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The business impact: The unemployment rate fell to 5.8% in May, though the number of people not in the labor force increased by 160,000. There were 7% fewer Black women and 7.2% fewer Hispanic women employed in May compared to February 2020, as they haven’t benefited from the economic recovery as much as other groups.
Focus on Workplace Mental Health and Race
Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open this week amid a standoff with the tournament over her refusal to attend press conferences brought workplace mental health into the headlines in a big way. Osaka cited longstanding bouts of depression in her announcement, and observers have noted the additional pressures from racism that athletes of color face as well.
For thoughts on what we all can learn from this episode and mental health and race in the workplace, I reached out to Dr. Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist in Washington DC and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who consults with organizations on managing conflicts stemming from identity differences. Here are excerpts from my conversation with Cyrus, edited for space and clarity:
Are there any takeaways for navigating workplace mental health from Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open?
That is a huge statement of saying to the system, 'No, you're not going to make me do something I don't want to do. I have autonomy, I have power.'
I left Yale a few years ago. There have been a number of Black doctors who are leaving academia, and people in general who are considering leaving academia. I think it's because they're valuing their mental health, their life, and their autonomy over staying someplace.
Workplaces are going to start seeing people who will make decisions like this. Especially with DEI practitioners, I'm hearing it with them all the time—they're always in some position where the company is making them do these things, but they know they're not really going to change. It's just so exhausting that it's not even worth it.
So I do think that you'll see people who are saying, 'No, I'm not going to come back to work,' or 'You need to actually make these changes.' I don't know that they'll actually stand up to their supervisors or bosses in this way, because companies still hold a significant amount of leverage over employees. But if people are in a position where they can get other jobs and they're unhappy with their workplaces, which are inflexible and trying to play by rigid, old-school standards of 'You have to be this way, we don't care'—people will leave.
Are there specific measures that organizations can put in place that allow employees to better navigate mental health issues? Can you avoid the situation where people get to the point of feeling that they have to leave?
It's not as difficult as people make it out to be to enhance mental health options at work. If you give people a flex day, or days, where they can decide if they want to come in or not, it puts control back in the worker's hands. That improves your mental health. And if you're in a company that has meetings every single morning and they're more like attendance checkers, then reducing that to maybe one meeting and actually trusting your employees that they're doing this work.
Also being more flexible if someone's having a family emergency, or another kind that's unaccounted for. That to me is usually huge when I talk to my patients. So many of them, at least Black, brown, and my LGBTQ patients, might have some sort of family emergency. Or that morning they can't get out of bed if they're depressed. Work might be good in that way, because it forces them out. But imagine if they were able to say, 'Hey, I'm gonna do 12pm to 7pm, and cut out that 9am to 12pm,' or something like that. The workplace can make allowances like that rather than keeping a rigid, 'We have to be here again from nine to six,' type of schedule, and the notion that if your schedule looks different, you are endangering our workplace model.
How can organizations address the mental health toll of systemic racism?
What I'm seeing with the companies that I'm working with right now is this trend where something happens nationally and companies want to respond, and that's the bare minimum. An acknowledgement that what's happening in the real world impacts your workers is huge. As much as I hate these statements that go out, at least it's one step of saying, 'We know this happened.' It doesn't mean that the managers or supervisors have to pull every Black person aside and say, 'How are you doing, George Floyd's verdict came out today', but maybe, 'Hey guys, I understand this is one of these days. If you need to call out, work from home, or take some control over your day, that's one thing that you can do today.'
Then there's the next layer of what's happening in your office workplace, which is really tough. Offices are realizing that they have a race problem because of the conversations that have been happening. People are pushing the envelope more. But I'm still getting some people who say, 'I don't think we have any problems, but just want to make sure.' You do have a problem, even if you don't think so. I get in touch with their people of color and they're like, 'We have a problem. They don't know. There's only two of us.' So it's not just on a national day; it's day-to-day having to deal with the stress of racism, transphobia, or homophobia that piles up. It might be one meeting that breaks the camel's back and makes it intolerable.
What would be great is some acknowledgement that even if they don't see it, that there's a toll that's happening on people with minority identities day by day. It's not necessarily about giving them a free pass, but rather to acknowledge that maybe we should be giving people some space or flexibility, or the benefit of the doubt that not everyone's operating at 100%.
