7 Ways HR Can Support Indigenous Health

If you’re American, you’re definitely familiar with the trifecta that rules our healthcare system: patient-provider-payer. But there’s an invisible fourth player hovering at the edges and that’s Human Resources – which influences everything from our mental health to the kind of care we get to our finances. And HR can have an outsized impact on Native American workers.

You might be thinking, “But Native people can access care through Indian Health Service.” And that’s true, mostly. But more than half of Native people have private health insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health. Even Native American workers who don’t sign up for health insurance benefits at their workplace may still be impacted by culture. They may feel “othered” by their coworkers or feel unable to protest a new policy or stand out too much. Practices that seem fair and worker-friendly to everyone else can come across quite differently to Native employees.

Native American woman in meeting

In a nation where healthcare is tied to employment, your HR department can impact how often you go to the doctor, which doctor you go to, and what happens there. Workplace culture also influences our health, mentally and physically. Consider that:

  • Native American workers are 3 times less likely than white colleagues to feel like they belong at work, according to workplace organization Great Place to Work.
  • That number increases to 9 times at the middle management level.
  • 60% of Indigenous Canadians feel psychologically unsafe at work.
  • Unemployment among Native American workers has climbed over the last year – and is higher than all other racial groups.
  • In recent years, DEI programs have tapped Indigenous employees to educate their coworkers, serve on committees, plan cultural events, and essentially take on unpaid responsibilities – requests they feel they can’t refuse without risking their paychecks.


“If we don’t have a culture of belonging that promotes diversity, how can we thrive? When we have connections, we can thrive,” says Mario Trujillo, Tribal Health’s DEI Manager. “We are each a force for change. You are in the driving seat; you claim your sense of belonging and offer opportunities to belong to others. We can change the environment and the belonging that is present.”

Native American women at work

7 HR Practices That Can Support Native American Workers

Lots of well-intentioned HR teams work hard to ensure their benefits packages are equal for all employees. But that doesn’t mean those benefits or workplace policies affect all employees the same way – and it’s worth doing some analysis on how those benefits and practices support Indigenous workers.

Step 1: Survey your Native team members. What benefits best fit their lifestyle? What medical resources do they have in their communities? Do they feel valued at work and do they feel safe enough to disagree with colleagues or take creative risks in the name of innovation?

Step 2: Talk to your benefits providers. Ask them about any tools that can meet the needs of a diverse workforce. Ask how they’ve tailored benefit offerings to Native American workers before.

Step 3: Do a dry run on customer service. Call any employee-facing services and pretend to be a Native employee or insurance member in need of help. Are their representatives respectful and knowledgeable? Are you connected to the information you need?

Step 4: Assess your current health plan offerings. Do they provide robust coverage for diseases that impact Indigenous communities? Some of those include diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain cancers. Smoking cessation programs and maternal health coverage are also important.

Step 5: Strengthen mental health coverage and resources. Culturally sensitive mental health resources are critical, given the high rates of suicide and substance misuse in Indigenous communities. Look for mental health programs that have worked with Indigenous communities in the past and demonstrated respect for Native cultural traditions.

Step 6: Support Native American workers who seek health care from traditional or tribal healers. Sweat lodges, smudging, dance, and other ceremonial practices are usually not covered by American health payers. One workaround: your organization could launch its own wellness program that offers a stipend to workers who seek alternative or ceremonial services.

Step 7: Offer flexible, hybrid, and remote work options. Indigenous workers may need to work from their own communities, particularly when helping with seasonal work or caring for an elder relative. But studies show that Native people often have fewer opportunities to work remotely than White workers even when doing the same job. If your organization doesn’t yet offer remote work options, facilitate discussions between workers and managers to find accommodations that support the employee’s community responsibilities. Consider offering fully remote roles as well, which can economically strengthen Tribal communities by reducing the exodus of citizens seeking employment.


Native American CEO

Inclusion Benefits Everyone – Humans and Businesses

Let’s be real: “inclusive” as a term has done a lot of heavy lifting lately. “We’re inclusive” is splashed on every website, job ad, and trade show booth. The truth is, many people are growing numb to the word. So consider these words instead: Confidence. Collaboration. Engagement. Retention. And of course, every business’s favorite word – Revenue.

Because that’s where a truly inclusive workplace leads. When employees feel they belong at work, they are 3 times more likely to look forward to coming to work and 5 times more likely to want to stay at that organization for a long time. Maybe that’s why inclusive workplaces also drive revenue 3 times faster than other companies.

Does all of this sound like a lot of work? Just start with Step 1. Talk to your Native workers and ask them to be honest about their workplace experience. Their answers might surprise you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Want to Read More?