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How to Update Benefits Policies to Better Support Indigenous Workers

How to Update Benefits Policies to Better Support Indigenous Workers

November is National Native American Heritage month, a time to recognize the contributions Native Americans have made to the growth of the U.S. It's also a good time for companies to take stock of the benefits they have in place to support Indigenous workers.

Benefits play an important role in ensuring HR teams are supporting Indigenous workers in the best way possible, and many programs are still lacking, experts told SHRM Online. Indigenous people were three times less likely than white colleagues to feel like they belong at work, according to data from workplace organization Great Place to Work. That number increased to nine times at the middle management level.

"People don't understand what it means to be a Native American in this country," said Janet Stovall, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion at the NeuroLeadership Institute, a leadership consultancy based in New York City. "They don't respect what that has been like. We forget often that they were here first; a lot of the times we don't respect that."

Only 51.9 percent of Native American and Alaska Natives had access to private health insurance in 2019, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health. Additionally, unemployment among Indigenous workers is climbing, topping out at 8.3 percent in August, compared with 6.7 percent the month prior, and higher than all other racial groups.

HR leaders who want to improve their offerings to better support Indigenous workers need to first educate themselves on the myriad challenges these communities face every day, Stovall said. Indigenous communities are not a monolith, she explained, and understanding the unique challenges facing the communities in your workforce will help HR leaders develop policies that are more inclusive.

"It's very important to understand the biases that we live with every day, no matter how much good work we want to do," she said.

Survey Your Employees and Benefits Providers

HR leaders who are looking to make significant changes to their benefits policies should first survey Indigenous workers to see what their needs are, said Julie Jungalwala, co-founder and president of the Massachusetts-based consultancy the Academic Leadership Group and an instructor at the Harvard Extension School.

"Ask them; don't assume," she said. "When you're asking, it needs to be a psychologically safe environment to ask."

HR executives can start by asking questions about performance management, benefits and skills development, she said. Talent leaders should also consider setting up an employee assistance program (EAP) internally to solicit feedback from workers and provide them with a safe space to connect.

"The goal is to create a more diverse, inclusive place within the organization," Jungalwala said. "That's a nice, tangible first step."

But don't stop there - HR leaders should also be questioning their benefits providers to ensure they have the tools to meet the needs of a diverse workforce. Do a little research on the companies you're working with and make sure they are committed to inclusion, equity and diversity. 

"Try out their customer service line, try out their customer service email to see how responsive and respectful and engaging they are," Jungalwala said. This will allow you to get a better sense of what your workers will experience when they reach out for support, she added.

Expand Mental Health and Wellness Resources

In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death among Native American and Alaska Natives, according to the HHS Office of Minority Health. The overall rate of suicide is 20 percent higher among these populations compared with the non-Hispanic white population, HHS reported.

Culturally sensitive mental health resources are another benefit that HR leaders should consider, Stovall said. It's especially important to look for providers that are trauma-informed and provide substance use counseling. Indigenous Americans are more likely to engage in substance use, while nearly 1 in 5 Native American young adults, ages 18-25, have a substance use disorder, according to data from the American Addiction Centers.

Indigenous workers with depression, anxiety or substance use disorder are more likely to receive treatment from a spiritual or traditional healer than other specialty medical sources, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America. If you're looking to add a mental health benefit, it's important to seek programs that have worked closely with Indigenous communities in the past and understand their culture and unique needs, Stovall said.

"Are there counselors that are part of these groups or counselors that have worked with these groups before?" she asked. "This is a culture that has dealt with, and continues to deal with, a lot of trauma."

It's also worth evaluating your current health plan to make sure it provides robust coverage for diseases that impact Indigenous communities, such as coronary heart disease and diabetes. Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death among Native American and Alaska Natives, according to the American College of Cardiology.

Indigenous workers may also seek health care from traditional or tribal healers. While most traditional health plans in the U.S. don't cover these services, there are wellness programs that provide access to culturally informed wellness and insurance plans.

"Look for a health plan that's a little more inclusive," Stovall suggested.

Offer Flexible Leave and Remote Work

Indigenous people often live in close-knit communities, and companies would be wise to offer flexible leave and time-off benefits to allow workers to spend more time with their families, said Cori Maedel, co-founder and CEO of the Jouta Performance Group, a British Columbia-based HR consulting firm. Many Indigenous communities center the well-being of the group, versus the individual, and may need more time away from work to care for family or other members of their community.

Most bereavement-leave policies, for example, only include time off for the death of an immediate family member, Maedel said. Employers should consider expanding these benefits to include community or tribal members as well, she said.

"Family could be almost anyone," she explained. "There might be multiple people within a community, within a person's life, that may pass within a year."

Beyond leave policies, HR leaders should ensure they have flexible and remote work options in place, Stovall said. Having experienced the trauma of being displaced, Indigenous workers may not want to leave their land to commute into an office. Allowing Indigenous workers to log on from where they feel most comfortable is an important step in creating a more inclusive workplace, she added.

"They don't have to disengage and give up a lot of things if remote work makes that possible," she said.

When HR leaders are creating these policies, it's most important that Indigenous workers are part of the conversation, Stovall said. Understanding the unique needs of workers in a company will help HR and benefits leaders create policies that are inclusive of all employees.

"If you try to create a place of belonging, but you're not co-creating that space with those who are excluded," she said, "you'll never get there."

Caroline Hroncich is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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