May is both Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Heritage month. At Mind Share Partners, we have found that the conversations around workplace mental health and diversity & inclusion (D&I) are increasingly inseparable. Not only are individuals managing mental health conditions a vulnerable and marginalized community, but different demographic groups (such as ethnic groups and the LGBTQ+ community) have unique experiences and challenges around the issue as well.
In this article, we wanted to highlight this intersection and discuss the unique challenges that Asian American professionals face when it comes to workplace mental health. The Asian and Pacific Islander workforce has grown 20 times larger in the last 60 years. While representation has grown dramatically, this group still faces unique workforce challenges. They are the least likely to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management, and one in four report race-based discrimination when applying for jobs.
These challenges have been linked to a variety of negative mental health outcomes including depression and anxiety as well as job-related outcomes like job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover. However, Asian Americans face unique obstacles to their mental health. While they have the lowest recorded rate of diagnosed mental health conditions of any racial group, the language, culture, and stigma-related barriers to treatment and talking about mental health within this community are well-documented. As a result, Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services compared to white Americans as a result.
This month, I reached out to several Asian American professionals to hear their take on mental health at work. In this article, we’ll hear from:
Anvita Jain, HR Business Partner | Dell
Krystal Mak, Technical Project Manager & Reporting Analyst, Reconciliation Operations | Square
Jessica Ngo, People Analyst | Adobe
Gordon Shen, Research Fellow | UC Berkeley
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and contributors, and not necessarily to their affiliated employers, organizations, committees, or other group or individual.
What unique challenges does the Asian and Pacific Islander community face when it comes to the intersections of work and mental health?
Anvita (Dell): Many children in the Asian and Pacific Islander community are raised with the expectation of an incredibly high standard of excellence.
While this can lead them to be professionally successful, it also can lead to the direct relation of self worth to professional success, which is harmful for mental health.
Many children may be conditioned to believe that work is so important they forget to take care of other elements of their life such as their health. For example, working long hours and the notion that one cannot be successful without doing so can lead to a lack of work life balance and ultimately, burnout.
Jessica (Adobe): A lot of pressure can come with the expectations that we place on ourselves that stem from our parents’ backgrounds and struggles. I came from a disadvantaged neighborhood with immigrant parents, so I grew up being taught that as long as I worked hard, that would be enough. However, now that I’m a working professional, I’ve struggled with balancing what I wanted to do with my career, what my parents thought I should be doing with my career, and what I believed my career expected me to deliver—and my mental health has suffered as a result. With my family, being vulnerable was seen as being weak willed, so when I was struggling, I felt that I couldn’t express that to anyone. It’s still hard for me to admit to myself (as I gradually undo all the hardwiring), but hard work isn’t always enough, and you have to be able to learn to ask for help.
Krystal (Square): Because of the Model Minority Myth, we are expected to be the quiet, submissive, hard workers. We’re expected not to speak up or to advocate for ourselves, and are often looked upon negatively when we do. We’re held to such high standards and expectations, that we’re in constant fear of failure and don’t always feel like we have the space (or luxury) to stumble. Additionally, as first or second generation Asian Americans,
we’re taught that we should always consider the struggles and sacrifices of our parents—we’re so lucky just to be where we are today that we effectively have no right to complain about our struggles, which are minor in comparison.
Combined, these two phenomena frequently lead to increased anxiety and depression.
Gordon (UC Berkeley): The Asian and Pacific Islander community’s mental health has not been thoroughly examined in professional settings despite Asians making up 6% of the U.S. labor force and 52% working in management, professional, and related occupations. One challenges is that Asian Americans underutilize mental health services (i, ii, iii), and many available resources like employee assistant programs (EAPs) are perceived as being “broad-brushed”. Second, psychosoma, or physical manifestations of mental health conditions, is prevalent among Asian Americans, which calls for a need to balance in attention given to mental and somatic symptoms. Taken together, Asian and Pacific Islanders occupy a distinct category compared to other groups when it comes to work and mental health.
