Nonprofit Leaders, Prioritize Mental Health for Employees of Color

Between emails, meetings, and Zoom calls, phones are buzzing with alerts of police killings, anti-Asian hate crimes, and check-ins from concerned friends.

For nonprofit employees of color, these daily stories and experiences are compounded by the injustices we see in underserved communities every day. When the need is never-ending and the reminders are relentless, prioritizing mental health feels nearly impossible.

These feelings of helplessness are exacerbated by the barriers communities of color already experience when it comes to mental health. People of color may experience stigma and judgment for simply asking for help. While rates of mental illness are fairly similar across race, only 1 in 3 Black people who need mental health care actually receive it.

For those of us from immigrant backgrounds and families, admitting to struggling with depression or anxiety can feel deeply shameful in the context of the sacrifices made by our parents and elders. Sahaj Kohli, founder of Brown Girl Therapy, centers her education efforts and therapy practice on children of immigrants. Kohli notes that while work, identity and worth are often intertwined for many people, children of immigrants can face unique challenges as a result of their upbringing. For example, their experiences being raised in collectivist societies where the preferences of the community are prioritized over the individual, can make it difficult to advocate for needs that conflict with group dynamics. When people of color finally do choose to seek support, they might struggle to find a provider who looks like them or shares their lived experiences. In fact, in 2015, only 4% of psychologists in the United States were Black and only 5% were Asian.

When these greater barriers are at play, how do we truly invest in the mental health of nonprofit employees of color? Here are three ways nonprofit leaders can prioritize and embed a culture of mental wellness within their organizations:

  • Ask: Before rolling out a mental health initiative, ask your employees what they want. People of color are not a monolith and any successful approach should be inclusive of their different perspectives. Friends of color have shared that work can often be a welcome distraction from painful and graphic stories in the news. In the same conversation, I’ve heard frustration from employees of color over expectations from leadership to continue on, despite deeply traumatic events taking place in the community. The right approach will take both of these perspectives into consideration. The wrong approach on the other hand, will assume that all people of color want the same thing, and in turn, further alienate staff.

So how should you go about getting these perspectives? If your organization does not have an existing culture of open communication across levels, you’ll need to work a bit harder. First, make it clear why questions are being asked and how the information will be used. Second, make sure answers can be shared anonymously so everyone can contribute genuine and honest feedback. Finally, once you do roll out new initiatives, make sure they are working. Check in with staff regularly to see how effective they are and keep up a practice of anonymous surveying and share-outs to promote a culture of transparency. Don’t be afraid to change course if something isn’t working.

  • Support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): When considering that 87% of nonprofit executive directors are white, it’s no surprise that employees of color are uncomfortable sharing their honest opinions with leadership. As conversations about race, white supremacy culture, and privilege become more common in the workplace, it’s important to provide staff with a space to share their grievances and connect with other employees of color. This is where Employee Resource Groups or ERGs come in. These groups can be for any common area of interest, but often focus on connecting under-represented employees in the workplace. Leadership support of ERGs within the organization allows employees of color to openly self-organize, discuss shared challenges, and ideally, bubble up ideas and strategies that can help the organization make meaningful progress.While it’s important to offer resources and support for ERGs, these groups should form organically with interest from members of the community, not through top-down mandates. If done right, ERGs can be a great way to provide employees of color with a space to share frustrations, gather insights, and build community.
  • Upskill your team: Equipping managers with the tools to meaningfully support employees of color is critical to the success of any organization-wide mental health initiative. Far too often, nonprofit leaders develop robust, well-intentioned plans that never make it over the finish line because of poor execution. Do managers know how to navigate a conversation with employees of color who are frustrated by a lack of support from leadership? Do they know what benefits and programs already exist within the organization to support mental health? Do they know how to shift work assignments to provide staff with time off, and are they empowered to do so?If the answers are no, consider developing a manager toolkit that outlines concrete, actionable strategies that people managers across the organization can use to support staff, like this one that skills-based volunteers created for East Boston Social Centers. Your toolkit may include best practices for having difficult conversations, links to support programs within the organization (such as an Employee Assistance Program), and initiatives and messages that leadership has prioritized for employees of color.

While there is no one size fits all solution to supporting employees of color in this challenging moment, it is imperative that nonprofit leaders take the first step. In addition to the steps outlined above, this comprehensive guide by CultureAmp is a great starting point to think more holistically about your organization’s approach. By asking the right questions and creating space for true dialogue, nonprofits can invest in their staff and build a foundation for a culture of mental wellness that extends beyond Mental Health Awareness Month.