Op-Ed: Employers must take the time to understand the pressures faced by their Black employees

This year, the City of Ottawa proclaimed March 1-7 as Black Mental Health Week. The initiative was organized by the Ottawa Black Mental Health Coalition, and the theme for 2022 is Leadership and Innovation, highlighting regional and national agencies that have taken a leadership role in finding innovative ways to tackle Black mental-health issues.

Conversations surrounding Black mental health are long overdue. The pressures and traumas faced by Black people at work, at home and in the community are heavy. It's something you’re born into as a Black person in Canada.

In the early days of the trucker protests, I was at St. Laurent Shopping Centre with my wife and overheard a conversation between protesters. They were talking about their cause and the struggle they were fighting for. They ended their talk with “Be strong, brother” as they parted ways.

I immediately felt annoyed. I turned to my wife and said, “They’ve been struggling for two years with feeling like the system is working against them. We’re born into it.”

Years after COVID-19 is done, these men will go back to their regular lives. Meanwhile, for us, there will never be a time when we aren’t Black. 

If you were to ask most Black people, they would tell you that at some point their parents sat down with them and had “the talk”. Not the “birds and the bees” talk; the “as a Black person you have to work twice as hard as everyone else to get half as far” talk. It’s a kind of rite of passage into adolescence. 

It didn’t hit me until recently that this talk, handed down from generation to generation, is literally about work, whether academic or our jobs. If we unpack this talk, it’s loaded with a lot of underlying assumptions. Some people will assume that, as a Black person, you’re not smart enough or qualified enough. You may be passed up for promotions, even though you’re just as qualified as the other candidates. Also, you will need to look and sound a certain way, many times hiding your Blackness, in order to be accepted. 

As office spaces slowly reopen, some in the Black community are expressing their reservations about returning to the office. Although I haven’t done a conclusive study, as a Black man, I believe the reason why is because working from home has allowed us to be free to be ourselves for the first time in our working careers. We’re free of the gazes and looks of displeasure that make you feel like you don’t belong.

The main thing employers need to understand is that their Black team members are probably carrying years of trauma and pressure. The second thing is that while there are common pressures all people face, Black men and women have distinct pressures of their own. It’s the pressure to perform, be accepted and prove ourselves, day in and day out. It’s the feeling that the person you are, that you were born to be, isn’t good enough. We may be smiling because we’ve learned how to cope and survive, but inside there’s pressure. Many of us beat ourselves up over the smallest mistake at work because we feel like our mistake proves the stereotypes about our people to be true and we feel a responsibility to our whole community.

So, as Black Mental Health Week continues, I encourage employers to take the time to try to understand the Black experience, create spaces for Black team members to talk and share Black mental health resources with them. Now is the perfect time.

Although a lot of progress has been made in recent years, there’s a lot of work to be done. This hit home for me personally in October 2019, when a friend of mine in the Greater Toronto Area took his own life. He was in his mid-40s; he was a mortgage specialist, husband and father of three. He was a man of faith who always had an encouraging word and always took the time to give me a big hug whenever he saw me. After he passed, I went back to the last message I sent him on Facebook. It was left on “Seen”. Who knows whether he was in a moment of deep suffering and here I came with a frivolous request, not even taking the time to wonder how he was really doing? He was the last person I would’ve suspected of having depression, but apparently he was suffering in silence. 

So to local employers, my advice is simple: check on your people.

For more information about Black mental health, visit the Ottawa Black Mental Health Coalition at obmhc.ca.

Kevin Bourne is the CEO of SHIFTER Agency Inc. and editor-in-chief of the online Black arts and culture magazine shiftermagazine.com.