MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

How Race-Related Stress Impacts Employees and What Companies Can Do to Help

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.

Meanwhile, Black Americans are shouldering the heaviest burden of anxiety and depression in the country. Data from the Census Bureau released in June showed a five percent increase in depression and/or anxiety among Black Americans the week after the video of George Floyd’s killing was released online.

Asian Americans have also experienced a sharp rise in anxiety and/or depression symptoms since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Experts believe the trend to be linked with the rise in harassment and hate crimes experienced by Asian Americans following the emergence of the virus in China. 

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. 

While Asian and Black Americans are more likely to experience stress and mental illness during this time, stigma and provider bias restrict access to high quality treatment. 

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. Respect 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 who began her career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As smartphone ownership exploded, Stokes saw an opportunity to leverage telehealth technologies to improve access to health 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 across the United States. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University.