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Asian American Employee Well-being Hinges on Psychological Safety & Workplace Flexibility

Asian American Employee Well-being Hinges on Psychological Safety & Workplace Flexibility

Three ways leaders can create the conditions for an inclusive work environment that helps API employees thrive.

Early in the pandemic, I received a racially targeted slur in response to a promotional email I sent to Great Place to Work® email subscribers. My name and photo signed the bottom of the email.

Then there was an incident at the beginning of 2021. It was a few weeks before my first day back from parental leave. A friend shared with me that while on a walk with her 9-year-old son in their town, her son was verbally assaulted with racial epithets by a man who had been pumping gas in his car.

Three months later, on March 16, six women of Asian descent were gunned down across three Atlanta spas.

When I learned about this in the news, I was in a state of shock. Then, I was deeply saddened for the families – especially the young children these women left behind.

Reflecting back, the first half of 2021 was one of the most difficult times for me – both mentally and emotionally – as an Asian-American working mother. My sense of belonging and well-being suffered. And my anxieties bled into the workplace.

Joint research by Great Place to Work and Johns Hopkins University finds that there are five key factors involved in employee well-being. Many of these factors are relational and communal. When employees feel isolated or excluded, their well-being suffers.

Leaders who create trusting, respectful and inclusive environments for Asian and Pacific Islander employees can create greater belonging and ensure well-being is protected. 

Three actions can enhance the well-being of Asian and Pacific Islander employees at your organization:

1. Set and maintain the conditions for psychological safety with executive support

Stop AAPI Hate, a national advocacy organization, reported that between 2020 and 2021, Asian hate incidents across the U.S. climbed – and they continue to rise today.

Anti-Asian hate crimes make Asian employees feel insecure about their sense of belonging in the world and in the workplace – just as my experience did in 2021.

Leaders have a duty to protect employees against racism in the workplace and rebuild psychological safety.

When I spoke to Brandon Shindo, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and co-founder of K&B Therapy, Inc., he shared that, “humans are created to be social beings. Social interaction and belonging are not just luxuries, but rather they are a necessity in order to promote one’s mental and physical well-being.”

In the wake of the Stop AAPI Hate movement and with the support of our CEO and executive leaders at Great Place to Work, a group of employees came together to address the impacts of anti-Asian hate on employee psychological safety and well-being.  

Members across our organization created an Employee Resource  Group (ERG) dedicated to the professional fulfillment and empowerment of API (Asian and Pacific Islander) employees at Great Place to Work, complete with a charter, operating budget and executive sponsorship.

Great Place to Work’s API ERG serves both employees and the broader AAPI community, deepening our connection with each other and building stronger feelings of belonging.

Giving ERGs clear and meaningful leadership support sends a powerful message to employees that says, “I see you and I stand by you.” This support is essential for supporting psychological safety among API employees, in turn strengthening a sense of belonging in the workplace.

2. Use employee survey data to dig deeper and understand how intersectionality impacts your employee experience

Focusing on Asian employees is not enough. Focusing on women is not enough.

To truly understand the API employee experience is to know how different identities layer one another to create unique circumstances that leaders need to recognize.

A Center for American Progress analysis of essential industries and occupations found that an estimated 27% of employed API women are essential workers, with 5.4% employed as registered nurses.

Based on our research of large Great Place to Work-Certified™ organizations in 2021–2022, only in the Health Care sector say it’s a psychologically and emotionally healthy workplace, compared to 80 percent of salaried workers.  

“Asian women have endured some of the harshest economic effects of this crisis, including shuttered businesses, significant job losses, increased caregiving responsibilities, and much more,”

Another dire data point: Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Women’s Equal Pay Day was May 3rd. This is how far into the following year API women must work to earn what white men earned in a given year.

And API women earn on average 15 cents less.

And most alarmingly, a recent well-being study from UCLA finds that about 21% of AAPI LGBTQ adults had received a diagnosis of depression compared to only 7% of cisgender, heterosexual API adults.

This suggests that broad approaches to diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging (DEIB), which must make  big generalizations, will leave many employees feeling unheard.

So instead of analyzing the experience of API employees as a group, break it down by race/ethnicity, then further slice it by other demographics such as gender, birth date, managerial level, caregiving responsibilities and pay type to get the full picture of your employee experience.

Great Place to Work’s employee survey and analysis tool lets you measure intersectionality by all these aspects and more.  

3. Create inclusive return to work policies

The pandemic provided an opportunity for organizations to completely transform the way they approach where work should be performed. Leaders and companies who are looking to create a For All™ experience need to continue to provide not only hybrid, but also workplace flexibility.

And not through a one-size-fits all model. By creating inclusive and flexible work policies, you’re signifying personal support – one of the 5 dimensions of employee well-being.

In the same research of large Great Place to Work-Certified organizations, we heard from over 45,000 employees who identified as Asian* at over 275 companies in the U.S. Of these employees, nearly 3 in 4 are caregivers for children and elders.

Through another study, we found that young mothers who are Asian are 33% more susceptible to experiencing burnout than their White, male counterpoints.

Considering the unique circumstances that employees face – such as caregiving duties and burnout – is key to workplace well-being.

I am extremely grateful to work at an organization with leaders who trust employees to get work done, regardless of location. As a people manager, I am also witness to how creating the conditions of psychological and emotional safety allows teams to band together.

Leaders who embrace flexibility help other members when their child gets sick, when they need to relocate to a new city for future stability or when the everyday stressors of the pandemic requires time to be out of the office to recoup, even amidst a busy work plate.

By focusing on all three of these key elements, leaders can develop high levels of well-being for their teams. They are also three times more likely to have employees, no matter who they are, or what they do for the organization, stay and flourish. Employees – and their organizations – stand to benefit.

I’ve been encouraged by our leadership at Great Place to Work to prioritize well-being in whatever form is most meaningful. I have been able to secure therapy resources to help me cope with the challenges of being a new, working mom during the pandemic.

“Knowing that such mental health resources exist also contribute to the development of healthy workplace cultures,” says Brandon.

“A culture that embraces compassion and treating employees like people positively impacts productivity and staff-retention.”

Create the conditions for a thriving workplace culture

Reach out to us about how we can help you track and measure the five dimensions of well-being and your DEIB efforts with our employee experience survey.

*Due to the relatively small incidence rate of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) in the population, our survey responses do not adequately provide a representative sample the NHPI community, further making their lived experiences invisible.


Lizelle Festejo