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Employee wellbeing: how does racism affect mental health?


Employees who experience racism are more likely to suffer from poor mental health, so why aren’t employers doing more to tackle this pervasive issue?

28th Oct 2019

The workplace has a huge impact on staff mental health and our understanding of that impact is becoming increasingly advanced. A record number of mental health first aiders are being trained to operate in many of the UK’s largest companies and some employers even allow staff to take mental health days, just as they would for a physical illness or ailment.

There are conscious efforts underway to ensure that employees have a healthy workload, that they maintain a healthy work/life balance and to raise awareness of conditions such as imposter syndrome.  

One factor that employers continuously neglect though, is the pervasiveness of racism at work. There is clear evidence that experiences of discrimination – regardless of how covert or overt they may be – are a significant risk factor for a range of psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.

While all employees must feel supported in the workplace, the clear link between racism and wellbeing suggests that employers must explore what support might be helpful specifically for their BAME staff. 

Just a few weeks ago, a new report by University College London (UCL) found that women who experience sexism in the workplace are three times more likely to suffer from depression.  

You’re probably thinking that a correlation between discrimination and poor mental health doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The problem though, is that many employers are unaware of the fact that their own organisations are likely to be housing racism.

Never has there been a headline that raises awareness of this issue in the same way that UCL’s new report has done for women. It’s this lack of awareness that lays the groundwork for these issues to take hold.  

Indeed, most of us would like to believe that racism is no longer present in the workplace, that in today’s society, any discrimination on account of an employee’s background or ethnicity would be swiftly challenged. This is far from true, though.

A pervasive problem

Our own research* at Pearn Kandola has found that as many as 60% of black and 42% of Asian employees have experienced racism at work.  

This is a truly shocking figure. What makes it even more alarming though, is the resulting effect on employees’ mental health. A third of black and Asian employees (34% and 36% respectively) took no action after witnessing an act of racism and, of all respondents who took no action, two-fifths (39%) failed to do so out of fear of the consequences.  

With these findings in mind, it’s difficult to deny that there is an issue of widespread workplace racism, nor that it can have a detrimental impact on the mental wellbeing of those on the receiving end.

To protect their BAME staff, employers need to not only acknowledge the existence of racism within their organisations, but also create an environment of psychological safety. There are three steps that I would recommend they take in order to do so.  

Review employees’ support mechanisms

With so many of our respondents feeling a distinct lack of support, it’s vital that employers review whether the current support mechanisms that are in place for their staff remain fit for purpose. If they’re not, they must be overhauled. Leaders who are taking this approach must be honest with themselves, though. It’s their own teams that they are sabotaging by burying their heads in the sand.  

Treat race discrimination and racism as health and safety concerns

Several studies have identified a link between mental wellbeing and vulnerability to stress-related illnesses, psychological injuries and, as a result, mental health-related sickness. Considering its impact on wellbeing, employers must consider any instance of racism to be a health and safety concern and treat it accordingly.  

Explore support for BAME employees

While all employees must feel supported in the workplace, the clear link between racism and wellbeing suggests that employers must explore what support might be helpful specifically for their BAME staff. The best way to achieve this is to speak to those staff that feel victimised and undertake exploratory exercises to establish what support might be helpful.  

Having a conversation about racism can be difficult, but the best way to foster change and create an environment that is more conducive to good mental health is to encourage dialogue and develop our understanding of the issues that BAME employees are facing. Such exercises may even involve carrying out formal research and consultation, as the most vulnerable staff might feel reluctant to openly share their experience.  

The way to start though, is for employers to demonstrate to those who feel victimised that they are aware of the issues and are genuinely willing to help.

* The research for Pearn Kandola was carried out online by Pearn Kandola via Mechanical Turk and Prolific between 20th November 2017 and 19th January 2018 resulting in 1,422 respondents.

Interested in this topic? Read How unconscious bias means that we get in our own way.

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