Black Lives Matter brought the issue of how Black people are treated differently in society into the spotlight, with many companies making announcements on the back of the campaign pledging their commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
However, Ngozi Weller, director at Aurora Wellness, believes that the topic of Black mental health – and understanding the unique challenges that Black people face when it comes to talking about their wellbeing – still hasn’t got much attention. The reasons behind mental health stigma in Black communities are nuanced and complex but need to be understood if workplaces are going to create psychologically safe environments for all employees.
In this Q&A she describes her personal experience of suffering a mental health issue and feeling stigmatised, as well as her professional opinion of how workplaces need to change in order to be genuinely inclusive. She now supports HR and C-Suite leaders to reduce employee burnout through effective mental wellbeing support.
Q&A with Ngozi Weller, Director at Aurora Wellness
Do you think that mental health stigma is greater in ethnic minorities than it is amongst the general population?
Yes. The stigma around receiving a diagnosis, treatment and support for mental ill health is a completely different kettle of fish to general physical wellbeing. There are so many different cultural and real reasons why mental health and wellbeing has such a stigma in the Black community.
Why is the mental health stigma so much greater?
I’ll answer that using my own story. I am a first generation daughter of two medical doctors and I was diagnosed with work related anxiety, stress and depression by my GP in 2017. I felt bad enough about my diagnosis and really embarrassed to tell my parents. When I told them, my dad said: “You must not be depressed. There were times when I wanted to be depressed and I just said ‘no’”. This idea that my mental ill health was something that I could choose to control, that with enough will power I could somehow just get over it is common, and yet so harmful.
Many Black people don’t want to admit to mental health problems because they don’t want the stigma of yet another negative label. It is already difficult navigating majority White workspaces as a Black person.
That’s the reality you’re dealing with, so you think ‘how can I afford to add more labels to my negative labels?’.
My reality in the corporate workplace was that I was perceived as ‘too loud’, ‘too jokey’ and generally ‘too much’. And my experience is not uncommon. Black people often feel that they are noticed for all the wrong reasons, both societally and in the workplace. Because of that we feel that we can’t afford to attach another label like ‘troubled’ or ‘difficult’ by addressing or drawing attention to any mental health concerns. There is a real risk that despite reassurances to the contrary, such stigma would jeopardise our career progression.
Is the mental health stigma still as strong as it was in 2017 when you were diagnosed?
Although it’s still very stigmatised, it is improving, slowly. It’s all tied to how mental health is perceived in the wider population and also how Black and ethnic minorities prosper socially and economically.
What positive action can employers take to make this situation better?
They can create an environment that fosters psychological safety for Black people.
But whatever you do, it has to be genuine. We have to believe you when you say ‘we do care about you and this won’t affect your career negatively’.
What specifically do Black people need to feel psychologically safe?
Since the BLM movement, we are seeing more organisations say that they care about equity and inclusion and promising to strive harder to eliminate the racial and gender inequalities in the workplace. Well, the proof is in the pudding, and as we see more Black people at increasingly senior levels (particularly in the board room), we can start to relax as race is no longer an obstacle. When we’re treated differently, not paid as well and there’s only one of us in the room, that feels psychologically unsafe.
We also need to have access to people who have expertise in dealing with racial trauma, therapists, counsellors or coaches who are Black and who specialise in working with Black people.
And you (the employer) need to prove that this additional label is not going to disadvantage the Black employee more than colour and gender (if female) already do.
Why is it so important that therapists are Black?
For the same reason that some women prefer to work with female coaches, increased understanding and comfort. Many Black people have unique experiences that require support from someone who can personally empathise, rather than just sympathise. If your employees have struggled with trauma linked to their ethnicity or nationality, it is much easier and feels safer to talk to someone who understands those experiences, ideally one who is trauma informed.
What would you like to see more of in the workplace?
A more strategic approach to mental health in general. The pandemic has resulted in increased focus on employee wellbeing, but companies need to be prudent in how they invest resources in supporting their employees. It requires considered, strategic planning to ensure that good mental health and wellbeing runs through the very fabric of your corporate culture, rather than being a short-term, reactive response to the current crisis.
What advice do you have for employers who want to target their wellbeing strategies specifically at Black employees in particular due to, for example, health inequalities and the fact this population is at higher risk?
Nobody wants to feel like looking after their wellbeing is just a ‘tick box’ exercise. If there’s a valid reason, then absolutely, specifically target that community. But do so with the right intentions and with informed support. And if you’ve been asked to target a particular ethnic group, hire from within that minority group to help you. Ideally, the person leading the campaign should be from that ethnic group, or at least second in command. It’s marketing 101 to ensure the team designing a product, service or campaign reflects the service users.
Do you have any bugbears about how language is used?
Make an effort to know the terminology that the group you’re trying to talk to use.
Generally, how do you feel about the wellbeing market in relation to Black people?
There isn’t a lot of diversity in the workplace generally and even less in the wellbeing sector. Black mental health has not been talked about, but it’s about time we do.
About Aurora Wellness
Established in 2017, Aurora Wellness is a mental health and wellbeing consultancy that delivers a range of personal development coaching programmes designed to strengthen your employees’ mental resilience and improve workplace productivity. They champion employee wellbeing and change the way people think about mental health in the workplace.
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