What unique challenges does the Asian and Pacific Islander community face in regards to stigma and talking about mental health?
Anvita (Dell): Mental health stigma is particularly high in the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Often, those with a mental health condition are told to not talk about it—that they would be “dishonoring” the family. This can lead those with mental health conditions to internalize feelings of rejection and inadequacy and avoid seeking treatment. The lack of discussion leads to a significant lack of understanding.
It makes it difficult for people to understand what is going on if they start experiencing symptoms of mental illness, and parents to know how to help children handle mental health condition.
The conversation around taking care of mental health does not start when children are young (as it should). Often, it never starts at all. Instead, an unhealthy emphasis can be placed on other things like professional success or family loyalty over one’s own health.
Krystal (Square): Mental health has always been considered taboo in Asian culture—we simply don’t talk about these things, at home or in public. We end up repressing, denying, or ignoring the existence of any mental health issues. In fact, multiple of my (Asian American) friends have told their parents about going to therapy, to which their parents responded with some variation of: “Why do you need to talk to a therapist? When you’re upset, just tell yourself to be happy.” or “Just talk to a wall/mirror. It’s basically the same thing.” The unfortunate result of this is that Asian Americans are roughly three times less likely to seek out mental health services.
Gordon (UC Berkeley): Stigma is a leading factor which influences Asian Americans’ access to mental health care (i, ii), and stigma can change the social dynamics between Asian and Pacific Islander individuals and their co-workers. First, the use of certain metaphors (e.g. tigers), stereotypes (‘model minority’), or representations (‘bamboo ceiling’) in conversations at work both marginalize this group and inhibit talking of mental health. Second, culture-bound syndromes has been observed among Asian American (i, ii, iii, iv), which suggest that signs in Asian and Pacific Islanders may not match the symptoms of established clinical diagnoses in the DSM or ICD. This mismatch may be a function of acculturation, itself a stressful process for minority groups.
How have you personally experienced these challenges in your own professional life? Tell us about a time that reflects this.
Anvita (Dell): I grew up surrounded by high expectations of academic and professional performance. This amplified my natural tendency to be a perfectionist. I was constantly anxious because I was always trying to meet my high expectations for myself. I was never satisfied when I reached my goals; I was too busy shooting for an impossible milestone—to be perfect. Naturally, this led to a bad case of imposter syndrome at work. Although finding a field that I love (Human Resources) has helped keep it at bay, I still have moments when I feel like I don’t belong, that I am not good enough. Some days I drive myself too hard even when I’m not feeling well. Recently, I traveled to Boston for work and had a week packed with tasks to complete. I got so caught up in trying to complete everything I forgot to take breaks to release my anxiety one day. The anxiety built up to a point that I had a panic attack 10 minutes before one of my meetings. I had to call my manager and tell her I could not take the call. Even then, I almost hesitated to tell her. I only did because I was forced to by the fact that I could barely breathe, much less talk or form coherent thoughts.
Jessica (Adobe): It’s a bit of a funny story actually, but growing up, I was taught that unless I was absolutely bedridden, I still needed to go to class or else it would decrease my grade and make teachers think I was lazy. Even with one of my previous managers, he called me out for staying home when sick—because I tend to get sick every time the season changes—and that this was ‘becoming a pattern.’ This only affirmed the belief of working when sick even more. A few months ago, I had a really bad cough, and was showing up to work. My current manager had to tell me during our 1:1 that if I was at risk of infecting people at all, I needed to stay home. That was completely new to me. I’m still pushing myself to make it to work, but if I need to rest from being sick, I will stay home. I’m still getting used to the idea, but this manager’s simple act exposed me to a work culture that encourages self-care and rest, which extends into my ability to care for my mental health when I need to.
Krystal (Square): Before I learned to prioritize my mental health, I would push myself past the point of burnout, and it actually started to affect my physical health as well. When I was a consultant, I felt overwhelming pressure to bill the most hours, work nights and weekends, and go to extreme lengths to get things done. Working 80+ hour weeks started to become less of the exception and more of the rule.