What have you seen that actually makes a difference in addressing the problem?
Besides hiring diverse people in leadership? It's tough. There are all the DEI answers of mentorship, conversations about it, and training. Honestly, besides hiring, it's maybe being able to either acknowledge outright or to put your leadership in a position where people are open to say, 'This is an issue.' What makes it worse is hostile leadership, and by hostile I mean being even neglectful or ignorant of it. It's been shown in the psychological research that if white people don't say they notice racism, even if we know you're a liberal person who maybe notices it—if you don't say it, then I'm less likely to think that you are an ally.
If your office is all white and maybe one Black person, at least show outwardly that you're someone who's open to talking about it and open to being corrected. And not in a performative sort of way or token way, but one that reduces the tension in the workplace of, 'I'm experiencing this, and I can't do anything about it. I don't have control over changing my environment.' But it's tough to do if your office is all one kind of people.
What are some strategies for bridging the Black/non-Black divide in the workplace?
I've thought about this a lot, and my viewpoint has changed over the years. Ultimately I don't think that on a large scale, we'll ever bridge it.
But perhaps I take a view that one-on-one, you can reduce differences. I know this personally from having white friends in my life who are completely, completely different. I think that it's trust. It's hard to get at that in the workplace; it's knowing that you can give someone the benefit of the doubt and they won't have some weird power over you. If we are employees at the same level, going through the same experience, and I'm Black and you're white, then we have a better chance of bridging that divide because we can commiserate over things that we know. If we've spent however many days and weeks together, you can imagine what kind of friendship develops; you realize similarities that you have outside of race and you bond on personality. This is why I really love intersectionality. And not just intersectional, but multiple—maybe we both like electro pop music or funk rock, these kinds of things that transcend and are outside of stereotypes.
That's hard to get to, if you're my supervisor. It's also hard to get to in the workplace because people don't personally open up. One-on-one can present these opportunities, but I actually think that it's incumbent on white people to try to get to know the people of color. Because for people of color, it's constantly reinforced that you can't trust white people.
It's usually that someone comes into my life who shows themselves to be trustworthy. We have all these similarities and it works out. I think it's possible in that way—then it's okay if that person makes a mistake or says, 'Can I ask you about your hair?' You have a rapport with them, you know that they're not necessarily tokenizing you in this way. It doesn't bother you as much, or you might be able to say, 'You can't ask people that' and they'll say, 'Oh, I didn't know that.' There are ways that you can then have that rupture and repair, but that takes trust.
Last year there was more discussion of race in workplaces following George Floyd's murder. There were DEI initiatives that were put in place then, but I'm hearing that as people return to the workplace in the coming months, most of those initiatives probably won't have progressed as much as people would hope, and there's a risk of even deeper disillusionment. What is your sense?
I'm anticipating that workplaces are going to be unprepared. People are going to go back to work and these issues will be on everyone's sleeves. Workplaces are going to be more tense and offices are going to have to do something. But I don't know that they're going to know what to do or how to handle it. It's going to be tense and bad for a little while.
Knowing preemptively that this is going to be a thing and trying to get ahead of it is ultimately the best idea, but I don't think that people are going to just keep this to themselves anymore. Like with the Naomi Osaka stuff, people are a little more emboldened. They're upset with the lack of control, because it's so bad now. It's not like you can tolerate it like before. Either you've had a taste of something different, or you're like, 'No, I know everybody's talking about this and if we're not talking about it in this office, something's wrong with us.'
You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including additional discussion of worker retention, mental health, and race.
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
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What Else You Need to Know
With a tight labor market, some workers are emboldened and some are getting more money.
- Nearly 70% of employers globally say they’re struggling to find skilled workers, according to a new ManPowerGroup survey of 42,000 companies.
- Wages for non-supervisory and production workers rose at an annual rate of 9.1% in April and May, amid labor shortages in some sectors. Pay for hospitality-and-leisure workers increased at an annualized rate of 17% over the past three months.
- For context, the average worker’s pay rose 1.8% in 2020, while CEO compensation jumped 16%, according to preliminary analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
- Some workers are quitting instead of returning to the office. About 40% surveyed recently said they would consider leaving their job if their employer wasn’t flexible about remote work.
