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Three Workplace Trends Harming Black Workers’ Mental Health

Updated: Feb 22


Three Black female leaders at work.

When Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” it wasn’t intended to add more pressure to achieve. But I’ve found that defining a path in the dark can be challenging. With so few examples of people of color in leadership positions, I’ve found it difficult to point to an example of what my future could look like. There haven’t been mentors or champions I identify with to show me the way, so I’m left to define a path for myself.


Figuring out how I want to make an impact and harness my strengths is overwhelming. Determining the best way to do that is especially intimidating for a chronic perfectionist like me. How do I avoid making the wrong choice? Am I missing out on an opportunity I just don’t know about? Will my imposter syndrome block my sense of worthiness and limit my vision? Or will ambition cause me to transition from pet to threat? There are also so many reports of Black women being pushed out, feeling unsupported, and experiencing higher scrutiny compared to their counterparts that it feels like a risk to be in visible roles. 


At Mind Share Partners, we’ve noticed three distinct workplace trends hurting Black workers’ mental health—and livelihoods. Here’s what companies need to know.


Black women are leaving the workforce in alarming numbers, including those in leadership roles.


Black and Latina women—over 200,000 to be exact—have been “disappearing” from the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve also seen Black women in leadership leave their roles across media, nonprofits, and more industries. While the narrative during the pandemic mainly blamed caregiving responsibilities, there’s more to the story. 


Black women who are employed experience issues around lower job quality, racism and microaggressions, inadequate support, and barriers to advancement, and a phenomenon coined by researchers as the “glass cliff.” This means being hired or promoted to leadership during a crisis with the expectation of “fixing” the issues. 


“Black women in leadership roles often inherit a host of problems left by their predecessor and are expected to fix it,” says Jennifer R. Jones-Damis, Psy.D., LPC, and Director of Rutgers Counseling. “If things don’t get better, then the organization can say, ‘See, we hired someone from a marginalized community, and they were not able to handle the job.’”  


“There is this pressure—external and sometimes internal—to prove that Black women are worthy of the job ‘bestowed upon them.’ It goes back to the adage that Michelle Obama referenced in a 2015 speech, ‘We’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as our White counterparts,’” Dr. Jones-Damis adds.


The workplace itself poses additional barriers for Black women. Alli Myatt, Co-founder of The Equity Practice emphasizes, “Black women are leaving workplaces because they are being crushed by workplaces that were not designed for them to thrive.” Myatt cites recent research showing that Black women on predominantly White work teams are more likely to have worse work outcomes. 


Office microaggressions, racism, and discrimination are concerning amid return-to-office mandates.


A 2021 study found as few as 3% of Black employees wanted to return to office during the pandemic, compared to 21% of White employees—and for good reason. Black respondents cited their mental health is better in remote working situations. The wave of controversial mandates to return to office puts Black workers back in the receiving line of office microaggressions and racism. 


A decrease in psychological safety may also be a consequence of RTO mandates. 


“During the pandemic, there was no more having to code switch—adjusting one's style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities,” shares Dr. Jones-Damis.  “There was no more having to decide if your hair was ‘too ethnic’ or your clothes were ‘professional. The mandate to return to the office without there being a change in the office culture was harmful, especially to many Black Women.”

Overcoming the “Strong Black Woman” archetype can also be challenging in office, leading to burnout or exacerbated mental health challenges. 


“There is this spoken and unspoken view of the Black women being the ‘Strong Black Woman,’ Dr. Jones-Damis adds, “Trying to be this ‘ideal’ in all areas of one’s life is tiring, exhausting, and at times life-threatening.”


Dr. Jones-Damis shares the importance of companies acknowledging any policies, procedures, and cultural elements that may harm Black workers. And, she says, DEI training is not enough. A DEI director can’t change an entire company’s culture.



Black female employee at tech company.


Mass layoffs are disproportionately impacting Black workers. 


Last month, the Los Angeles Times laid off more than 20% of its newsroom. The Guild—representing 450+ editorial employees at the Los Angeles Times—shared in a statement how the cuts disproportionately affected young journalists of color, including many Black, Asian American, and Latino staffers.


Mass layoffs across industries, but most notably tech, are statistically more likely to negatively impact Black workers. There is a notorious layoff policy adopted by primarily tech companies that focuses on tenure and position. It’s called “last in, first out,” which makes workers of color statistically more likely to be let go. 


“Laying off the most recent hires directly impacts groups of people who benefited from new diversity policies implemented in response to heightened race-based conversations in 2020,” said the Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a letter to the Acting Secretary of Labor.


There is a ripple effect that follows with Black workers facing a higher barrier for entry than their White counterparts, which then decreases the number of Black professionals available for mentorship and support in tech. It’s no wonder that workers of color face much greater layoff anxiety.


“Being intentional about deciding who gets laid off is not just about protecting the company from lawsuits — it’s also about maintaining an inclusive culture,” wrote Corey Jones, Daina Middleton, and Rebecca Weaver in Harvard Business Review. “Who gets laid off can have long-term unintended consequences for the people who remain.”  Their piece includes thoughtful ways to establish layoff practices rooted in inclusion and belonging.


Stay the course on DEI.


For companies that want to retain Black workers, Myatt shares that they have to change how their teams operate. “Learn to de-bias your performance management and promotion system, hold your team accountable for unlearning harmful behaviors, and most importantly, listen to Black workers on your team to find out what they need to thrive,” Myatt said.


Dr. Jones-Damis highlights the need for companies to provide job support, offer mentorship, and to pay Black workers fairly. “Offer the tools needed to do the job that is expected. This includes a competent team and a budget to correctly complete the job. Ask Black women, ‘What do you need to be successful in this role?’ This is a question I have rarely been asked, and I have been in multiple leadership roles,” shared Dr. Jones-Damis.


Author Shawn D. Rochester said, “Black achievement, or lack thereof, says more about the practices and culture of the company, organization, or institution than it does about the individual." 


So, what have I learned?


I need to put less pressure on myself to pioneer. Instead, I’ve raised my expectations and standards for how workplaces should support employees in their growth. It can be a real honor to be the first. It can also be a lonely road, with tremendous pressure and a low tolerance for missteps. But when organizations take mentorship, opportunity, and inclusion seriously, we can finally be bold enough to define a path confidently and learn along the way. 



 

About the Author


Carrie Grogan, the author of this article.

Carrie Grogan, Principal, Mind Share Partners

Carrie leads impact-focused advising for companies and leaders on how to create a culture of support for mental health in the workplace. She facilitates Mind Share Partners’ workplace training and leads strategic projects.


Carrie holds a Master of Education and a Bachelor of Specialized Studies from Ohio University. She also holds a certificate in Mental Health First Aid and an Instructor Certificate in Strengths-Based Education from Gallup.







Additional Contributor


Nina Tomaro, co-author of this article.

Nina Tomaro, Marketing and Communications Lead, Mind Share Partners


As Mind Share Partners' Marketing and Communications lead, Nina develops and drives the organization's content marketing strategy. As one of the organization's early team members, Nina has a deep breadth of knowledge about workplace mental health and drives the creation of Mind Share Partners resources to support organizations in creating mentally healthy workplace cultures. 





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