· Features

Why all employers must learn how to become actively anti-racist

This week Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England released new research revealing that 6.5 million employees feel they cannot be their ‘real self’ at work and less than half (43%) think their colleagues know the ‘real’ them.

Couple this with a YouGov survey which found that half of Black Britons are as likely to have experienced racism in the workplace as on the street and it becomes clear that urgent action is needed across industries to right this wrong.

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter protests, society is waking up to the systemic and institutional racism that exists, including our places of work.

In order to be more inclusive and equitable, organisations need to ensure that anti-racist principles and practices are woven into everything they do and create an environment where everyone feels safe to bring their whole self to work.

Employers leading on this agenda recognise the intersection between race and mental health and are taking action to align (and prioritise) their diversity and inclusion and wellbeing strategies.

There is of course a strong moral argument for taking this approach but the business case is strong too, with productivity boosted through a more diverse and inclusive workforce and money saved when employee mental health and wellbeing is invested in.

To support organisations in becoming anti-racist and building cultures where people feel valued and safe, MHFA England has worked with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Business In The Community (BITC) to create free guidance for all workplaces to support the mental health and wellbeing of people of colour (POC) and Black people.

The guidance provides a combination of information about the different elements of systemic racism, combined with practical advice on being anti-racist and a strong ally.

Transformation starts at the top

Employers must lead on taking action, ranging from reviewing policies through an anti-racist lens to making sure project teams are inclusive. Driving change through actions is key to delivering on real and non-performative allyship.

Ultimately, POC and black colleagues should always feel confident that proactive steps are being taken to improve the workplace culture and environment.

While leaders play a key role in driving the change that’s needed, it’s important to remember that staff at all levels must educate themselves about race, racism and racial justice, and the mental and emotional impact it has.

Too often, the onus is on POC and black colleagues to drive change in the workplace. It is important to remember that it is the responsibility of white colleagues and managers to understand systemic racism, prioritise anti-racism principles, and proactively lead change whilst all the time amplifying the voices of POC and black people.

World events, as well as individual experiences of racism, can negatively impact people and their work performance. Employers need to be aware of this and be proactive in providing support.

Managers and colleagues should ask questions when appropriate and listen non-judgmentally. It’s also important to create safe spaces where psychological safety won’t be compromised, and signpost to appropriate support, whether that be to occupational health services and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or to external services for POC and black people such as Black Minds Matter.

In 2020, no-one should have to leave parts of their identity at the door when they get to work, but unfortunately this is the current experience for many POC and black people. The impact of this on a person’s mental health can be devastating, which is why employers must act now.

We hope that MHFA England’s My Whole Self campaign and guidance on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of POC and black people will influence workplace cultures and encourage a shift of behaviours and accountability to be more inclusive and equitable.

Adah Parris is chair of MHFA England.