In recent years, companies have finally been waking up to the need to offer mental health support to their workers. But for Black employees in the United States, that support appears to be in shorter supply than it is for many of their colleagues. 

According to a recent study from The Hartford insurance company and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only 41% of Black employees said their company had an open and inclusive work environment that encouraged a dialogue about mental health. 

That’s the lowest percentage of all the demographic groups surveyed, which included 55% of Asian American Pacific Islander employees (AAPI), 50% of White employees, and 44% of Hispanic/Latino employees. It’s a pressing concern for leaders, especially given that the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Black workers comprise 13% of the U.S. workforce. 

Visible inclusion

There are long-standing reasons why Black American employees are hesitant to broach the topic of mental health at work. 

“When there aren't a lot of African Americans in certain roles, you feel like you have to represent everyone,” says Keshia Trotman, a Korn Ferry Senior Consultant in its DE&I practice. “You feel that you aren’t allowed to have that human side.” 

Being from an underrepresented group may also lead to greater feelings of imposter syndrome, according to Mark Richardson, a Senior Client Partner in Korn Ferry’s Organization Strategy practice. He adds that not seeing people in your workplace who look like you—particularly in senior roles—can lead to questioning whether you deserve to be there at all, which poses a real challenge to mental health. 

Indeed, Black CEOs still comprise just 1.6% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. 

One practical way forward would be to have CDOs and HR leaders provide opportunities for reverse mentoring. This involves pairing leaders from the majority demographic as the mentees with Black employees as their mentors to encourage the flow of communication and knowledge from employee to leader. “As a leader, you have to challenge yourself to think, ‘How am I being both structurally and behaviorally inclusive?’” says Richardson.

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Culture of trust

The flipside of feeling like one doesn’t belong is the sense of needing to work twice as hard as their non-Black peers to be treated with the same level of respect, explains Trotman. 

It speaks to a lack of trust from Black employees, and Trotman suggests that having leaders lean into sharing their own vulnerabilities and challenges could be a valuable way to build psychological safety. “It’s about establishing a culture where it’s okay to be vulnerable and know that it’s not going to count against you.”

Dealing with this issue effectively requires training managers and leaders on mental health and signs of distress, and crucially how to engage with this topic in a more nuanced, inclusive way to promote healthier outcomes for all.

Within that, a willingness to listen actively and seek to understand potential intersectional barriers is crucial. 

The Hartford/NAMI study found that just 38% of Black employees claimed their leadership (including managers/supervisors) are empathetic and take a genuine interest in employees’ lives, compared with 64% of white workers. 

Leaders need to understand that proactively addressing Black mental health is not just about retention but also engagement, says Flo Falayi, a Korn Ferry Associate Client Partner in its DE&I practice. “If that organization cares for me, I will do more for that organization. I’ll show up more when I feel ‘This is a place where I belong.’”

Take the next steps towards inclusivity

Want to be sure you’re providing the right support to all of your workers? Find out how Korn Ferry can help with your DE&I goals.