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Change doesn’t often happen seismically in the workplace, but in 2020 we have experienced sudden shifts that have changed our entire understanding of the workplace.

The pandemic started us off, suddenly forcing everyone home, suddenly forcing us to acknowledge that employees have lives outside of work and responsibilities that are more urgent. (This was evidenced by the number of toddlers appearing in Zoom meetings!) The second big shift has happened alongside and in the wake of the work against anti-Black racism that began swelling in May, and this shift has brought new conversations and hopes to organizations everywhere. Together, these events have transformed our understanding of the need for both true wellness and antiracist action in the workplace.

This transformation has demanded an enormous amount of emotional, logistical, and organizational work from managers and executives. It’s clear that the majority of managers see the need to adjust how things are done in order to accommodate their employees during these (forgive me, I’ll only say it once!) unprecedented times. But it’s not so clear how to proceed.

These very different times call for very different measures—we can’t thrive right now just by doing more of what we’ve always done. We need new ideas, new approaches. We need to change as fast as our circumstances have changed. We need effective ways to keep employees well, including making workplaces antiracist.

What we’ve done so far

 The first step to shifting how we approach wellness and racism in the workplace is to consider what we’ve done so far. I’d say this work to have been happening for about forty years. It began as anti-bias work, and I know some of my readers will remember when the stated goal was “tolerance” of “other” races.

The conversation moved forward, and training shifted to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This change helped people see not just the problems with racism, but also the benefits of a diverse workplace.

These approaches, however well-meaning, share a significant shortcoming: The vast majority of antiracist work in the workplace has focused on removing bias from individuals—almost like extracting a rotten tooth, or providing corrective glasses for myopia. The focus remains on the individual to correct behaviours after being educated, and there has never been real incentive to do that, nor any impetus to change the systemic problems at the root of racism in the workplace.

Where it’s gotten us

Without that incentive and impetus, we simply haven’t made enough change. While the conversation has progressed, we’re still left with workplaces rife with discriminatory hiring practices. Employees of colour, especially Black employees (including management and executives) still experience subtle and overt racism, limiting their opportunities to advance or to succeed. Black employees are often still isolated, tokenized, and turned into scapegoats.

Chances are, many of you reading can think of instances of this from past or current workplaces; perhaps you’ve struggled with knowing how to effect change.

So what needs to happen?

We understand that wellness in the workplace is vital—that’s become urgently apparent this year, as people deal with anxiety, illness, and a huge number of pressures, including the trauma of witnessing violent anti-Black racism. Now is the time for organizations both public and private to turn towards the work of antiracism and take the steps that will transform workplaces further.

Our approach needs to become two-pronged.

The first prong is how we improve on the work we’ve done so far. We need long-term goals of shifting the toxicity of workplaces. New training needs to expand beyond individual bias and acknowledge that we live in a white supremacy, a caste system, that privileges white skin and allows violence against Black people. These statements can feel inflammatory to those hearing them for the first time; I try to remind people that the fact we live in a patriarchy used to sound inflammatory, too. Nevertheless, we have come to very widely accept that we do live in a sexist system that privileges male bodies and allows violence against women.

Our anti-racism training needs to also move beyond awareness and acknowledgement to identifying and removing all the scaffolding supporting oppression, marginalization, and aggression alive in our society and our organizations.

We need to learn concrete steps on small and broad scales for doing this work. We need to have a toolkit on hand so that when white people see racism in the workplace, they know effective ways to intervene and undo it—and how to proactively eliminate it, too. Antiracism training needs to be the starting point for taking action.

The second prong is that we need to expressly and concretely support Black people in surviving toxic workplaces as we work for systemic change. We cannot pretend that workplaces are already an antiracist Utopia and expect everyone to thrive in them! We need to acknowledge the gaps between where we are and where we want to be, and allow all employees to thrive.

There has been no special “workplace survival” training for Black employees. The time is now to invest money and resources into helping Black employees with their mental health, to create strong networks of support and be very deliberate in hiring more Black people so no one can be treated as a token. And the bonus is that empowered, well employees will help the first prong’s goal of shifting the whole culture much faster.

What could this explicit antiracism in the workplace possibly look like? One heartening example of an organization making a deliberate effort to support Black people in a meaningful way is happening in Halifax, Nova Scotia, right now. Mount Saint Vincent University is hiring four Black scholars at once. This isn’t just a reactionary, tokenistic hire of someone who will be left out in the cold in their new workplace; this is an organization recognizing the need to create big change and set up Black professionals and academics to create meaningful networks and thrive.

To thrive, we all need a healthy ecosystem

There is sometimes pushback when programs and initiatives specifically for Black employees are introduced. If a workplace is predominantly white, why put so many resources into making the environment better for Black people?

The answers are complex, and to explore them, I ask people to contemplate a few more questions:

  • What kind of workplaces do we deserve?
  • What kind of communities are we building?
  • What world are we creating for our children?
  • What’s our legacy?

Because it is affecting all of us, this racism, this inability to get rid of the injustices in our workplaces. If you introduce a toxin to any ecosystem, and you start to see many parts of the ecosystem breaking down. Conversely, when you start to restore an ecosystem, you’ll see all its elements begin to thrive again.

It’s the same with our workplaces. Any toxin—bullying, sexual harassment, racism—threatens the entire ecosystem. The strain of living in a system that upholds inequality and injustice is felt by everyone, even those at the top. The work of rooting out these toxins is not easy, but it is infinitely rewarding, both on an individual and an organizational level. And the vigor, productivity, and innovation that can be achieved in a healthy workplace are limitless.

As anyone who has ever lived through the healing of a toxic workplace will tell you, diminishing any kind of unfairness or toxicity in a workplace makes it long-term better and more productive for everyone. Just as the whole office breathes a sigh of relief when the bully is fired or leaves, and everyone’s work becomes more productive—everyone can work so much better when half of their brainpower is not dedicated to mere survival.

Our next steps

I’m creating programs to support Black people’s workplace wellness in both the public and private sector. I’m running programs where I’m empowering employees in the most challenging workplaces imaginable to create strong, resilient networks, to start changing their work ecosystem to somewhere everyone can thrive. I have so much hope for our progress, that we’ll be able to step into this moment and lead the way into a better future.

What could your next steps be? Where do you want them to lead you?