Early in my career, I had gotten a job that I was really excited about. It was a gap in my career that I wanted to fill and I had filled it in with a reputable company that was going to be able— I thought— to give me the experience that I was looking for. Right away they sent me off to training at their corporate office in Chicago. It was the first time I had gone to Chicago and I was excited to be there, and I was going to be there for a whole week! This entry event was open to all the new employees who had been hired for particular positions over the last quarter. There were about 50 of us. Although I was only in Chicago for a week, I remember one thing particular about this event and it happened one afternoon.
After an all-day session at the corporate office, all of us were walking back to our hotel— all 50 of us— let’s make it clear that I was the only black person out of all 50! Everyone was excited to get to know each other and we started talking. The primary part of the conversation was about the TV show “Friends.” The people in the group went on and on about what happened in the last few episodes and what their favorite episode was, and what they thought was going to happen going forward. Even to this day I only know a handful of black people that have ever watched “Friends.” I was one of those black people who didn’t watch “Friends.” I had nothing to say. I tried early on in the conversation by asking if anybody had ever seen “Martin.” No one had; but they knew it was a black show, I guess. No one seemed to care to ask me any questions about it. So, I sat through the conversations about “Friends” waiting for an opportunity to find a topic that we could all connect on. We talked about the schools we had gone to, what we have majored in, and where we lived. Basically, just making conversation.
The next part of the conversation, as we were getting closer to the hotel, was about where and what we were going to do that evening. What bar and club were we going to go to that night? I didn’t know a lot about Chicago. But I did know something about the bars in the clubs that were in our area. The ones that were mentioned were the ones that were generally predominantly white. No one asked me if I had any suggestions. No one asked me if I would go. And that’s what I remember about that trip.
You might say that that’s just one incident. Yet, that experience repeated itself similarly dozens of times throughout my career. The loneliness of being “the only” sometimes just gets really difficult. But like I said, I’ve experienced it a number of times at trainings and conferences where people don’t really know each other, and within workplaces. Conversations about “common” high school experiences and songs and bands, and more sinister issues, such as when Trayvon Martin was killed —these were all equal opportunities to feel lonely.
About 6 weeks ago, many, many years after Chicago, I sat in on a Zoom call with 50 professional black women. All of them feeling some level of loneliness. Managers who didn’t know what to say to them would rather ask about how their dog was doing than to ask about them. Coworkers who just overlooked that any of this was really going on, just wanted to stick to the work script. Or the best one was the one black employee who had produced and led a TV show on diversity who then turned out to be the only person who had to work on the company’s newest holiday, Juneteenth. It was the only way that she was going to be able to get her show produced on diversity. Loneliness.
Lack of inclusion. This is one way that racism shows itself in our workplaces, isolating others and ourselves because of awkwardness, fear, etc. Lack of inclusion often shows itself as loneliness which we know is associated with a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide. I invite organizational leadership to explore creating healthier workplaces.
Employee health may start with the benefits or wellbeing program. I believe it ends with us creating comfortable, inclusive, and productive workplaces that support employees and that will lead to better facilitating the company’s mission and outcomes.
Among many other activities, January is a time to review your company’s health and wellbeing strategy for the upcoming year. It’s the time I work alongside my clients to discover gaps to fix quickly and other gaps that take more in-depth planning and execution. Most often the gaps are moderate; except this year, 2021, is different. We can all agree that whatever employee health initiatives were in place in January 2020 can now use some amount of revision. I’ve seen within several organizations, that there have been significant changes to the work policies and the workforce that have a long-term impact.
This January may be a time to wrap your arms around what the heck happened and what needs to happen. Over the past several months, I’ve found three common trends that are important to note. These are health areas that have significantly impacted and have likely shown up in most of your workplaces.
Number 1: Mental Health Access
It seems like an obvious issue given all the reports that we’ve heard about lack of mental health and the emergence of a mental health crisis. In September 2020, the rate of moderate to severe anxiety peaked, with over 8 in 10 people scoring moderate to severe anxiety. So what’s stopping them from seeking care? Reasons include cost, stigma, and getting started. But let’s not overlook access.
This past year, another prevalent barrier leads to delays and loss of access—non-diverse networks. Fewer therapists who look like us have similar lifestyles or similar experiences.
This is a HUGE challenge for Black, LatinX, and LGBT people. And don’t forget about the intersections, for example, finding a therapist who is LatinX and LGBT.
Short & Long Term Solutions: Find ways to diversify your mental health offerings. It’s not the most straightforward task as many mental health providers don’t have or provide the information needed to ensure your therapist network’s diversity. You’ll need to approach this issue from different angles. These options include:
- Work with your mental health provider to contract with diverse therapists and therapy groups. It’s much easier for your health plan to contact provider groups and fulfill a contract so that there is a more diverse group of therapists available for your employees.
- Enhance your non-network benefit reimbursement so that employees and their families can more easily access a therapist that fits their needs.
- Explore adding therapy options grounded in a telehealth model that provides broader access than networks built on brick and mortar geography.
Number 2: Decreases in Early Detection
Chronic disease causes 7 out of 10 deaths. This statistic particularly applies to your employees in the 30 to 49 year age bracket and their families. What we know is that since March 2020, access to preventive care services has decreased. Some of the findings that stand out in the most recent report from the Health Care Cost Institute indicates that since the pandemic, through September 2020:
Mammograms were approximately 10 percent lower than in 2019.
Colonoscopies were down about 10-15% compared to last year.
Childhood immunizations had declined by about 23% compared to 2019.
Keep in mind that preventive care keeps minor health issues from becoming major problems. Before they spread, screenings find tumors, identifies depression before it gets out of control, and prevents hypertension from turning into a stroke.
What employer’s can do….
- Encourage employees to get their preventive health visits. Even incentivize them if you have a wellbeing incentive strategy.
- Remind employees there is no cost to them for preventive care.
- Suggest telehealth visits and/or contacting their physician to understand the procedures for in-person visits. I’ve found that doctors and dentists have very safe practices in place.
Keeping employees healthy has a benefit to both employees and employers (medical, disability, and leaves).
Number 3: More Vacation?
“All I keep hearing from employees is that they want more vacation. We’re not able to provide any more days to employees.”
I hear this comment a lot. What employees are saying is that they need to find a way to reduce their stress. Employers can help in reducing the stress and bring some ease into the workday.
Options I’ve seen work…
- Zoom-free is acceptable – Allowing employees to feel comfortable to be off-video sometimes can add some ease to their day. I like being able to see others in a video call; however, if I’m on video calls all day, every day, it can be tiring. Studies indicate that over 38% of video users experience “Zoom fatigue.” Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has found that “Zoom smothers you with cues, and they aren’t synchronous. It takes a physiological toll.”
- Moving meetings – turn off the camera, and everyone agrees to stand or take a walk while attending the call.
- Add an extra break and make it stress-free – This is mainly helpful for those who must be physically at the workplace. Adding another work break into the day to engage in a stress-relieving activity helps with relieving tension. It builds support for each other, particularly if you find a way to share practical exercises—two things we all need.
Please share other ways that you’ve been able to implement improvements in these areas. We’d all like to hear them. If you have any questions or would like any support in implementing new strategies in our recently evolved work world, please feel free to reach out to me, Sylvia@OpenCircles.net