Workplace Wellbeing

Race, Trauma, and the Workplace: How HR Can Foster Allyship and Healing

Even if a workplace has few issues of racial discrimination, companies can take steps to support employees who have experienced race-related trauma elsewhere.

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Spring Health
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Two Black professionals, a man in a suit and a woman in a blazer, talking with their older, Caucasian coworker

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    Recent calls for racial justice in the United States have been frequent and loud—yet much work still remains to be done. On January 6, 2021, America saw a violent raid on the Capitol building, when a predominantly white mob threatened lawmakers and attempted to overthrow the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election.

    Many people of color have shared their stories of racial discrimination through news articles and on social media—opening up about the institutional and personal trauma that racial discrimination has created. They’ve called for allies in the public, in the government, and in the workplace.

    Even if a workplace has few issues of racial discrimination, companies can take steps to support employees who have experienced race-related trauma elsewhere. Clearly-defined anti-discrimination policies that are consistently enforced and resources to protect mental health are key. Employees of all ethnicities need to know their company and their co-workers are allies in the current battle to combat racial inequality and help those with race-related trauma heal.

    When employees suffer from racial trauma

    According to Medical News Today, racial trauma can be triggered by direct or indirect exposure to discrimination. Direct exposure occurs when a person experiences personal discrimination. Indirect exposure occurs when a person witnesses discrimination happening to someone like them.

    When employees suffer from racial trauma, they may experience PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and chronic illness. When employees come to work, they don’t leave that racial trauma at home, nor should they be expected to.

    Employees suffering from racial trauma, however, may be reluctant to speak about their mental health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, studies show that African Americans are only half as likely as white people to seek help for their mental disorders. There is a stigma that many people of color—particularly men—may feel about revealing their emotional issues. They may fear it makes them look weak. They may also believe that no one is concerned about their mental health.

    What HR can do to address racial trauma in the workplace

    According to the Harvard Business Review, after the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer and the release of the graphic video of Floyd’s death, Black Americans were collectively traumatized. Many looked to workplace senior management for help with their mental health. But, unfortunately, few in management, human resources, or in diversity, equity, and inclusion positions had the training or the skills to “address the needs of a racially traumatized workforce.”

    How can HR address racial trauma in the workplace? Professional training in how to address it is a must, but while that training is taking place, here are some initial steps that can be taken.

    Acknowledge that racism impacts team members emotionally, mentally, and physically.

    Give racially-traumatized employees a safe space to speak about that trauma and help them process their experiences and feelings. Organizational leaders might consider bringing in a skilled excerpt in racial trauma for these discussions. These discussions don’t have to include all employees—just the ones who feel they would benefit.

    Prioritize mental health benefits, and assure racially traumatized employees that there will be no negative consequences for using those benefits. Organizations can back up that commitment by normalizing taking personal days so employees who choose to access their mental health benefits don’t hesitate to do so.

    Develop a formal statement on racial injustice and inequality. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises that companies create these statements to signal to current and future employees that the company is aware of the problem of systemic racism. The statement also gives employees something clear to point if they need to inform management or HR that racial hostility or discrimination occurred in the workplace.

    How organizations can foster allyship and healing

    Listen to employees of color who talk about race, racial issues, and their personal experiences in and out of the workplace. SHRM reports it’s common for people of color to be punished in the workplace for speaking about these issues. Organizations need to make sure that not only are employees not punished for speaking up, but are encouraged to speak.

    Create a Black Employee Resource Group (ERG) for employees. ERGs can support recruitment, retention, and the professional development of their members. An ERG is employee-led and participation is voluntary. Nevertheless, an ERG in the workplace can improve working conditions for employees who feel marginalized, identify those who have emerging talent, and connect workers with mentors within the organization.

    Discourage color blindness. When someone says, “I don’t see color,” they come off as saying that they don’t see a difference between white people and people of color. That minimizes both the positive and negative experiences of people of color. Acknowledge that there are differences in the experiences and the diverse cultures of employees while emphasizing that these differences are never a justification for discrimination or racism.

    Ask employees what it is they want and need for healing, but don’t expect those who are experiencing racial trauma to be the ones to make those things happen. This is where allies come in. An ally in the workplace is someone who has power and privilege who uses those advantages to advocate for others. Allies can not only listen to what their colleagues of color say, but also work to make changes essential for healing.

    These suggestions are simply a jumping-off point. There’s much more that needs to be done. At Spring Health, we provide personalized, comprehensive mental health benefits to employees—including those who may be experiencing racial trauma. Contact us to request a demo today.

    About the Author
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    Spring Health

    Spring Health is a comprehensive mental health solution for employers and health plans. Unlike any other solution, we use clinically validated technology called Precision Mental Healthcare to pinpoint and deliver exactly what will work for each person—whether that’s meditation, coaching, therapy, medication, and beyond. Today, Spring Health supports over 4,500 organizations, from startups to multinational Fortune 500 corporations, and is a preferred mental health provider to companies like General Mills, Bain, and DocuSign.

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