wheels because they’re recruiting diverse talent into a non-inclusive workforce,” she continued. “That’s why they’re often unable to retain diverse talent.”

Understand the historical gaps

One cultural aspect for employers to consider is the history of mental health support in the Black community, Mack said, including the long-running stigmatization against seeking out that support.

“Stigma” is a controversial term in the mental health context, as it can encompass stereotypes, prejudices and even discrimination against people who have a mental illness, according to the American Psychiatric Association. However, Mack noted that Black workers may be particularly influenced by negative perceptions about seeking mental health care.

“It’s become more acceptable in the last 10 to 20 years or so, but for so long, you only sought out mental health resources from religious places,” she said. “Pray about it, talk to your pastor; it was so stigmatized for so long to talk to a therapist.”

Social workers also have made the connection between religious affiliation and hesitance to seek care, though there are other factors to consider, such as distrust of the broader healthcare establishment and criminalization of Black people in the context of the U.S. justice system, according to a 2019 article published by the University of Southern California’s Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Employers should think about the questions Black workers may confront when seeking care, such as “What will I be thought of if I ask for this? What will people think if they hear me asking for a therapist?”, Mack said. “Understanding that cultural barrier will really help organizations,”she added.

A big need: Actionable manager training

These issues speak to the need for empathy when formulating inclusive mental health strategies, and managers are critical to that piece of the puzzle, according to Mack. Unfortunately, she said she believes that many organizations miss the mark on empathy and cultural awareness training for managers.

“Organizations need to focus more on actionable training,” she said. “When we hear the term ‘training fatigue’, I think it comes from [the idea that managers] don’t need any more videos, they don’t need to sit in front of this screen for 90 minutes [to become] a better, more empathetic leader. They need practice and coaching practicing these soft skills.”

Part of the problem is that managers may have been promoted to their posts because they were good individual contributors but may not have sufficient people skills, Mack said. Add that to some observations suggesting that managers may tend to overrate their ability to address direct reports’ mental health.

Mack suggested that HR leaders give managers the ability to absorb the content they receive from training more completely as well as develop ways to hold managers accountable. 

Check-ins, for example, could include questions on where managers are having problems implementing mental health strategies for their teams. HR can also use that time to talk about related topics like handling time off requests or creating safe spaces for reports to let the manager know that they are struggling.

“The manager plays such a huge role in whether I feel comfortable showing up as myself at work,” Mack said. “Do I feel safe psychologically or physically? Do I have equal access to promotion and recognition? Managers really drive that.”