An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can be a powerful resource for employees struggling with work and life stress. But what happens when the providers on the other line have emotional intelligence but lack cultural competence? What happens when they can’t connect with the staffer needing help? Do workers facing unique struggles fall through the cracks? The jury is still out.
Thanks to Simone Biles’ decision to prioritize her well-being over winning more gold medals, mental health has been in the press a lot lately. The greatest gymnast in the world, Biles has been under extreme pressure to be perfect despite constant challenges and personal tragedies. Her courage to speak up unveiled divided opinions on the importance of mental health and how it affects our work. Most importantly, it revealed how mounting stress can pause even the best performer’s full stop. While we are not Olympians, there are parallels worth dissecting.
Mental health matters, and Black and brown employees need access to competent care. EAPs are traditionally known for offering short-term counseling and follow-up services to employees with personal or work-related problems. Few leaders grasp how a lack of diversity and cultural understanding in these programs can compound a worker’s negative experience. Racial tension, worry about COVID affecting children in school, social isolation (being the “only one”), financial pressures—all these issues overwhelm many Black and brown employees. If the person tasked to help them can’t relate, they may gaslight those workers instead. This can lead to more frustration, lack of trust, absenteeism, and turnover.
Consider an employee who is the only Black person at her job and lives in a predominantly white neighborhood with latent hostility. Imagine how she feels if dealing with misunderstandings and micro-aggressions at work just to come home to an unwelcoming community. Would she want to call an EAP line staffed with people who, again, don’t look like her and may not understand her life experience? Probably not.
Companies serious about equity and inclusion will consider the importance of diversity in all its vendors and its workforce. A determination to get it right means looking at every touchpoint of the organization for opportunities. The best way to do that is by collecting and dissecting data. How many minority employees use EAP programs? How many report a positive interaction and resolution? Suppose organizations don’t have access to this data. In that case, they are missing an opportunity to analyze and improve the experience—to make it a gateway for more comprehensive mental healthcare.
Prioritizing one’s mental health is becoming more acceptable. On the grand stage, we can look at Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. Right in front of us, we can look at our colleagues who might be suffering in silence. Leaders can help by being more proactive. More thoughtful. More intentional. More understanding that many Black and brown people were raised in environments that frowned upon asking for help (especially in the form of “therapy”). Are your company’s marketing materials for its EAP program inclusive and attracting all employees? Are the resources diverse and culturally competent? One step is to market the service. Another is to make sure there is a diversity of resources on the other side to understand, relate, and help the employee find solutions for their issues. This is what support from the top down looks like.
The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and not necessarily the opinion of Black Enterprise.