- “They feel like we’re not working if they can’t see us,” a research compliance specialist in Georgia who quit her job a few weeks ago told Bloomberg. “It’s a boomer power-play.”
- There’s also a rise in “rage quitting” over culture and pay among the hourly workers that make up about 60% of the US workforce, according to Business Insider.
We’ve written previously about what’s been called the “YOLO economy” and the “capitalism is broken economy,” where worker demoralization or exhaustion leads them to leave their jobs.
Every S&P 500 company now has at least one woman on its board. Monolithic Power Systems had been the only remaining company to have all-male directors. Women now hold 30% of S&P 500 board seats.
There are economic benefits when companies have employees on their boards. Researchers studying the practice of having worker representatives as directors—which is common in Germany—found that it was correlated with greater productivity, profitability, and capital market valuation.
- When they’re represented on the board—a practice described as “codetermination”—employees have greater job security. That’s largely the product of agreements in Germany whereby workers absorb reductions in their hours and pay during industry downturns, and are thus less likely to be laid off.
- “Codetermination benefits a wide range of corporate constituents at little or no cost to shareholders,” the researchers conclude.
Amazon will stop screening most employees for marijuana use. The company said it supports marijuana legalization at a federal level, and will treat its use like alcohol, looking for any impairment on the job but not testing for it more broadly.
- The proportion of US workers who tested positive for marijuana in urine has been rising for several years, as more states have legalized its use.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Apple asked staff to return to the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, starting in September. A group of employees pushed back, extolling the benefits of remote work and arguing that individual teams should be allowed to choose their own approach. That’s according to a letter published by The Verge that’s worth reading for how it makes its case. Among the employees’ contentions is that remote work over the past year “enabled tearing down cross-functional communication barriers to deliver even better results.”
- SAP told its more than 100,000 employees globally that they could choose where they worked and on their own schedules. A staff survey indicated that about half planned to come to the office one or two days a week and 16% preferred to work only remotely.
- Some workplaces are providing color-coded wristbands that people can wear to signal how much social contact they’re comfortable with. The categories can range from “hugs welcome” to “no contact.”
- Unlike some other law firms, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan extended its hybrid approach to legal secretaries and administrative assistants. “We are trying to break down the class barriers that exist in many organizations,” one firm executive told The American Lawyer.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- When you need to make a decision, take a vote. Executives at Zola, a wedding planning and registry company, present a strategic question to the group of about 20 people on the leadership team and ask them to vote. They then debate the rationale behind the votes and vote again. The decision-maker isn’t required to follow the result, but it surfaces different perspectives and helps generate consensus by the end.
- Aim for four to five hours of intensive work each day. That’s roughly the amount of time that a number of productivity gurus, with some support from research, believe that you can productively focus each day. Breaks along the way are important too.
- Increase the number of cameras and screens for hybrid meetings. Meetings with some people present and others remote can be terrible for all involved. But one company makes it work for offsites by mounting multiple cameras on tripods to show different views of the room and close-ups or flip charts. It also uses multiple monitors with life-size views of the remote participants.
- Use “returnships” to recruit people who’ve taken a break from paid work. Such programs generally provide several months of paid training to people who’d dropped out of the workforce—often mothers who left jobs to look after their children—with the goal of hiring them by the end. Returnships are especially well suited to this moment when there are labor shortages and caregivers were disproportionately forced out of the workforce during the pandemic.
Boeing is testing “curtains of air” to protect airplane passengers from each other’s germs. Special overhead vents continuously push the air down between passengers, in theory driving infectious particles out of breathing range to where they can be filtered.
Book sales are on fire. More print books were sold in the US during the first quarter than any time since NPD BookScan began tracking it in 2004. Classics from Agatha Christie and J.R.R. Tolkien are among those selling especially well. Digital books sales are robust, representing an estimated roughly 15% to 20% of total sales volume. The big question is whether the boom in reading will continue as we all leave our homes more.
Last year was the worst in memory for necktie sellers. More frequent work-from-home days and more casual dressing probably mean the frequency of tie-wearing will continue to wane. But some clothing stores are seeing a welcome uptick in tie sales this spring, which one retailer told The Wall Street Journal was attributable to “the fantasy of going back to the office.”
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.