Black History Month: Black Mental Health Matters

This weekend marked Mental Health Awareness day. When it comes to supporting the mental health of your team, it’s important to acknowledge the varying support needed by different individuals, and groups of people. This can vary between demographic groups, and be particularly true for marginalised groups of people. This week, as part of Black History Month we’re giving you advice on how to support the mental health of Black employees in your business or organisation.

In this blog we’re going to discuss three things we think are fundamental to supporting Black employees and their mental health at work:

  1. Why diversity training doesn’t work
  2. Getting comfortable talking about race
  3. Representation and visibility 


Taking a preventative approach to supporting Black employee mental health

The best way to support employees in protecting their mental health is to create an environment in which they’re less likely to face challenges to their mental health. According to our research, Black employees are more likely than their white colleagues to agree that a problematic workplace culture has negatively impacted their own mental health. There can be many reasons behind this. Research by the City Mental Health Alliance and Lloyds Banking Group showed that:

  • Nearly half of Black employees had experienced racism at work
  • 43% of black employees felt like they needed to change aspect of their behaviour to fit in at work (compared to just 27% of white employees)
  • And, 60% of Black employees would feel more comfortable engaging with support services if they were offered by a more diverse group.

Work can be stressful at the best of times. These factors only amplify the challenges that some Black employees are forced to face in their working environment on a daily basis.  While we can’t stop work from being at all stress inducing, what we can do is reduce impacts of a negative company culture on the mental health of Black employees. Here are some ways to do that:

1. Educate your employees, because diversity training doesn’t work. 

When companies consider how to implement diversity training, more often than not this amounts to a one hour session of content, perhaps followed by a short quiz to check you’ve not just clicked fast forward through the video.

If this is what Diversity & Inclusion training is, this doesn’t work.

Mandatory training is usually accompanied by a barrage of reminder emails and final warnings from line managers. Equally, optional training can be difficult as employees are asked to volunteer their time to engage in topics that don’t directly impact their job or performance metrics.

Either way, these short term interventions do little to actually improve the experiences of employees in the workplace, and when people lack interest or time the impact is even less.

Instead, consider how you can encourage, motivate, and reward your employees for embarking on longer term educational journeys. Think about how you can integrate campaigns for diversity and inclusion into your regular employee communication channels. Consider how learning can be incorporated into internally recognised performance metrics. Most importantly, plan how learning and development will be encouraged over time, and not just at one point in time. 

This can cover everything from microaggressions to allyship or understanding racial inequity in the workplace. To understand the most effective learning programme for your organisation, you need to give your employees the opportunity to speak up about how racism impacts them.

2. Encourage conversation: Don’t let conversations start and end in the training room.

When people feel encouraged and motivated to take their learnings beyond a learning session, this is when you’re turning training into education. 

Creating a place where race can be safely and openly discussed in the workplace makes it less likely that problematic behaviour will arise; because it’s easier to notice, making it easier to call out.

Encourage members of your team to speak up, anonymously if needed, so people are aware that it’s okay to talk about race, their experiences aren’t isolated, and so people can begin to understand what racism looks like within society and potentially within your organisation. 

Data from BITC shows that it is often senior leaders that need to get comfortable talking about race. If you can encourage this from the top down, then you’re setting a clear example that it is an important topic, it is safe to talk, and that you’re committing to change.

Push for this by getting racial equity conversations on the agenda more often. Businesses that have taken a serious stance towards supporting their Black employees have made DEI conversations an intrinsic part of their growth and success strategy. Investing into internal and/or external support to fill knowledge gaps, or signing up to charters to follow best in class guidance on creating change.

If supporting Black employees becomes a part of business as usual, then your team will feel safer, happier, and are less likely to experience negative impacts on their mental health.

3. Representation & visibility

At all levels of your organisation, visibility and representation of Black employees is important. Diversifying your leadership teams is not only good for profit performance, but it allows your Black employees to see that their race isn’t a barrier to career progression within your business. 

This needs to be as true in reality though, and not just a stunt. Tokenising senior hires is a transparent and counterproductive move. Positive action, such as ensuring you’ve got a diverse candidate list at the interview stage, can assist with this.

Having a diverse senior leadership team can also help employees further down your organisational structure feel more comfortable speaking up about negative cultures.

Having a diverse team outside of your leadership team is important to ensuring that Black employees within your business don’t feel marginalised, or tokenised at work. Feeling tokenised at work can impact your Black employees’ mental health by causing them to feel a lack of belonging, an over exaggerated need to ‘prove themselves’ versus their peers. 

A diverse team also helps by allowing marginalised employees to shed light on issues in higher numbers. Where one employee might not feel comfortable speaking up about an issue or problematic culture of racial exclusion, multiple employees may feel empowered to do so. 

If this is something you’re looking to address in your organisation, consider your talent pipeline; where are you recruiting talent from, where and how are you posting jobs? For graduate entrants, which Universities are you accepting applications from? Though numbers are improving, Black students are still less likely to be accepted into Russell Group universities, so limiting your acceptance to these Universities makes it more difficult for you to begin to diversify your team. 

Finally, if you don’t have the resources internally to help you make effective strategic decisions in any of these areas, invest into external expertise that can help guide you on this path. In 2019/20 there were 17.9million working days lost due to mental ill-health, stress and anxiety induced by work. Investing time and resources into taking a preventative approach could save your organisation in the long run.

For any advice on this topic, get in touch with our team.

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