The murder of George Floyd last year unearthed an uncomfortable truth that racism, discrimination and inequality still exists in all areas of our society, including within the workplace.  Like many others across the globe, the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust took action and commissioned a piece of work which is being led by Dr Yvonne Thompson to make the Trust Anti-Racist. The commissioned piece is being carried out by a group of thought-leaders and experts in all matters relating to race, quality, diversity and inclusion. We wanted to take the opportunity to interview Yvonne, and ask for her thoughts more generally on the role that race has in the workplace, and the impact of this on the wellbeing and mental health of its staff.

Interview by; Misha Gardner Business Development Officer and Project Support for Add | Wellbeing.  

Why do you think that it’s important for us to consider race when looking at mental health in the workforce?

Maintaining positive mental health should be a realistic goal for all across a workforce of an organisation. However, it is a particularly important consideration when it comes to race as it allows ‘whole-self’ consideration of the individual in context to societal issues. For example, being a black employee of an organisation does not indemnify you from what goes on outside the workplace, e.g., poor housing, policing, unemployment, racism workplace bias along with the conditioning that black and brown employees feel they have to work twice as hard, to get just as far. This can also be multiplied when you look at the intersectionality between race and gender.

There are several important considerations when looking at mental health in the workforce.  First and foremost, staff in any organisation are not a homogenous group.  Experiences are all different even within the same race, gender and religious divides.  Then of course there is the cultural differences to be taken into account, as well as age group.  Education is of course high on the agenda, the person’s own level of resilience and ability to adapt to, training and or treatment, and of course their own inner mental strength.  But one of the most important issues to consider is of course, how different people are raised, their home environment, what matters to them most, and how they deal with it.

What are the most prevalent issues you have seen in your experiences amongst people of colour in the workplace and how does this compare to their white counterparts?

Despite lofty claims of equality and inclusion there is still a real sense that the workplace is not a meritocracy. Invariably, black staff develop a mentality of ‘keeping your head down” to maintain their safety. This survival mechanism therefore becomes an act of self-sabotage precluding them from positions of leadership and potential development. We have also heard that to survive some black colleagues believe they have to check their ‘real selves’ at the front door, therefore playing a role in work to survive.

It is also the fear of not fitting in.  Fear of not being recognised as just as good. Fear of not being taken seriously, or as not being welcomed or of not fitting in, and not being sure how to deal with this.  This is of course compounded by the lack of support when this situation is raised.

The term microaggression is a relatively new term. What exactly is it and how does it manifest in the workplace in terms of impact to staff wellbeing.

Microaggression is a new term for an old practice which has recently filtered down to “everyday people” in everyday jobs.  It’s the practice of slowly but surely chipping away at one’s confidence, pride, culture and competence in an indirect manner, with a very pointed outcome.

How can organisations support people of colour who have expressed issues with their mental health relating to their work?

Firstly, the organisational wellbeing must be a stated priority and part of its core objectives. The custodian of this must be someone who sits in the Boardroom. It should be measurable and reported upon and cascaded down throughout the organisation which each leader and middle manager having this as a key result area of their work. The rest would depend on the size and scale of the organisation. In terms of good practise there should be a level of independence that allows colleagues to express their feelings anonymously.

Below are some specific suggestions for being able to address this important issue:

  • Development of well thought out wellbeing strategy that is implemented across the whole organisation
  • Employ an occupational therapeutic health professional for staff to use
  • Establish a dedicated well-being clinic or depending on the higher or lesser need, employ a coach to support staff members who experience distress at work.  
  • Support with personal development, resilience, emotional intelligence and get them support to dispel their imposter syndrome. This can also be done virtually for convenience.  There should also be a 24/7 “Tip line” or “Call in” facility where people can either talk to someone or just talk
  • Podcasts discussing race in the workplace and wellbeing support
  • Safe places to promote healthy discussion
  • Quarterly discussions with senior staff or a Senior Management Question Time type discussion.

What tools are there for people of colour to look after themselves in precarious working environments?

In my experience organisations don’t necessarily know or understand that they are providing precarious work environments. This therefore requires the individual to make that assessment. Firstly, there should always be the avenue to speak to your line manager to discuss any issues you may be having at work, and a record of the discussion should be stored, so that If the problem escalates in the future this record can be referred back to.

If the situation does not change, employees should use their annual leave as a temporary measure to relieve themselves of any stresses and take a break from the working environment that is causing them distress. Finally most organisations have a whistleblowing policy that are accessible for all, and so if the situation remains of grave concern – employees should consider this as a final option.

What lessons can we learn from history, and how do we support organisations to become more diverse and inclusive?

To paraphrase the words of philosopher George Santanya, ‘if you don’t learn from your historical mistakes – you are bound to repeat them in future’.

The importance of positive mental health is a consideration for all people within the workforce, however, I do find that there is a particular significance to the state of mental health across lines of race. Whilst all staff from ethnic minority communities must not be considered a homogenous group, their route to their role, for example their socio-economic background can be laced with tensions that make sustaining positive mental health a daily challenge. Moreover, there is the very strong perception that minorities have to work twice as hard to get just as far as their counterparts and the idea of workplace meritocracy and inclusion coming a distant second to ‘keeping your head down’. Over a prolonged period of time this perception, true or not can continue to be an aggravating factor towards poorer mental health for black and brown colleagues. This underscores the importance for the consideration of race when looking at organisational mental health.

Therefore in order for organisations to become more diverse and inclusive, priority should be given to training, improved policy focused on staff wellbeing that takes difference into consideration. Priority should also be given to creating spaces in the workplace to have open conversations about equality and diversity issues of all kinds, and in turn organisations will increase their comfortability with discussing these sometimes difficult but very significant topics.