Research shows that Black women are less than half as likely to seek help for mental health issues than white women. That means skipping out on resources that can help improve quality of life in so many areas of life, including one’s career.
It’s very difficult to separate mental wellness and career success, especially when you’re operating at a high level, pursuing ambitious goals, and doing all of this in an environment that presents challenges to your mental health at every turn. While Black women can benefit from seeking mental health assistance from a professional, it’s also important for them to realize that the responsibility to protect their mental wellness shouldn’t fall entirely on them. Companies should take steps to protect and improve the mental health of their employees, particularly those at risk for issues.
Research has found that simply giving employees a forum to speak on race and gender issues in the workplace can alleviate stress surrounding these issues. The mere act of encouraging employees to speak openly about their concerns, in a safe space, on these matters, reduced their stress around those very matters. Of course, it goes beyond that when protecting the mental health of Black female employees, but it’s a start. We chatted with Watchen Nyanue, CEO of I Choose The Ladder, about issues threatening the mental health of Black women in the workplace, and what corporations can do about it.
Is racism killing your career?
When Nyanue’s virtual summit, The Climb, was live, there was a section dedicated to discussing Black women’s mental health in the workplace. It was one of the most talked-about sections, and many attendees asked why it wasn’t longer. This year, the session welcomed an HR professional to speak in a segment called “Is racism the silent killer of careers?” In it, they talked about how racism shows up in the workplace as it pertains to Black women and how it impacts their careers and mental health. She gives us a glimpse of that here.
A renaissance in exposing
“People are feeling more confident being able to verbalize and set boundaries around what people are allowed to do and say in the workplace,” says Nyanue. She says for a long time, there was a “Grin and bear it” mentality. But now, the sensibility is turning, and people are feeling more empowered to say, “Actually it’s not okay to treat people like that or say [those] things.”
Actionable tools for better mental health
Nyanue focuses on showing women, “What are tangible tools they can use to take care of themselves while working in an environment that wasn’t built for their success.” Mental health is something Nyanue says she prioritizes above everything else. She goes to therapy every week and believes that, especially during this pandemic, finding the right therapist can be helpful. “Therapy is a lot of work but it’s refreshing to talk to someone who dedicates an hour to listening to just you.”
A quantifiable lack of support
One study put real numbers on the concept that the corporate environment wasn’t built for a Black woman’s success. It shows that a significant number of Black women in corporate American have never been given the chance to interact with a senior leader. The same study found that 49 percent of Black women feel their race will stand in their way of getting a promotion, compared to just three percent of white women who feel that way, and just 11 percent of all women.
Articulation is key, but there’s a lot of pressure
“Having the language to articulate the challenges they’re going through is not something Black women have been conditioned to do,” says Nyanue. There are some studied factors that could be contributing to that.
The same Lean In study we recently referenced also found that Black women often find themselves as “Onlys” – that’s the only or one of the only Black people in the room. So they can feel they’re in the presence of a group that doesn’t even relate to or empathize with their experiences, should they try to speak up about them.
Leaders need to look alive
Leaders in a corporation need to look around and be aware of the “Onlys” syndrome. “When you’re in a position of power and you’re in rooms with people and everybody looks like you, that’s a problem,” says Nyanue to decision-makers in companies. “That’s not a reflection of the group you serve…your customer base…the “Us” at large.”
Not tokens: talkers
I asked Nyanue how corporations can address this issue when it comes to major decision-making sessions in a corporation. “Make sure your seats at the table are diversified. Make sure people are in seats and their voices can be heard.” She says diversity shouldn’t be in those seats as a tokenism. “These individuals are actually welcomed into those spaces.”
Diversity vs Inclusion
Nyanue says it’s important to know the difference between diversity and true inclusion. “Diversity is inviting someone to a party. Inclusion is making sure there’s food and music there they like, and [making sure they] won’t feel like an outcast. If you think about diverse parties, yeah they’re [diverse individuals] there, but have you made them feel like their voices matter?”
What does inclusion look like at work?
In expanding on what true inclusion looks like in the workplace, Nyanue gave several examples. “Not mansplaining. If somebody has a meeting, don’t shut [Black women] out. If somebody has a different perspective, don’t shut them down. If someone tells you about their weekend, don’t make faces or comments that make them not want to share.”
Inclusive corporate events
On a big-picture level, Nyanue encourages corporations to pay attention when planning company outings or special events. “When you have outings, [being inclusive means] you aren’t just doing what the majority likes to do. You aren’t doing the same group outings every time. Like going somewhere everyone will be white.”
Inclusive media and training
Nyanue says it’s important that these things aren’t just for the majority of the people at the company. “The entertainment you choose. The kinds of things you talk about. The articles you’re recommending people to read. Training you provide… Each group deals with different things in the workplace. Make sure minorities are not an afterthought in the ways you function as a company.”
Let’s talk about ally-ship
What does an ally actually look like? “Don’t be an ally behind closed doors,” says Nyanue. “Say you’re in a meeting and someone says something you know is racist or condescending. You wait until the meeting is over. You say to the victim ‘I’m so sorry that happened.’ That’s not helpful…the situation has passed. Use your voice in the moment to stand up for Black and brown coworkers. Stand up for them so they feel they belong where they are.”
White peers can use their privilege
To white allies, Nyanue advises, “If you see someone undermining someone [in a minority group] in a meeting, have a conversation with them. If [the complaint] comes from the victim, they are seen as a stereotype…the ‘angry Black woman.’ White people in corporations have a lot of grace and leeway to do things. Advocate for people when it counts, not behind closed doors.”
Have a mentor
Nyanue says her mentors are huge buffers for her. She’ll go to them after an incident, and say “This situation happened. It felt a bit strange. Am I overthinking this? I there a different perspective I should consider?” She adds that, for a lot people, there is anxiety around going to HR because once you go to HR it sets off a chain of events. “It becomes very official.” “If you don’t have a mentor, get a mentor who you trust. Who you can use as a sounding board for when you deal with racism.”
Take your vacation or “staycation”
To protect her own mental health, Nyanue makes sure she takes her vacation time. “Don’t worry about people looking down on you. You need these breaks, especially today when there is no separation of work and life. Even if you can’t go anywhere, it just means you aren’t opening your laptop. Decide for you what self-care looks like. Sometimes, it’s literally laying on the couch with a book drinking a glass of wine.”