It’s time businesses learnt from the Windrush generation

On Windrush Day, Sandra Kerr reflects on how employers can champion their ethnic minority colleagues and make sure they feel supported at work

It’s time businesses learnt from the Windrush generation

When the first Windrush immigrants set foot on British soil in 1948, they came with a dream. What began in the Caribbean and ended at the Tilbury Docks in Essex brought a new wave of resource, manpower and drive to rebuild and support British businesses following the Second World War. But as we celebrate the fourth national Windrush Day, businesses need to understand four key lessons to honour their legacy.

People need mental health support – especially women

Many of these enterprising young men and women entered the NHS during the year of its conception and helped make it one of the most valued and impressive healthcare systems in the world. Today, 6.1 per cent of NHS employees are from a black background, and a greater percentage of black people are represented in health and social care and transport, taking on key frontline roles in the pandemic. But this means employers should exercise sensitivity and care when enquiring after employees and colleagues’ mental health.

In 2014, 29 per cent of black women reported a common mental health disorder, higher than any ethnicity group. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on black communities, the impact of economic recessions in the past and lockdown in spaces that may make social distancing difficult have all contributed to this imbalance that is felt by many. 

Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities have been found to have lower access to green spaces as well as interventions and care that support wellbeing and mental health. But businesses can embrace new job design and think about creating jobs that allow people to bring their true selves to work. 

Be prepared for difficult conversations

Businesses should encourage employees to speak up without fear of recrimination. Employees want to be heard and valued for their bravery and truth in coming forward, as their views come from lived experience. We need managers to listen, be empathetic and metaphorically put themselves in their colleagues’ shoes. 

Managers may feel uncomfortable with what they hear but will need to recognise that is something their colleagues face every day. Research has found that 58 per cent of black, Asian and ethnic minority employees have experienced non-inclusive behaviours at work, and that needs to change.

When we surveyed employees in 2018, only 38 per cent said their employers were comfortable talking about race. But unless managers start conversations and are prepared to listen, workplace cultures won’t progress, and their attempts to be culturally diverse and inclusive will only be at the surface level.

It’s easy to be overlooked

Raise up your colleagues and recognise merit when it’s due. The 2015 and 2018 Race at Work surveys revealed that 70 per cent of black, Asian and ethnic minority employees believe progression at work is very important. And yet, they often face barriers to career progression to the detriment of their mental health, with recent research finding that only 49 per cent of black employees feel that they get credit for their work

But by recognising their expertise, attributing ideas and positioning them for leadership roles, employers can help advance the interests of Black, Asian and ethnic minority employees. 

Show your commitment, and mean it

Companies want to be allies and demonstrate their dedication to diversity and inclusion, but they often don’t know where to start. Signing the Race at Work Charter is an excellent first step for businesses to show they care about championing black, Asian and ethnic minority colleagues. They can also share the 2021 Race at Work survey with employees and see what colleagues have to say about their own experiences.

This month we are releasing a toolkit for individuals and a guide for managers on how to better support the mental health and wellbeing of black, Asian and ethnic minority women. It is so important that we raise each other up and support one another at work, because it is easy to feel ignored or overlooked. 

As we reflect on the Windrush Generation, I find that you can’t talk about their legacy without discussing business too. This year will hallmark 73 years since the SS Empire Windrush arrived with its first wave of Caribbean immigrants. These people came to support British business, and so today I ask business leaders to honour their legacy by taking away these lessons on how to support black, Asian and ethnic minority employees. 

In 1948, British business and infrastructure couldn’t succeed without the Windrush generation, and the same sentiment holds true today. Together we can champion our colleagues and be the allies they need at work, but only if we act together, and act now.

Sandra Kerr CBE is race equality director at Business in the Community