Addressing the Psychological Wellbeing of Black Professionals

As a Black woman that has had a professional career affords me a unique position on how to better support the wellbeing of Black professionals.

Addressing the Psychological Wellbeing of Black Professionals

Workplace Diversity

As a Black woman that has had a career in marketing communications and is now a practicing psychotherapist, my personal journey navigating diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), as well as the opportunity to develop an understanding of the issues from a psychological perspective, affords me a unique position on how to better support the wellbeing of Black professionals. 

After moderating a panel last week at the Black Management Association Conference, sponsored by the University of California Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business for Black professionals – both current and emerging – in leadership positions, the topic of DE&I initiatives as a seemingly top priority was underscored. The protests over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police had many companies and executives pledging to do better. However, the willingness to truly work at cultivating and retaining talent remains elusive due to barriers to entry and institutionalized systems of engagement that have attributed to Black professionals’ view of not belonging or their contributions not being valued. Consulting companies like McKinsey emphasize that Black workers start from a “deprived position,” cautioning that there is a persistent and growing racial wealth gap. McKinsey takes the position that this gap requires investment in the education and engagement of America’s Black workforce differently.

Organizations tout DE&I efforts as “good business,” providing diversity of thought that leads to better decisions and improving innovation. There are allies (i.e., CEOs, managers) that actively work to address equitable hiring and the cultivation of Black talent. Yet, unless they are white males more often than not these advocates are met with resistance (Johnson & Hekman, 2016). Most organizations still engage in hiring practices that work to find talent that is the right “fit,” or have compensation structures that maintain pay inequity. These practices maintain implicit biases and fail to explicitly address race and equity. 

While Blacks make up 13% of the populations, we only hold 8% of professional careers, 3.2% of senior leadership positions across every major industry, and 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Consistently near about 85%, senior executive and board positions are held by white men (Source: Center for Innovation). 

According to Coqual’s report, “Being Black in Corporate America,” over half of Black employees in the U.S. have experienced racism at work, and are four times more likely to experience prejudice that shows up in subtle ways called microaggressions. Black professions are ambitious. However, those that desire to advance their careers and move towards leadership often employ psychologically unhealthy strategies of remaining silent (especially early in their career development) when issues of inequality or injustice occur out of fear of being labeled as a troublemaker. Add to that the subtle messages of not seeing someone that looks like them in the C-Suite, or having systems of support, a network or mentor.  All of this takes a mental and emotional toll. Nearly two-thirds of Black employees agree with the view that they have to work harder to advance their careers and that advancement is slow, resulting in Black employees opting out of corporate America at a faster rate.

The personal impacts the professional.

The lived experiences of Black workers in America are not the same as White or other racial groups. There are major differences in the Black professionals’ experience in terms of hiring, performance review, and advancement. This has had an impact on the psychological wellbeing and engagement of Blacks in the workforce. It is important to note that the development of the Black professional’s identity within U.S. is often associated with insecurities regarding personal identity and self-image that began as early as elementary school (Neal-Barnett et al., 2010; Durkee, 2013). 

The confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson displayed the pressures of Black professional identity development and expectations of exceptionalism that perpetuate institutional racism and oppression. Judge Jackson was not only asked to defend her work as within the judicial system but speak to her race. 

The sociopsychological study of employees in the workplace began in the 1920s. After years of academic study, research finds that psychological conditions impact individual employee work engagement, and therefore have an impact on company success. Employees are more engaged and productive if they feel that their work makes a difference, receive honest feedback, and have opportunities for development/growth, and are able to be their authentic selves at work. 

In the case of Black professionals, issues such as “creating facades of conformity” (often referred to as code switching), and imposter syndrome have a direct impact on physiological wellbeing (Hewlin, 2009; Bernard et al., 2020). The mental and emotional strain of maintaining a facade and coping with “right to be here” feelings reduce levels of work engagement and organizational commitment. 

Gallup (2017) investigated the experience of Black employees and how they differ from other ethnic groups. Black employees and managers scored lower on key elements of engagement than both White employees and Hispanic employees: 

•                Black employees were less likely to report that the mission or values of the company make them feel their job is important. This social-emotional need for meaning within our work identities is critical to motivation and productivity levels. 

•                Black employees also feel less positive about the proficiency and commitment of their coworkers in carrying out high quality work. This lack of feeling a sense of teamwork gets at the heart of cultivating a sense of belonging within Black professionals. 

•                Black employees report receiving more scrutiny, but less candid professional feedback than their White and Latino colleagues, impacting their ability to learn and innovate, lowering job satisfaction and retention rates. 

These findings underscore the unique challenges faced by Black employees, and the importance of acknowledging the different experiences and challenges of each racial, ethnic, and cultural group represented within an organization.  

How do we support Black professionals?

Supporting Black professionals first begins with self-reflection. Take ownership of building personal awareness of race in America by educating yourself. There’s a plethora of books such as “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by the American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, or “So You Want to Talk About Race?” by Ijeoma Oluo. I’ve worked to highlight research in this article for readers. It is important to develop insight into our own beliefs about race, ethics, and cultural differences. Establish a value proposition, as well as identify how we can work to address personal biases and institutional prejudices. Hard conversations with ourselves and others work to ensure a deeper awareness of ingrained attitudes and biases that maintain the obstacles for Black professionals. 

You don’t have to be an expert in DE&I. Start by validating the lived experiences of Black professionals. I want to be careful that I don’t lump all Black people into one category. Black Americans have a rich ethnic and cultural heritage (Caribbean, Nigeria, Ethiopia and other African countries, etc.). The concept of intersectionality, based in Black feminist thought and coined by Crenshaw (1989, 1991), describes the intersectional forms of marginalization legally and politically experienced by historically marginalized women of color in the U.S.  Although Crenshaw’s focus was on Black women, she recognizes the complexity of oppression in terms of other social experiences such as class, immigration, and sexuality. Discussing work identity development, engagement, growth, and organization interactions with Black professionals, requires that we practice cultural humility, the willingness to learn, and that we build a strong positive rapport that establishes trust.

While the organizational structure or culture may not completely be in sync, addressing interpersonal interactions of Black employees and their feelings of belonging is essential. This works to validate how personal and social roles impact professional identity, increasing feelings of self-efficacy and overall work satisfaction. Establishing clear expectations and creating accountability around the Black professionals’ work performance fosters confidence. This balance of expectation-setting, while also addressing the realities of the institutional barriers Black professional may face, works collaboratively to identify the skills, resources and support needed to advance their career.

-Denica Gordon-Mandel, M.A., MSW, LCSW, & Director, Women’s Wellness Program, Cognitive Behavior Health Partners