As an Asian woman just a few years out of college, I didn’t feel I could speak out—I was lucky enough to have a job, why would I do anything to rock the boat?
Mentally, this stress, anxiety, and frustration from work bled into other parts of my life, and I was absolutely not a pleasant person to be around. Physically, I broke out in stress rashes, and I was so exhausted all the time that I once dozed off while driving and got into a minor fender bender! After that, I vowed to put myself first—no job was worth risking my health over. Thankfully, my director responded with concern and understanding, and things got a lot better.
What are some ways that you take care of your mental health at work? What have you found most helpful?
Anvita (Dell): First, it’s important to take breaks to relax and release any anxiety or tension. Otherwise the anxiety can build up throughout the day into a panic attacks or other symptoms. I find that a private place, even a bathroom stall when absolutely necessary, gives me space to calm down and gather myself during stressful days, especially if anxiety is triggered during a meeting. The added benefit is that no one questions a bathroom break, which protects my personal time and privacy. Second, if at all possible, I recommend being open with your manager about any mental health struggles and boundaries right from the beginning. This way, your manager is better equipped to assist you through a mental health struggle at work. Finally, do not be afraid to take a mental health day just as you would a sick day. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. When you’re on vacation, really go on vacation. Avoid checking your work email. Try to find company with a healthy working culture, where this is the norm.
Krystal (Square): I am a big proponent of mental health days. We respect employees’ needs to take sick days to recover their physical health, but the same can’t always be said for mental health.
I’m incredibly transparent with my team when I’m starting to feel overwhelmed or burned out and need to take a day off to recharge, and they’re great about respecting this time off.
Setting clear boundaries at work, whether that means leaving at 5:30pm to go to my boxing gym or only accepting meeting invites when I am truly needed, has been crucial for preserving my mental health.
Jessica (Adobe): Having a friend at work really helps. A friend at work keeps me grounded in terms of the high expectations I place on myself and my work. I deal with stakeholders all the time, most of them reasonable, but some a little difficult to navigate. A supportive colleague has been helpful in supporting me in navigating these difficult interactions and not to be so hard on myself when things don’t go the way I expect (as they most often don’t in ambiguous work environments).
What can employers do to better support Asian American professionals specifically around their mental health at work?
Anvita (Dell): Employers can give employees mental health days and offer mental health training to raise awareness. By designating specific days for mental health, employers are deliberately setting a standard that mental health matters. Mental health training will better equip employees to be sensitive to each other’s mental health needs and boundaries and help each other through struggles. Employers can also help by creating a culture of work-life balances, including a flexible work schedule.
When an employee can adjust work around important things like doctors appointments and family time, it significantly reduces stress and allows the employee to perform better at work.
Gordon (UC Berkeley): Employers should take into account ‘culture’ as a key factor when addressing mental health at the workplace. First, foster an organizational culture that promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Second, become culturally fluent in communication with employees, especially in light of the association found between racial discrimination and mental health conditions among Asian Americans, not discounting the extant literature on implicit biases against minority groups. Finally, encourage employees to seek care from providers who are culturally competent and linguistically compatible. Culture deserves renewed focus in practice, specifically in general approaches that managers use to address employees’ collective stress, health, and well-being.
Krystal (Square): Normalize the conversation around mental health—the more openly we talk about mental health, the more people will feel comfortable advocating for their needs. Recognize that employees are whole, complex humans outside of this one job we spend eight hours a day doing. Consider offering mental health services as part of their benefits! At Square, we also have an employee resource group (ERG) focused on neurodiversity, which might be the first of its kind; this group creates space for us to discuss and advocate for mental health and differences in cognition.
While it’s nearly the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s important that our conversations moving forward are inclusive of communities that may experience mental health differently in their workplaces. Understanding these unique challenges is the first step.
Learn more about how different demographic groups experience workplace mental health differently in Mind Share Partners’ 2019 Mental Health at Work Report.