May is Mental Health Month, and during this month, you’ll find a number of mental health articles on your daily feed. But perhaps what you won’t find are articles about the toll code switching or feeling isolated and alienated at work can have on a Black professional’s mental health.
I recently discussed how imposter syndrome can affect confidence in the workplace. The downside of this syndrome and other microaggressions at work is that you can easily move from low confidence to a place of debilitating stress, anxiety, depression, and an overall sense of despair. Couple this with the normal day-to-day stress of being a working professional, spouse, parent, and friend and you’re in a mental quagmire.
These suggestions may help you swim upstream in the mental swamp at work:
1. Find a trained therapist
When you find yourself in a place where you’re feeling overwhelmed, seek help from a mental health specialist. Research has shown that most therapists are not culturally sensitive to the feelings of isolation and alienation people of color report about their work experience. Be sure to find a therapist who is culturally competent and open to helping you deal with race-related stress and/or depression. Find a new provider if your therapist dismisses your feelings about race-related stressors.
2. Dial back on code switching
Code switching is the concept of acting or talking like those around you to fit into the dominant culture. If you are constantly contorting yourself to fit in at work, this can add to your stress levels and anxiety. When you code switch, you put on a front that is hard to keep up every day. Aim to intertwine your cultural identity with your work.
Beyoncé did this so well in her well-received visual album Lemonade. If you set aside the theme of infidelity, you will find an artist who decided to stop being seen as one-dimensional and show the world she fully embraces her African ancestry, black womanhood, and black art. She was unapologetic. Her album did not cater to the dominant culture; in fact, she put out a visual album specifically with black womanhood in mind. While you are code switching, Bey is sipping her lemonade enjoying the freedom of telling her story in her own words. There is tremendous mental relief when you bring your whole self to work.
3. Build a support team at work if you can
Cultivate an inner circle of like-minded people who get the struggle at your workplace. Your inner circle at work can provide you with social support; help you understand the unspoken rules of the game at work; and point out the decision-makers, gatekeepers, and influencers. They can also serve as a sounding board to get you past difficult landmines. Keeping all your struggles and thoughts in your head will only increase your anxiety and stress levels. Talk it out with your inner circle to gain new perspectives and craft a strategy to tackle immediate concerns.
4. Don’t listen to the naysayers
Some people will tell you you’re blowing things out of proportion. They may tell you to just work harder and smarter. But sometimes working harder and smarter is just not enough; it’s very possible to feel depressed about your work environment as a result of being treated as a illegitimate member of your workplace. Your despair and anxiety are real. Do not doubt it.
Imagine running a race with your coworkers and everyone has baggage weighing them down: marital stress, ailing parents, sick children, night school, burnout, etc. Now add the baggage of feeling invisible and not included. Of course your cup will runneth over, and leave you susceptible to depression. So try not to listen to anyone who says otherwise.
5. Realize they call it work for a reason
Acknowledge and accept the fact that sometimes you may never be fully happy or comfortable at work. At times, we expend too much energy thinking that we should be happy at work. I am here to tell you that sometimes work is just…work. A place for you to earn money, use as a stepping stone to your next opportunity, and/or sharpen your knowledge in a specific area—nothing more, and hopefully, nothing less. Commit to the grind and expect no warm embrace from your colleagues. Recognizing that fact will save you from constant mental anguish and feelings of despair.
The above suggestions should not take the place of seeking the help of a trained therapist. As a community, we shy away from counselors at our own peril. Stay vigilant and seek support right away when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Janet Asante is a human resources executive with 18 years of leadership experience and a successful track record serving as trusted advisor to executive leadership team members and employees from all walks of life. She has comprehensive HR leadership experience in private, non-profit, government and information technology industries. Janet is passionate about helping people of color bring their best self to work and navigate challenges at workplaces everywhere.
This post is a part of our Mental Health Awareness week. Read on for more stories that address mental health in the Black community.