BET network has a new show, Criminals at Work, which reenacts bizarre happenings in the workplace. The premise seems to be that the job is not necessarily where you would expect to encounter some of the heavy drama depicted in the series. Expected or not, it does happen. And just like in other arenas of life, traumatic events or chronic stress can significantly impact mental and emotional health.
But what if the stress is because of the job itself? A job is in many ways like a marriage. Large chunks of time are spent with the same group of people, and when things are good, they’re great; but when relationships turn sour, it’s a nightmare. Mental Health America’s website indicates that “less than one-third of Americans are happy with their work.” A 2015 Gallup poll found that almost 1 in 5 blacks feel mistreated at work. Sometimes, as in the case with black women, those kinds of feelings become significant enough to effect mental health.
In Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, the groundbreaking book which burst onto the scene over a decade ago, journalist Charisse Jones and psychologist Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden chronicle black women’s experiences in America. Two opening quotes for the chapter on the workplace encapsulate the sentiments of many black women still today:
The stress [at work] comes because you’re a woman and you’re Black. Being a woman can be enough stress right there. But being an African American woman causes another problem. You want to succeed. And you put too much stress on yourself. And you have to deal with Tom, Dick, and Harry, and they’re all White. And Jane—she’s White. And there you are—poor little African American girl. You’re not even a woman now. You’re a girl. Bettina, 38, Austin, Texas
As Black women at my office often say, “The real me isn’t in yet.” Allison, 34, Pasadena, California
Black men struggle, too. An October 2015 article in The Atlantic discusses a study conducted on behavior in and attitudes about participants’ place of employment and reports that black men often work longer hours than their colleagues to contradict commonly-held beliefs about black people, especially black men, being lazy and having a substandard work ethic. Masking and toxic stress go hand in hand; unfortunately, this is all in a day’s work for professionals, blue collar workers, and low-wage workers in the Black community.
Addressing mental health concerns at work must become a national priority. Helping minority employees with unique stressors is not just common sense, it’s good business sense. It’s well documented that mental challenges like anxiety and depression contribute to an enormous amount of absenteeism and poor productivity. More companies would do well to bring programs like Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training to employees. MHFA participants learn how to spot signs of possible mental distress and most importantly, how to diffuse situations and keep them from escalating into crises. An approach like this might have greater potential than typical Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) which too closely resemble a traditional mental health treatment setting. A company-wide training which everyone is required to attend takes the spotlight off any one person and allows black men and women to become more sensitized to the importance of being aware of the impact of their own emotions and mental state.
Schools, prisons, and other public places have risen higher in public consciousness when it comes to trying to address mental and emotional health. It’s time for the same to happen at places of employment.
Mental Health America’s Workplace Wellness portal
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America