Looking at mental health through the lens of race

Post author image. Annie Gosling

Business in the Community’s Sandra Kerr CBE on the importance of employers building inclusive cultures in the workplace.

It’s important when talking about mental health not to assume that all people experience things the same way. When we make an assumption about someone, it often means that the person in front of us feels unseen or unheard. 

Talking about race can be uncomfortable but is crucial. We know that the lived experiences of black African and black Caribbean employees in the workplace are different to the experiences of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi employees, as well as individuals who identify as mixed ethnicity – all have different challenges. 

What is universally important is that employers create inclusive cultures where everyone has access to opportunities, development and support, regardless of their background and where barriers to that culture are readily addressed and anticipated. 

Disappointingly, our Race at Work survey found in 2018 that one in four black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees said that they had experienced or observed bullying and harassment from their managers in the past two years and there was a significant increase of black, African and minority ethnic (BAME) employees saying they had also experienced such behaviour from customers and clients (from 13 per cent in 2015, to 19 per cent in 2018). This supports evidence from this year’s Mental Health at Work report, which showed that among those with an experience of poor mental health due to work, 10 per cent cited bullying or harassment from customers and clients as a contributory factor, with BAME employees particularly affected.

Inevitably, racial prejudice takes a significant toll on employees in many workplaces with as many as 30 per cent of BAME employees feeling they have experienced negative workplace behaviour or outcomes in the last year due to their ethnicity.

Our Mental Health at Work report also found that white employees are more likely than those from a BAME background to have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition (31 per cent compared to 23 per cent). We are not sure why this disparity exists, but it is interesting to note that more than half (53 per cent) of white employees report feeling comfortable talking about all of the issues, compared to 40 per cent of those from a BAME background. All employees feeling comfortable speaking about this issue at work is of vital importance.

We also need to take an intersectional approach to tackling mental health where people can experience a double dose of discrimination. For example, the Mental Health at Work report found that 20 per cent of BAME LGBT+ employees report feeling as though they lost a job, in part due to their sexual orientation. This is compared with 7 per cent of those from a white background.

Not all mental health issues can be dealt with by introducing wellbeing programmes. Often we can improve mental health at work by ensuring that people have decent jobs, access to development opportunities if they want them and proper remuneration. The employment issues we deal with on a daily basis come up again when we talk about poor mental health. For example, 37 per cent of those from a BAME background said that they felt underpaid (compared with 27 per cent of white employees) and 39 per cent that they felt stuck in the role with no opportunities for progression (compared to 25 per cent of those from a white background). This finding also correlates with our Race at Work survey, which found that 70 per cent of BAME employees said that progression was important to them. It also found that 52 per cent of BAME employees said that they need to leave their current organisation to progress (this is in contrast to 38 per cent of white employees).

Employers must ensure they have safe spaces where individuals can speak to people who are culturally sensitive to an employee’s background, so that everyone within an organisation feels that they can talk about mental health issues at work without it having a negative impact on their career.