The COVID-19 pandemic, global economic crisis, and the conflagration of social and racial injustice has taken its toll on virtually everyone. But for people leaders, it is the devastating mental health burden on employees and minority communities that is keeping minds occupied. The systemic and prejudicial health care inequalities suffered by people from Black, Asian and non-white ethnic groups is widely reported, but until recently has not been significantly acted upon. Today, employers have a tremendous opportunity to make changes that better support all employees, especially those who are the most vulnerable or at risk.
You are probably familiar with the basics of the status quo, but if you are not a member of a minority community, challenge yourself and consider not only the realities behind the following statistics, but the mental and emotional toll of living with these realities:
- The CDC reports rate ratios for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death are from 0.7 to 3.3 times higher for Black, Latinx, Native, and Asian Americans when compared to the white population.
- The Center for American Progress reports that while women from every background bear a larger share of household tasks and family caretaking than men, Black, Latinx and Indigenous women are more likely to be on the front lines as essential workers, have lost their jobs or are solving childcare challenges on their own.
- Black patients are less likely than white patients to be referred for cardiac treatments when presenting with chest pain and are two to three times as likely as white patients to die from heart disease, according to the American College of Cardiology.
- A meta-analysis of 20 years of studies covering many sources of pain in numerous settings found that Black/African American patients were 22% less likely than white patients to receive any pain medication.
With respect to mental health load specifically, an August 2020 survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified racial and ethnic minorities among the populations of U.S. adults who are at increased risk for elevated levels of symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders, substance use and suicidal ideation. For example, 44.2% of Black respondents reported having at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom compared with 37.8% of white respondents. And almost twice as many Black respondents (15.1%) admitted to seriously considering suicide in the previous 30 days as white respondents (7.9%).
Addressing the Complex Issue
The “whys” behind health care disparities, and mental health disparities, are varied and complex. They have significant historical, economic and societal context, and we want to be careful to not oversimplify the important work of understanding the myriad issues that may (or may not) be part of the personal experience of our employees. As complex as the issues are, it is essential to be educated about what employees and their families are experiencing in order to make a meaningful impact on their lives through support initiatives and benefits offerings.
Some of the factors implicated in disparities in health and health care access for non-white ethnic/racial groups include:
- Lack of insurance or underinsurance.
- Mental illness stigma.
- Language barriers.
- Higher incidence of coexisting health problems.
- Disproportionate representation of racial/ethnic minorities among health care providers.
- Lack of cultural competence among health care providers.
Any number of these factors serve as barriers to access to care, as well as health outcomes, and employers need to systematically find ways to address them.
The Role of Workforce Well-being
Whole-person well-being is foundational to better health and health outcomes, and employers can apply the findings above to the well-being programs that they offer. Employers must recognize that with health and wellness, employees are not all starting from the same starting point; some employees are starting at a significant deficit. A “one-size-fits-all” approach will not work. Benefits need to meet each of our employees where they are in their health journey.
Whichever factors individuals are dealing with, they all contribute to their life experience and, therefore, their state of emotional well-being. Speaking on the topic of the pandemic’s toll on the mental health of Black Americans, Riana Anderson, Ph.D., says that, “The cumulative effect of one’s personal health, worries about one’s and others’ health, and the greater proportion of loss and grief within the community certainly exaggerate the distress experienced by Black folks.”
So, research and experience shows that employees are in distress. Unfortunately for employees of color, distress, as Professor Anderson says, is already — and is always — there. We are not going to improve people’s lives, let alone their employee experience, if we do not act. It is the duty and moral obligation of employers to provide the programs and tools to take care of everyone in the workforce.
What can employers do to move forward? At a minimum, it is imperative to give employees resources that support the mind and body bedrock of whole-person well-being:
- Work with benefits vendors who are committed to furthering diversity and inclusion in their products and services. Every employee wants to “see themselves” reflected in the people and content they engage with, so hold partners to the standards you are setting for your workforce.
- Ensure program content delivers “something for everyone” so people can address their personal needs — needs that often change by the day. Taking a whole-person approach lends itself well to making sure everyone finds programming that resonates with their goals.
- Include a social component in programming that fosters belonging, which the workforce has struggled with during the pandemic. People want to feel connected, and true inclusivity is central to any initiative that aims to bring people together around shared values like well-being.
- Provide virtual tools that are available to every employee, regardless of title or location, and are accessible using any connected device. Extending use to others in the household is a great way to encourage adoption, engagement and total family wellness.
- Make it easy (and fun) for employees to meet their basic daily self-care needs: getting exercise, eating and sleeping well, relieving stress, and even managing finances. Convenience is one thing, but enjoyment and motivation are key to driving ongoing habits and behavior.
The evidence of mental health disparities among minority populations is clear; what is crying out for attention from employers is “what to do about it.” Making the powerful shift from awareness to action is one of the most important things to do as companies redefine the role of well-being in the post-pandemic workplace. Leaders must focus on building not just more equity in employee programs but creating that foundational element of psychological safety that makes a sense of well-being accessible to everyone.