Including racism in the discussion of well-being at work

by Sarah Chander on 25th February 2020
The sociologist David Williams has said racism makes us sick and this is also true at work. How can we create workplaces which promote wellbeing for all?
How work affects our mental health and the importance of wellbeing in the workplace is slowly beginning to be acknowledged. This is an important step forward. But how deep-rooted inequality and racism intersect with mental health in that milieu is not yet being addressed. We spend a significant amount of time at work and it undoubtedly affects our mental health, in both positive and negative ways. So far, however, the discussion has mainly been limited to ‘quick-fix’ solutions and personal development for the individual. We need to understand instead how our environments shape our mental health and wellbeing.
Social and economic factors affect the mental health of individuals. And our workplaces reflect wider societal behaviours, systems and trends, including racism, discrimination and racial inequalities. These interact with mental health at different levels—individual, organisational and more deeply structural, as explored in the European Network Against Racism’s toolkit on race and mental health at work.
Impact of incidents
At the individual level, interpersonal racism may include instances of aggression, threats, bullying and harassment but also subtler situations, including prejudicial statements, ‘casual’ slights and micro-aggressions. Such incidents are likely to have an impact on individuals’ mental health to some degree—including stress, hyper-awareness of difference, pessimism, higher incidence of psychosis and depression, decreased self-esteem, emotional distress and fear of recurrent discrimination.
Indeed, the cumulative result of individual and collective experiences of racism-related incidents can lead to racial trauma, with an ‘eroding effect’ on racialised people undermining resilience and self-esteem. One emblematic case is imposter syndrome: due to continued discrimination and lack of representation, many people of colour express feeling ‘out of place’ or unsuited for the roles they are in. This is not necessarily related to skill level or qualification but rather to anxiety or hyper-awareness about being perceived as unsuitable or unprofessional due to one’s ethnicity.
Employers also need to recognise the effect of organisational or institutional inequalities on mental health. Individuals cannot thrive if they know that they are being treated unfairly or held back by factors beyond their control. Yet, there is clear evidence of discrimination against members of racial minorities in companies and organisations across Europe.
The role of managers and colleagues is key in this respect. If a manager reacts to a complaint of racism or discrimination by dismissing or denying the incident, this has a delegitimising impact on the complainant. As Guilaine Kinouani has said, ‘Silence allows abuse to flourish. It reproduces and amplifies the damage of trauma. What is unnamed and unspoken is obviously not heard. Not seen. Not fully witnessed or recognised.’
Structural inequalities
Going further, we must also take into account how broad economic structures relate to wellbeing, and how structural inequalities and racism intersect with mental health. According to the UN special rapporteur on health, mental distress has risen more than 40 per cent in the last 30 years, and poor working conditions and insecure work are a major contributor. As racial and ethnic minorities and migrants (in particular women) are disproportionately represented in low-paid and precarious work, there is a specific mental-health risk, in particular in a context where insecure work is proliferating in the European labour market.
In addition, increased resort to austerity policies, health cuts and reduced employment protection disproportionately affects people of colour and is likely to worsen inequality and social exclusion, and therefore exacerbate problems of mental health.
So what can employers and trade unions do about this? We need to ensure ‘diversity management’ conversations address the links between racism and mental health, and acknowledge that ‘wellbeing’ in the workplace requires attention to equality and inclusion.
Organisational review
The first step is to address racism and inequality in practices and structures, beginning with a review of organisational inequality to understand—through a mixture of surveys, consultations and quantitative data collection—what is at stake. For example, if the data show that in the organisation women of colour are lowest paid, least likely to be in management, most likely to be on temporary contracts and most likely to report discrimination or mistreatment, there is clearly an issue there to be addressed.
Conditions such as this are likely to affect wellbeing and the work environment as a whole. Ensuring accessibility in the workplace, not only in terms of disabilities—including psychosocial—but also opportunities for members of minorities is essential to achieve more equality at work.
More broadly, an organisation’s procedures and structures can exacerbate inequality or an environment of stress. Centring wellbeing may then require a complete transformation of organisational structures.
Secondly, employers need to create a culture of care and wellbeing in the work environment. Managing with care and compassion is a crucial part of promoting wellbeing and a change in leadership approach may be required.
Creating a feeling of belonging and shared identity in the workplace is also a key factor for workers’ health and wellbeing (and so performance). Employers can be proactive in setting standards—such as by adopting a code of conduct, including zero tolerance of any form of harassment and discrimination against all colleagues and outlining a set of values to guide employee interactions, listing unacceptable behaviours.
Support structures
Finally, it is crucial for employers and trade unions who are committed to ensuring wellbeing to support employees who are affected by structural discrimination and to recognise the tactics and coping mechanisms they use to deal with oppression. Being aware of the additional burdens on the wellbeing of people of colour is important and access to specialist support should be facilitated for those affected.
Supporting and empowering employees also means destigmatising mental ill-health in the workplace. This can include actively encouraging potential employees to disclose mental-health issues when applying, ensuring that pre-existing conditions will not be held against candidates. In addition, employers can put in place a variety of support structures to promote wellbeing, encouraging such employee-support networks as affinity groups for female, ethnic-minority and/or LGBTQI* staff.
Justice and equality are core components of wellbeing. Employers have the power to make a change and ensure that their workplaces operate on the basis of wellbeing and equality for all. It’s time they used that power to rethink wellbeing—and to address the nexus between racism and mental health in the process.
(Sarah Chander is senior advocacy officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), interested in race and gender equality, securitisation and migrants’ rights.)