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BIPOC Emotional Wellness and Creating a Diverse, Inclusive Workplace

BIPOC Emotional Wellness and Creating a Diverse, Inclusive Workplace

It’s been a long time coming, but finally, companies are opening their eyes to the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.

After that awareness, though … then what?

To turn good intent into useful action, your company needs to look at its current efforts and ask, “How can we do better?”

Part of this process must include a look at the emotional wellness needs of your employees, especially when it comes to providing mental health benefits that foster a truly inclusive culture.

In this blog, we’ll speak to Chiara Smith, a racial health equity expert, about the “illusion of inclusion”–its effects, what employers need to know and do, and how to make your wellness program more inclusive (and more effective!).

BIPOC Emotional Wellness Is Being Ignored

Mental Health America reports that although the rates of mental illness are similar among Caucasian and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) employees, the latter experience more difficulties when it comes to receiving the wellness care they need. Specifically, they are:

  • Less likely to have access to mental health services
  • Less likely to seek out treatment
  • More likely to receive low or poor quality of care
  • More likely to end services early

This is due to a number of factors, including the “illusion of inclusion” in the workplace, according to Chiara Smith, Associate Program Officer at the Greater Rochester Health Foundation, in her article entitled, “The Illusion of Inclusive Workspaces and the Psychological Safety of BIPOC Colleagues.”

The illusion of inclusion (Heilig et al 2012) is “an organization’s inability to engage in authentic practices, or when it is assumed that the voices and opinions of team members of color are valued and respected, but external appearances are very different from reality.”

As Smith herself said in her article, Creating An Authentically Inclusive Space For BIPOC Workers, “When thinking about equity and justice, employers should ask themselves if we are operating from an authentically inclusive space—or under the illusion of inclusion. I would argue that when employers fail to engage in authentic practices, we act as pillars that uphold the very systems that we fight so hard to dismantle.

We spoke with Smith about the term and what organizations can do to operate from an authentically inclusive space and ensure that all employees feel seen, heard, and valued.

What Stops Some Organizations From Creating a Truly Inclusive Workplace?

It’s no secret that conversations about race and the impact of race on various cultures—organizational culture, individual culture, and political culture—are uncomfortable. According to Smith, that’s one of the biggest roadblocks—simply having the conversation.

"It's like a fire that's happening in front of you and no one wants to acknowledge the fire, but everyone feels the heat. We're all standing there with bottles of water, and the fire's getting closer. If we all collectively do the uncomfortable move toward the fire, we can stop it from spreading and, ultimately, having an outburst."


– Chiara Smith, Greater Rochester Health Foundation

What Do You Wish Employers Knew About Creating a More Inclusive Culture?

Smith believes it starts with a shared understanding. The people in the position to build, influence, create, and adjust organizational culture need to understand why diversity is important. She adds, “The more diverse an organization is, the better outcomes they have and the better your employees feel about their work environment—they're going to give it 110%.”

She recommends going directly to employees to find out how they can build an organizational culture of true belonging, and continuously gauging how well it’s working. For example, Smith suggests asking employees which ones they want to celebrate as a company, and whether they’d like the option to take floating holidays to celebrate other occasions.

In essence, not treating your demographic majority’s needs as the default helps to create a psychologically safe environment where people can show up as their authentic selves and celebrate who they are as BIPOC Americans.

"I want to feel comfortable being that person and showing up as that person and giving my all to the organization as my authentic self and not someone who had to adjust to organizational culture and get away from who I am in order to have a job."

– Chiara Smith

Even tiny, consistent changes can help foster a greater sense of belonging. Smith brings up the example of a company performing periodic surveys to help determine what choices their employees want from the workplace cafeteria so they feel more at home with food that nourishes the body and the spirit.

Corporate Culture and the Communication Barrier

Smith says, “There’s an impostor syndrome that often happens to people of color—having to split yourself into pieces. Because we have a language that people don't acknowledge the same as other cultures, we have to constantly adjust.”

