ERGs As Support Systems At Work

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I’m usually not interested in celebrity news or gossip, but a recent headline featuring actress Keke Palmer popped up in my Apple News feed and caught my attention. For many, it might’ve been her reveal of struggles with acne, but for me, it was the attention she had drawn to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Illnesses such as PCOS impact many people, but we often don’t hear about others’ experiences nor share our own out of shame or embarrassment.

In my first intro article, “What About The Black ERGs?” I briefly shared what motivated me to become more involved in ERGs. However, I didn’t share what got me there in the first place. To find personal and professional support among individuals with whom I identified, I found ERGs to be those spaces that struck a balance between the two. The bonds I formed within these groups enabled me to speak up about my personal experiences and encourage others to move forward with their situation rather than be left behind.

I struggle with a range of health issues, which share the source of my insecurities and inability to do as much in life as I’d like. After many tests, medical opinions, and procedures, I only recently understood my medical issues. And to Palmer’s point, the most frustrating part was that I felt unequipped to make medical decisions confidently. I lacked important information about my condition and my family’s medical history. If you haven’t the luxury of avoiding medical expenses in the US, you’ll know that frequent visits to see specialists, along with having procedures, are not cheap.

Yet avoiding the fact that something is wrong is also costly. My first embarrassing professional error was missing a client meeting early on in my career. I hadn’t been candid with my manager about why I missed the meeting because I didn’t know and couldn’t tell him that. I didn’t know what was going on with my body and had started a new medication that made me sick and unable to move without feeling faint. A client meeting nor my job was top-of-mind. I was eventually reprimanded and was angry, confused, and thought I had lost control.

Moving onto my next role, where I became acquainted with ERGs, was timely. I had become very ill and was sick several times a month, was losing my hair, began developing lesions on my head, face, and inside my ears, my body ached, and eating was painful — the list goes on, and it was overwhelming. I had already established my diagnosis of kidney disease, but there was even still some confusion around that. And all while experiencing these symptoms, I vowed never to let my health interfere with work again. But, you see, unless we are unhuman, that isn’t a realistic goal to set for ourselves.

I continued to hide under headwraps and ill-fitted clothing and began to regret all the years of hair straightening and dye to flaunt looks that were a facade for the fact that I hated my hair and how I looked. It wasn’t until I began receiving treatment and losing more of my hair that I began to wish I loved myself more. Wishing, it seems, I did more of and still do these days. Depression swallowed me whole to the point where I thought suicide was my only way out.

Desperate for a break — any real opportunity to enjoy the presence of other people led me to get involved with ERGs. Little did I know these groups were my answer to professional happiness when working with a disability. My involvement in ERGs opened up new doors to gaining insight from brave individuals who openly shared their experiences. It became a passion of mine to partake in sharing and safeguarding our expressions.

Years and ERGs later, I’ve learned to accept what feels like a long list of diagnoses. And while I’ve been ashamed to openly share that I have multiple autoimmune illnesses, kidney disease, and depression, I’ve only most recently begun to accept endometriosis as a serious condition. It took joining ERG groups for womxn to admit that this diagnosis, too, needs my attention. Brushing off the related procedures, symptoms, and feeling like an inadequate woman required my attention because feminine health is health.

Keke Palmer’s posts not only help bring awareness to illnesses such as PCOS, but her posts also help to normalize the discussion of illnesses that impact people with a uterus. And when we acknowledge the existence of such illnesses, we’re able to ensure sufficient accommodations at work for employees who have them to thrive. Whether remote or in-person, disability accommodations are not a business’s risk, but it’s security.

ERGs should foster a space for individuals to safely share their experiences and support each other in communicating their needs to employers. Employers should work to better support their employees by, in turn, supporting ERGs and carrying out the requests of these groups, which should work towards creating an equitable environment for all. Last but not least, HR should ensure employees are aware of accommodations available to them during onboarding and provide reminders throughout employees’ tenure.

All employees have something to offer. Hiring them isn’t the only opportunity you can give them to do great work.

Data-driven solution & information experience designer creating impactful, diverse, & inclusive digital experiences. Proud first-generation Caribbean-American.