On a Monday morning, I woke up to about 20 emails from work, a typical weekend’s worth of email exchanges, just to also be bombarded by 20+ news alerts, ranging from the COVID-19 death toll to growing protests due to the current racial climate. Usually, it’s easy to look past the news reports to get straight into “work mode,” but on this day, exhaustion crept in, and pushing through the workday meant putting the feelings I was experiencing as a Black woman aside and choosing professionalism instead—a task that is unfortunately all too familiar for me.
Black professionals have the weight of the world on their shoulders right now—and justifiably so. Between being surrounded by the rising deaths due to COVID-19— which according to the CDC, is disproportionately affecting the Black community at higher rates —combined with the current racial unrest, we are logging in or walking into the workplace these days truly exhausted.
We are not OK. We are tired.
Many employees of color, particularly African-American women, are having to take a back-burner to their jobs to “soldier on,” separating their experiences and emotions as a Black woman during this time from their work. This could be due to not feeling supported by their managers, their company failing to acknowledge the impact these times are having on their employees; or having an “on-call” approach to work, with no time for employees to take off and decompress when needed.
Understanding the nuisances of what Black professionals are facing right now includes being more considerate and aware of how the Black experience differs from others, and actively acknowledging that difference in the workplace.
If you are an employer:
Acknowledge and advocate
Before they are mentally checked out, reach out first before the start of the work day and acknowledge that they might be struggling during this time, proactively creating an open door for a one-on-one conversation to affirm their feelings. Black employees want to feel that they are acknowledged and can bring their full selves to work, not like they have to leave their personal struggles at the door to choose professionalism. You don’t have to try to understand what they are going through as a person of color; just acknowledging that their feelings are valid and supported and being a confidant goes a long way.
When approaching your employees, a check-in can be as simple as:
“I just want you to know that you are fully supported during this time, and I acknowledge what you might be going through”
“Please feel free to take any time needed away from the office”
“I have carved out some time in my day if you ever need to talk”
“Please continue to press forward today, and we will all get through this”
“My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved and impacted”
“I’m sure you know that employee resource groups are available to you if you need them”
Black professionals are still underrepresented in the workplace, making up only 3.2 percent of executive and senior management positions in the U.S., according to a report by the Center for Talent Innovation. That means being an advocate and taking action to support people of color during difficult times can help initiatives like diversity and inclusion resource groups, and mandatory time off for mental health.
Advocating for your Black employees starts by supporting their need to step away from work and taking over their workload and meetings if need be, suggesting and/or creating outlets for underrepresented groups in your company to be heard, and calling out when their needs aren’t being met in senior management and executive circles. Standing in the gap for people of color gives them the security they need to be taken care of in the workplace, making it easier for them to take care of themselves outside of the workplace.
Encourage—and enforce—mental health breaks
If you are in a position where you can grant time off for employees, encourage breaks throughout the day or week for mental health, and allow your workers time to decompress emotionally. Grant time off for employees of color to focus on themselves and their mental health, and not only encourage it, but implement it as a part of their workday. Many professionals hold off on taking time off due to lack of vacation hours or the guilt of missing work for personal reasons, so assure them that they will be supported before, during, and after their time off by enforcing time away from work to unplug and recharge.
Provide employee resources
Available employee resources, such as diversity and inclusion groups and mental telehealth programs, should be readily available and shared with your employees often to use for their benefit. Many workers often ignore or forget that these options are available to them under their employer’s health plan. Encourage your employees to use these resources when they can, and give them the space to use them at their convenience.
If you are a Black professional:
Breathe and take a break
It’s a hard balance to remain professional while dealing with the realities of life outside of work—and that’s OK. Just because you are a Black woman and a professional doesn’t mean you are invincible. Take time to breathe and talk to your supervisor to allow a few breaks throughout your day where you can unplug, talk to a therapist, exercise, or just rest. It’s important not to ignore how you feel each day you walk into the office, and to be heard and understood in the workplace for exactly who and all that you are.
What can companies and supervisors do to recognize what their employees of color may be facing during this time? Has your company promoted safe spaces for minority professionals to deal with how they are feeling mentally and emotionally?