How racism, wellbeing and performance are connected

Senior managers at companies who are serious about improving diversity need to ensure they understand the relationship between ethnicity, wellbeing and performance in the workplace writes psychologist Elizabeth Yardley of Pearn Kandola

It’s well established that our personal wellbeing influences our performance at work.

When our wellbeing suffers, we lack the resources to function properly. In its most extreme form, this can lead to burn-out, which is characterised by exhaustion and disengagement. The brain tries to conserve resources, suppressing certain behaviours and causing us to be chronically tired, confused or unable to concentrate. At work, this means we might struggle to find solutions or become withdrawn during meetings. We might also start to avoid social engagement, becoming less chatty around the office or finding excuses to avoid spending time with colleagues.

There are two problems here, the first of which is that this behaviour doesn’t just occur in extreme cases; it can take place even when someone is experiencing a relatively low level of poor wellbeing. The second problem is that, as observers, we can only interpret what we can see. It’s unlikely that we would recognise this behaviour as being caused by burn-out. Instead, we might incorrectly label this person as someone who is struggling or working less hard, and therefore making less of a contribution. Ultimately, they are likely to be at greater risk of being branded as lazy or being of lower ability.

It’s important to understand though, that in a typical organisation, black and minority ethnic employees (BAME) may be at even greater risk than their white colleagues of falling victim to these misconceptions. Not only that, but such assumptions about ability and motivation may even contribute to the overarching racial hierarchy that we can see in so many organisations.

Being the victim of racist abuse has a dire impact on wellbeing, which in turn affects performance. As with wellbeing though, this abuse doesn’t need to be what we might consider extreme. Covert behaviours can actually have a greater impact on wellbeing, as their subtle nature can cause victims to even question whether they have, indeed, been the victim of racism. One of the most significant issues here though, is that colleagues and managers are likely to misjudge the response of BAME staff to these experiences, and begin to develop the impression that they are less motivated or productive. As a result of these observations, many of which manifest in the form of unconscious bias, minority groups face slower progression throughout the organisation.

What behaviours should we look out for?

To prevent these biases from forming, it’s important to understand the signs that someone’s performance may actually be affected by poor wellbeing. For instance, it’s likely that those who are suffering will be less confident or optimistic. This will be particularly evident in interpersonal situations, such as speaking to colleagues or trying to influence others, and will, in turn, create doubt in their colleagues’ minds about their competence.

A continuous low mood is also a red flag – studies have shown that when individuals feel low, it can fundamentally change their thought processes. Their ability to concentrate and focus is impacted, resulting in being less likely to consider the “bigger picture” and think strategically. They can even become less creative. All of these characteristics are regarded as indicators of performance, talent and potential, so it’s important that we are able to pinpoint the root of these issues.

Why are BAME staff more at risk?

Being reminded that we are part of a minority – or, at least, in some way different – impacts our social experiences and perception of our social identity. This, in turn, affects our wellbeing.

Individuals from a minority group are constantly reminded of their status as such, experiencing more negative social interactions on a daily basis than those in the majority. These include actions such as exclusion and rude or aggressive comments, as well as micro-incivilities, such as less eye contact, being talked over or criticised for seemingly small issues.

These negative interactions have such an impact on wellbeing that each one can undermine positive exchanges by a ratio of 1:3 – that is, three positive exchanges will be undermined by one negative. Positive exchanges include things such as smiling, stopping to chat in the corridor or extending an invitation to a social event.

They might seem small, but these actions – positive and negative alike – all have an impact on an individual’s wellbeing. The important thing to remember though, is that members of underrepresented groups receive disproportionately more negative signals, eroding their health and wellbeing.

The second type of discrimination that individuals from under-represented groups have to contend with is expected discrimination. Even the expectation that someone may discriminate against you has been found to affect wellbeing and performance, especially if you fear that others may expect you to conform to a certain stereotype – a phenomenon called stereotype threat.

On such occasions, minorities are likely to become more withdrawn, seem distracted, make more mistakes or become less articulate, possibly even fulfilling the stereotype that others hold about them – a self-fulfilling prophecy. These behaviours in a work meeting, for example, will likely lead to an individual being perceived as less competent, and may reinforce the very stereotype that the individual is trying to avoid.

How can we improve wellbeing in BAME individuals?

Once equipped with the knowledge of racism’s impact, the link between wellbeing and performance becomes crucial to racial equality in the workplace. The experience of being in a minority group can have a real, multifaceted impact on performance, hampering opportunities to progress within the workplace.

Racism, wellbeing and performance are, as we’ve seen, intertwined. But creating a fairer, more inclusive workplace starts by building a safe, equal and categorically anti-racist and anti-stereotypical environment, in which colleagues of all backgrounds are able to thrive. If a member of your team is acting differently, or appears withdrawn, don’t simply write them off as lazy or difficult. Investigate why.

This is one of a range of issues relating to the relationship between race and wellbeing in the workplace, explored in depth in the new book, Free to Soar: Race and Wellbeing in Organisations, written by a team of business psychologists and edited by Professor Binna Kandola.

Elizabeth Yardley

About Elizabeth Yardley

Elizabeth Yardley, psychologist, Pearn Kandola

One Response to How racism, wellbeing and performance are connected

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    Marilyn Trim 23 Sep 2020 at 3:31 pm #

    Thank you Elizabeth for a thought provoking piece and some of the scenarios you mentioned are so true. Most people will be able to relate to this.

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