Professional Development

What are microaggressions, and how do they impact mental health in the workplace?

HR pro Tamara Rasberry breaks down an often-overlooked type of mistreatment — and offers suggestions on how to help keep your employees safe.

Having coworkers to confide in can help employees deal with microaggressions in the workplace.

(Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels)

Any employer or manager who is serious about diversity, equity and inclusion  should make understanding microaggressions a priority.

The term “microaggressions” was first coined in the 70s by Dr. Chester Pierce. The concept is rooted in the idea that a lot of well-intentioned white people unconsciously act in racist ways, but don’t want to acknowledge that something that they’ve done has caused a negative impact because they believe that they’re a good person.

Because of that, these kinds of acts — which for the most part are not job termination-level offenses — are often not even discussed. And if it’s not addressed, you could find yourself having difficulty retaining underrepresented employees.

This month’s Most Diverse Work Hub workshop from Technical.ly took on the topic head-on. The virtual session was led by Tamara Rasberry, owner of Rasberry Consulting, an HR consulting firm with a focus on addressing mental health in the workplace and developing HR strategies through a DEI lens.

‘Everyday slights’

Rasberry calls microaggressions “the everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, or insults that people receive based on being a member of a marginalized community.”

Microaggressions send the message that employees from marginalized communities are in some way inferior. Sometimes they convey discomfort in being around that person or surprise that they don’t behave the way the microaggressor expected.

Microaggressions may come in three basic classifications, first proposed in 2007 by Dr. Derald Wing Sue:

  • Microassault — Intentional acts of clear racism such as racial slurs (usually delivered anonymously or as part of a so-called joke) or statements like “You people don’t know how to act”
  • Microinvalidation — The concept of “Alien in your own land,” when people assume that a person is not from the US because of how they look, falls under this category. Examples include “You speak English so well” and asking “Where are you from?” and not accepting an answer like “Trenton”
  • Microinsult — For example, “You’re one of the good ones” or “She’s smarter than I thought she’d be” come from an assumption that some groups are less intelligent or less good, in some way, than others based on race

Aside from the microassault, which may be recognized as racist by employers, microaggressions often go ignored. And that often happens Rasberry said, because of what she calls denial of individual racism.

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“Denial of individual racism is along the lines of, ‘I’m not racist because I have Black friends,’ or, if you share your experience with someone, they’ll say, ‘Are you sure that happened? Did that really happen that way? I’m sure you took it the wrong way,’” she said.

For example, we’ve all heard a variation of someone walking into an interview and assuming that the Black woman was the receptionist when she was actually the president. It could be a completely innocent mistake, but if more energy is spent on excusing it as innocent and completely unrelated to race instead of on the impact on the Black woman dealing with frequent assumptions that the president couldn’t be someone who looks like her, that prioritizes the feelings of the person who caused harm.

Other common microaggressions include:

  • “She only got the promotion because she’s Black”
  • “You should move to a better neighborhood”
  • “Is that your real hair?”
  • “Can you bring me a coffee?” (You didn’t offer, it’s not your job and the asker doesn’t ask white coworkers)
  • “Do your [AAVE] voice”
  • “You’re the least scary Black man I know!”
  • “Who knew there were Black neuroscientists?”
  • “One of my college roommates was Black, and she didn’t mind when I did this”
  • “Some of us had to work hard to get into college”
  • “Wow, you’re so interesting! I’m just a boring white person”
  • “Lock up your daughters!” (You’ve done nothing to earn that reputation and are just walking back from lunch)
  • “You’re pretty for a Black girl”
  • “I’m not racist, but …”

And yes, some harmful racial microaggressions might sound complimentary, or could be chalked up to innocent curiosity or even just saying something without thinking. Microaggressions often fit a pattern: Comments about hair, “bad” neighborhoods and unearned opportunities are a common experience for Black employees in business settings, regardless of region or industry — not isolated incidents.

More microaggressions, more turnover

Rasberry’s workshop focused on race, but she noted that it’s important to recognize that some people who deal with racial microaggressions may also have other identities as well, such as being a woman, being queer, having a disability or being neurodivergent, and they may face even more racial microaggressions because of it.

“According to the World Economic Forum, 36% of Black women who experienced microaggressions within the workplace are more likely to quit their jobs within two years,” Rasberry said. “A lot of the research shows that black women specifically experience much higher rates of racial microaggressions in the workplace” than other underrepresented people.

The mental toll of microaggressions

Any employer, manager or people ops professional should care about more than turnover when it comes to issues like microaggressions — they should also care about their teams’ mental health.

“I’m not talking about mental illness,” Rasberry said. “I’m talking about general mental health overall. However, experiencing racial microaggressions indefinitely can lead to someone having a diagnosable mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. Because experiencing them everyday adds to their negative mental health. And, of course, if you already live with mental illness, experiencing microaggressions at work can exacerbate it.”

Two things that can increase the likelihood that a person may experience poor mental health, she said, are discrimination and exposure to trauma. Microaggressions not only potentially lead to poor mental health, they can also require significant cognitive and emotional resources to recover from.

“Not only are you experiencing the anxiety, the depression, the burnout, withdrawal, you’re also having to give additional emotional and mental resources to try to overcome those concerns so that you can continue to go on with your life,” Rasberry said. “It makes you not be as motivated, makes you anti-social — and then the conversation becomes, ‘Well, they’re not right for this opportunity. They’re not right for this promotion,’ because they’re all these things and they weren’t those things before. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Is remote work a solution?

Maybe, but not totally.

“Over the last couple of years since the COVID pandemic started, a lot more Black employees have had the opportunity to work remotely, and in some ways that has been really significantly positive experience because you’re not dealing those day-to-day, very in-your-face types of microaggressions,” Raspberry said. “But there are still things that can be microaggressions that you experience virtually.”

Some of those virtual microaggressions include asking things like “Should I be worried about you getting shot?” during a Zoom call, and not giving the employee a chance to talk in the virtual meeting.

“I hear a lot of people saying like they want to work remotely so they don’t have to experience these types of things,” she said. “But you should really know that you can definitely still experience some types of regressions even when you know that you have an understanding of what microaggressions are in the workplace.”

How should leaders address microaggressions?

Microaggressions are influenced by issues that are beyond the scope of a company leader — systemic things like housing and school segregation, stereotypes in media, and lack of social and historical education. But just because you’re not likely to eradicate them altogether by yourself doesn’t mean you can’t help make your workplace safer for marginalized employees.

Conscious steps to take include:

  • Gain an awareness and understanding of bias, including your own
  • Include addressing microaggressions in your policies and procedures
  • Provide training to employees on what microaggressions are
  • Lead by example by being intentional about not making microaggressions
  • Inform staff that microaggressions are unacceptable behavior, and set reasonable consequences if reported
  • If you haven’t already done so, develop an inclusive culture, so when someone does experience a microaggression at work, they can feel comfortable talking to someone
  • Allow marginalized employees to have a space to discuss their experiences among themselves (say, employee resource groups)
  • Talk to marginalized employees so that you have an awareness of any issues that may need addressing
  • Offer self-care and coping strategies, and allow employees to use their own coping strategies when needed

Watch the full workshop here:

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