It is no longer a secret that racism causes stress.
Since the murder of George Floyd, the globe has erupted in protest. Many individuals who were previously unaware of systemic racism are now unpacking its traumatizing and often deadly impact. Stress levels are high.
Meanwhile, Black Americans are shouldering the heaviest burden of anxiety and depression in the country. In June 2020, 41% of Black Americans screened positive for anxiety and/or depression.
The CDC reported a five percent increase in depression and anxiety among Black Americans the week after the video of George Floyd’s killing was released online.
Asian Americans have also experienced more anxiety and depression since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with a sharp increase after George Floyd was murdered.
Experts believe these trends are linked with the rise in harassment and hate crimes experienced by Asian Americans following the emergence of the Coronavirus in China. Research shows that viewing race-related violence in the news can be triggering, causing many to relive their own traumatic experiences with racism.
It’s important for employers to understand that when employees experience racism — whether it’s a microaggression or a violent encounter with the police — a physical response is triggered in the body. Cortisol and adrenaline are released, preparing the classic “fight or flight” response.
In isolation, this physical response typically subsides and the body returns to homeostasis. However, chronic or prolonged exposure to stress dysregulates the body. Stress hormones may remain in circulation, inflaming the body and increasing the risk of disease.
In addition to this heightened exposure to chronic, race-related stress, people from diverse racial and ethnics backgrounds face complex barriers when seeking stress management resources and mental health support. Stigma, provider bias, cost, and a lack of culturally responsive services make it difficult for BIPOC to find high quality, evidence-based resources for self-care and mental health.
How Employers Can Help
COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have created space for new and important conversations about the mental health of employees from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Many corporate leaders are seeking tangible ways to take a stand.
Recognize the Signs of Mental Illness
Be aware of the unique stressors your employees of color are facing. Understand the symptoms of mental illness, such as excessive worry, extreme mood changes, irritability or anger, changes in sleeping or eating habits, and an inability to carry out daily activities. Give people grace as they navigate these challenges and reduce the stigma associated with mental health by encouraging employees to seek help when they need it.
Provide Stress Management Resources
Helping team members manage race-related stress is essential to ensuring they remain productive and committed to the mission of your organization. Improved stress management increases productivity, reduces sick days, and minimizes the risk of mental illness. Explore evidence-based resources designed for people of color. Consider adding new benefits that specifically serve high-need groups within your organization.
Create Space for Healing
Explore your ability to establish private spaces for employees from diverse backgrounds to collectively process their experiences with racism. Hire professional facilitators who are trained in cultural humility and racial trauma to guide the discussion. Leverage the power of human connection and create opportunities for communal healing.
Provide Access to Culturally Responsive Mental Health Care
Culturally responsive mental health resources are needed to assist individuals as they process trauma and practice self-care. Seek out and invest in resources that consider and meet the unique needs of employees of color during this time.
About the Author
Laura Holland Stokes is the Chief Strategy Officer at Henry Health. Stokes is a passionate public health advocate and innovative leader who began her career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As smartphone ownership became widespread in the U.S., Stokes saw an opportunity to leverage telehealth technologies to improve access to healthcare among high-need and underserved populations.
Prior to joining the Henry Health team, Stokes led the design, implementation, and evaluation of federally-funded telehealth programs that provided free maternal health services to low-income women through the Medicaid and WIC programs. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University with minors in Global Health and Inequality.