Use the “Listen, Learn, Implement (LLI)” Model

Smith promotes a model to help encourage race equity: Listen, Learn, Implement or LLI. Using this model, management or HR listens to the people in an organization who are the most marginalized and learns from their experiences to implement change.

Using Smith's LLI model, management or HR listens to the people in an organization who are the most marginalized and learns from their experiences to implement change.

Employees can be encouraged to use the LLI model and grow from one another by determining where their comfort and discomfort lies. For the best success, it’s important to recognize that this model may mean some uncomfortable conversations in your workplace—even among well-meaning, kind people. So, as part of your planning process, it’s a good idea to bring in a workplace diversity expert to help leadership and staff learn how to communicate sensitively and effectively about diversity issues. That way your team can work through rocky moments and come out stronger for it.

Speaking of listening, Smith says to consider implementing “listening tours” instead of surveys. Why? Because language barriers can make honest feedback difficult, particularly in a text-only survey. Offer alternative and inclusive methods for gathering input, so employees know their true opinions are heard.

What Practices, Polices, and Processes Need To Be Addressed by Employers and HR Managers?

The best place to start: recruiters—specifically, more diversity among recruiters. Smith admits, “I have never met a BIPOC recruiter. And that is very, very important, especially when you're talking about creating opportunities and diversifying executive spaces.”

Share Salary Ranges

Instead of asking potential candidates what they want for a salary, create a salary range and share it with every candidate. BIPOC candidates and employees are already well aware that employment racism is very real, and may be leery of making waves by asking for a higher salary. If a range is provided, BIPOC employees won’t lowball themselves.

Write Job Descriptions Based on Experience

Related to pay is the job description. As Smith points out, after any needed certifications are accounted for, culturally inclusive job descriptions should focus on experience over educational accomplishments.

For example, let’s say a manager-level job description screens out anyone with less than a master’s degree. Some candidates don’t have the financial means to earn advanced degrees, but they could have more than 20 years of impressive work experience in the role. On the other hand, half of the candidates with master’s degrees might have little experience with the demands of that particular role.

By focusing on whether the individual can do the job, as opposed to placing an arbitrary educational barrier, you create a more inclusive hiring process for anybody who faced barriers to education in the past. Besides, as Smith adds, “Reading about a thing and living a thing are two totally different experiences.”

How Can Companies Be More Equitable in Their Wellness Programs?

Smith emphasizes the need to have diverse representation within a company’s Wellness Champion Network—not just because it encourages BIPOC employees to participate, it also helps identify wellness issues specific to those communities.

"You need to have a wellness team with a diverse perspective. So we're not just talking about racial equity, but how equity shows up in other spaces as well like for disabled people and the LGBTQ community. Creating this diverse space and this representation lets you tailor your programming and even how you talk about the program."

– Chiara Smith

Offer Health Coaching as a Bridge to Mental Health Care

For a wellness program to be most effective and well-adopted, there needs to be a relatable and credible messenger. This is especially important when it comes to addressing emotional wellness.

Health coaches can be an excellent way to increase the sense of emotional safety and belonging among BIPOC (or any marginalized) employees. Not only are they skilled professionals who can provide useful, actionable support, but they’re not part of the company’s power structure.

Smith explains, “People of color are relational, so we need to feel safe and know that the information we share will not be used in a retaliatory way. I think the idea of a health coach as the first step toward helping individuals seek out additional counseling services would be beneficial.”

Keep in mind that health coaching will be most effective when it provides culturally appropriate services from caregivers who are reflective of the employees they're serving. Again, relationships matter, and it’s a lot easier to build a trusting relationship with a coach who “gets” you.

In summary, employers willing to look at their company culture and “pour water on the fire” by having authentic conversations with BIPOC employees can begin the process of moving from “illusion” to actual “inclusion” in the workplace and in their wellness program offerings. The result? A more emotionally healthy, diverse and inclusive workplace.

If your company is interested in talking with one of WellRight’s wellness experts, we’re here to help.

Addressing the Employee Mental Health Crisis: An Action Guide for Managers

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