Have you ever wondered what was happening behind the bright eyes and vibrant smiles of your Black employees? From the outside looking in, it may seem like the Black employees at your company are less impacted by racial trauma and the pandemic disparities being discussed in the news. While the news is disheartening to hear, the Black employees at your company seem fine. In fact, they haven’t missed a beat! They have continued to produce impeccable work, they have shown up as leaders, they have said yes to new opportunities, and they probably even helped plan your Black History Month program. Honestly, if I didn’t know my own people, I might think they were fine too.
But what I know to be true is that Black people have an uncanny ability to put on a brave face and persist through immense pain. We actually don’t even see it as a choice. To us, it feels like survival. Either we continue to show up as excellent, or we will lose everything we worked for—our seat at the table—which felt nearly impossible to get in the first place. Given those options, the choice is clear, so we stuff all our pain down as far as we can and run on fumes…until we break.
Behind all the smoke and mirrors, the level of trauma the Black community lived through over this past year is remarkable in all the worst ways. For starters, the disproportionate impact of COVID-related illness and death is wreaking havoc on our communities. According to the latest CDC statistics, the Black community is experiencing 1.4 times more cases of COVID, 3.7 times higher hospitalization rates, and 2.8 times higher death rates when compared to white communities. In terms of mental health, this translates into disproportionately higher rates of distress (anxiety and depression) and more complicated grief and loss in our communities.
Additionally, Black people are experiencing what we psychologists call vicarious or secondary trauma, which is when people develop PTSD-like symptoms after being exposed to a vivid narrative of a violent event. Think about how hearing repeated stories of childhood sexual abuse might impact a therapist over time. Therapists who specialize in trauma typically have safeguards in place to help them release and process what they absorb in their work. But there are no safeguards in our society for Black lay people who watch their loved ones being violently abused and murdered over and over again on TV and in their social media feeds. Racism isn’t new in this country, but this level of saturated media coverage is new and it is very intense.
In June of 2020, The Washington Post reported that the rate of Black Americans showing clinically significant signs of anxiety or depressive disorders jumped from 36 percent to 41 percent in the week after the video of George Floyd’s murder became public. Those numbers represent roughly 1.4 million more people now in need of care. Given we know the Black community tends to downplay their distress, we can surmise that the actual rate of those needing care is far greater.
So while your Black employees may seem fine to you, it is highly unlikely that they have been left unscathed by the traumatic events of 2020. Combined with the isolation often felt from being the only or one of very few Black people in an organization, and you have a recipe for massive burnout (a costly healthcare expense) and high turnover (a costly retention problem and a social justice issue).
If your company is already in a space where your leadership understands the deeply reciprocal relationship between mental well-being and performance outcomes, now would be the time to make significant investments in the mental health of Black employees. For companies ready to do that work, I offer the following suggestions:
There is opportunity where there is pain and in this moment, companies have a grand opportunity to show up for the Black community by prioritizing mental well-being, empowering safe spaces, and thereby demonstrating social justice in action.
For more, join one of Modern Health's Black Lives Matter Healing Circles. These free, therapist-led sessions provide an ongoing space for grief, healing, and joy among Black communities and bolster anti-racism efforts among allies. Register here.
Dr. Taisha Caldwell-Harvey is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of The Black Girl Doctor, a virtual therapy practice that specializes in the mental health of professional Black women. She is a provider in the Modern Health network and an advisor to Modern Health.