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Safety in the Workplace also Includes Mental Health

Published by: LifeWorks,

Originally published in Occupational Health & Safety Online on September 25, 2020

Paula Allen, Senior Vice President of Research, Analytics, and Innovation, Morneau Shepell

While much of the focus in occupational health and safety continues to be on the physical condition and wellbeing of American employees, another health issue has rapidly emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – mental health. With more social isolation, employment losses and downturns, and added safety procedures in the workplace to maintain physical wellbeing, Americans are faced with change and uncertainty, and it’s beginning to take its toll.

Adding to that, the national protests this summer over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of law enforcement officers have led to a growing recognition of how race and systemic racism can impact the overall mental health of people of color.

More employers are rising to the challenge and taking action to help support the mental health of their employees, particularly those in vulnerable communities, despite physical distancing requirements that continue to keep the workplace separated. In recent findings from Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index™, a monthly measure of American employees’ mental health, key insights came to light about how race and mental health intersect in the workforce across the United States. This data is critical to help HR and company leaders chart a way forward on how they can develop valuable and supportive mental health programs for employees of color.

Disparities in Perceptions of Racism in Society and Workplaces

According to Morneau Shepell’s recent data, 74 percent of American employees believe that racism remains a problem in the United States, while 17 percent believe racism is a problem in their workplace. Non-white populations are significantly more likely to see racism in society and in the workplace.

Breaking the data out across racial lines, additional disparities emerge. Nine out of 10 individuals identifying as Black strongly agree or agree that racism is a problem in U.S. society, followed by Arab/Middle Eastern/West Asian individuals (87 percent) and East Asian individuals (78 percent). In contrast, only 73 percent of those identifying as white strongly agree or agree that racism is a problem in the United States.

Views on racism in the workplace also showed distinct differences, with one third of individuals identifying as Black strongly agreeing or agreeing that it is an issue, followed by 29 percent of South Asians and 29 percent of Southeast Asians. Of the individuals identifying as white, just 14 percent strongly agree or agree that racism is a problem in their workplace.

Regardless of these differences, there’s no denying the fact that since the pandemic began, we’ve seen anxiety increase for most non-white individuals — especially in June, when the Black Lives Matter protests began. However, the scores improved slightly in July for all people of color, including those who identify as Black, East Asian, Latin/South/Central American, South Asian, Southeast Asian and mixed. This may be attributed to the growing awareness of systemic racism in society as a whole and the increased willingness to discuss these issues

Differing Viewpoints about Systemic Racism in Society and at Work

As the topic of systemic racism continues to rise in the national dialogue, recent Mental Health Index™ data reveals mixed viewpoints. While 35 percent of all respondents feel that systemic racism is likely to decrease in American society as a result of heightened awareness related to the murders of George Floyd and others, 31 percent believe systemic racism is unlikely to decrease and 33 precent are unsure.

When discussing views of systemic racism in the workplace, only 24 percent of respondents feel that it is likely to decrease, 39 percent think that it is unlikely to decrease and 37 percent are unsure. In addition, 31 percent of respondents indicated their own awareness of system racism has increased over the past month, while 22 percent feel their thinking has not changed at all.

What HR and Company Leaders Can Do Now

For HR and company executives, the disparities around perceptions of racism in society and the workplace reflect a disparity in the experience of various groups in the workforce.

Organizations would do well to recognize the need for support which fits the needs of employees of color. Based on the Morneau Shepell Mental Health Index™, below are key insights to keep in mind when developing new programs and policies to support mental health:

  1. Recognize the impact of COVID-19 and systemic racism on people of color. HR and company executives should recognize the impact certain events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened awareness of civil unrest have had and continue to have on various populations, particularly people of color. It’s critical for employers to reach out to these employees to promote specific programs designed to address their unique concerns.
  2. Reduce the stigma related to mental health support. Employers have an opportunity to help reduce the stigma surrounding those who seek mental health support. Develop programs that increase the focus on proactively improving wellbeing, including greater education about mental health and the resources available to employees, and how employees can identify warning signs, not only in their colleagues and themselves, but also in family and friends.
  3. Promote the mental health offerings in your employee benefits package. HR and company executives should reevaluate their current benefit offerings ensure high quality mental health programs that can support a range of needs. Employee Assistance Programs and other resources that offer a continuum of care is critical so those with emerging needs or concerns can be helped proactively, and those with more complex issues can get the type and level service they need.

The mental health scores reflected in Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index™ suggest a continued risk to the long-term wellbeing of employees, which ultimately impacts business productivity, additional health costs and potential disability absences. Employers have an extraordinary opportunity to support the mental health of their employees, particularly for people of color, not only in the workplace, but throughout all aspects of their lives.

The days of HR departments being solely focused on physical health and traditional employee benefits have transformed into a more holistic view of employee wellbeing. The current pandemic is serving as a catalyst for change as more companies incorporate mental health and overall employee wellbeing into HR programs throughout the American workforce.

Make your employees feel loved