How can HR teams and line managers gain a better understanding of the unique mental health challenges that may be faced by ethnic minority employees? Sandra Kerr offers guidance
The Covid pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities but it has also been a catalyst for change – challenging the way we think about mental health and race at work, helping employers imagine new ways of working.
A culturally aware manager recognises the need to create and provide a system of support for ethnic minority employees built on intentional connections and relationship-building”
On 25 May 2020, an increased commitment to mental health from many businesses converged with issues raised by the killing of George Floyd and the anti-racism protests which followed. Almost overnight, we saw a renewed urgency in tackling racial disparities in the workplace and a significant increase in businesses signing up to Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter.
The challenge, however, remains with Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work 2020 survey finding that 41% of employees experienced symptoms of poor mental health, directly related to work and more than half (51%) of these symptoms were due to increased work pressure.
Added to this, almost two in three (58%) of Black, Asian and ethnic minority employees have experienced non-inclusive behaviours in the workplace. People from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are also more likely to have faced financial insecurity, bereavement, job losses and lower access to care – all risk factors associated with mental health conditions.
So how can HR departments and line managers gain a better understanding of the unique mental health challenges that may be faced by ethnic minority employees?
Guidance for employers and managers
To support businesses, BITC has recently launched its Mental Health and Wellbeing for Ethnically Diverse Women toolkit for managers. The guide provides practical advice for employers and line managers in developing their cultural awareness.
Cultural awareness is based on understanding that we all have different values and experiences shaped by our backgrounds, and a culturally aware manager recognises the need to create and provide a system of support for ethnic minority employees built on intentional connections and relationship-building.
This is the vital first step for managers in understanding the nuances in potential risks and different approaches to wellbeing across ethnicities. Three types of connection are the foundation of cultural awareness:
• Psychological connection: This is awareness of the unique experiences that impact on the wellbeing of Black, Asian and ethnic minority employees, and the desire to support, engage and endorse.
Race at work
To do this, employers and managers should be curious about the lived experience and can be informed on these experiences through listening circles or one-to-one conversations. It’s also vital that employees feel their voice is listened to and valued, and that managers actively listen and seek to understand. A genuinely curious manager will be invested in developing a culture of respect and commit to follow-up action and practical support, where appropriate. This will build trust and create an environment where employees feel they can discuss mental health and wellbeing.
• Relational connection: This is built on key behavioural skills and interpersonal skills which foster trust, confidence and safety.
Behavioural skills include active listening, empathy and compassion, unconditional positive respect and genuineness and authenticity as well as immediacy, humility and transparency.
Interpersonal skills that are key to relational connection are awareness of yourself and others, compassion for others, clear communication, collaboration and humility and being honest about not knowing all the answers.
• Visible connection: This allows employers and managers to gain an understanding of the employee’s difference and how it translates into their everyday lived experience.
To create a visible connection, the employer should offer meaningful support and demonstrate genuine concern for the holistic wellbeing of the employee. This can be through steps such as awareness and respect for cultural holidays as well as the use of inclusive language, which helps the employee feel valued as part of the team.
Employers should also provide safe spaces for open and honest communication which are supportive and confidential. By creating secure support networks and reassuring employees that they have been heard through thoughtful follow-up actions, employees can bring their authentic self to the workplace and feel accepted and valued.
It’s crucial that employers and managers take a compassionate, authentic and personalised approach”
The final aspect of building a visible connection is a personal commitment from managers and employers to training and learning to continue to learn about how to better support and advocate for ethnic minority employees.
Over the past two years we have made significant steps forward, but we still do not fully understand the lived experiences of ethnically diverse employees in the workplace. Key to changing this, is the 2021 Race at Work Survey which offers employers and employees across the UK the opportunity to share the realities of today’s workplace and have their voices heard. The insight from this year’s survey will allow us to focus on the areas that need addressing for the benefit of employees across the country and help us on our journey toward equality and inclusion in the workplace.
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of ethnically diverse employees in the workplace, but it’s crucial that employers and managers take a compassionate, authentic and personalised approach by taking the time to understand and respond to the needs of individual employees.