Every healthcare worker is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Black professionals are also fighting an ongoing "racism pandemic," according to American Psychological Association President Shandra L. Shullman. Witnessing recent high-profile events, such as the killings of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement, deeply affects black professionals in particular. Even when they are working, they cannot forget that their lives and the lives of their loved ones are constantly threatened. Racism has psychological consequences, Shullman states, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Like all black people, those in healthcare have been experiencing chronic stress because of racism and discrimination over time. Compared to white people, they have higher levels of cortisol and stress on the nervous system, according to research on race and health.
However, managers can take steps to alleviate black professionals' mental health stress. Start by listening to them rather than assuming (especially if you are not black) that you know what they are going through. Once you hear them, express your support for them in words. Then, take action; you have the power to change your organization in ways that can decrease their stress and increase productivity for everyone.
Listen to black professionals
Some want to talk at work about the disproportional police violence and deaths from COVID-19 as well as everyday slights directed at them. For instance, a patient or family member might ignore them when they approach the bedside because they do not expect their nurse or physical therapist to be black. Others do not want to talk about their negative experiences or feelings. Do not force an unwanted conversation but be open to listen.
Express your support
Tell your black employees that you share their concerns, and that includes sharing your own feelings. If you honestly say you are also angry and sad, let them know that they can feel free to talk about feeling that way too, without being judged as unprofessional. Issue a statement to all of the people you supervise, regardless of their backgrounds, that acknowledges recent events and the structural racism that is ongoing and systemic. Affirm that you will support black employees when they raise concerns, including those of discrimination and cultural clashes in the workplace.
Wield your power to change the culture
Once you have listened and expressed your support, identify things that you can change in your workplace and community that can alleviate the stress of racism. The Kentucky Nurses Association has the following recommendations:
- Offer training that addresses racial disparities including cultural competency and bias.
- Recruit and promote black healthcare professionals into management positions
- Support policy changes in your community that decrease violence and other disparities.
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