How Microaggressions Impact Mental Health

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Anyone can experience micro-aggressions at work. Despite the name, they can damage mental health. How can we manage our staff in a way that halts this habit?
November 4, 2022
Inclusive Futures

A recent study by Future Forumpulled up a stark statistic. When asked whether they felt they were treated fairly at work, 74% of white workers answered 'yes' - but only 53% of Black workers said the same.

Another Future Forum study revealed that 81% of Black workers wanted the flexibility to work from home. Alongside work-life balance, their key motivation was to free themselves from casual workplace racism.

Unfortunately, racism, sexism, ageism and other forms of discrimination still linger in the world of work. Microaggressions can be a very subtle thing and slip under the radar of many - even the perpetrators.

In the context of the ongoing Great Attrition, addressing this latent workplace hostility isn't just the right thing to do, it could give companies a boost when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.

Watch our Future of Work Conversations episode featuring Nadia Riepenhausen and Reshma Ramachandran, Group SVP and Head of Transformation at the Adecco Group as they discuss microaggressions and their impact on mental health.

What is a micro-aggression?

A micro-aggression is any behaviour that conveys derogatory or hostile connotations towards a group of people - intentionally or accidentally. In the workplace, it's most commonly in the form of superficial chatter or banter.

While often not intended to be offensive, these comments thoughtlessly create a sense of 'otherness' in the person they're directed at. This can lead to a sense of exclusion, isolation and alienation. 

Nadia Riepenhausen, Senior Communications Manager, Digital and IT for The Adecco Group, explains that "the term micro-aggression, just by its very nature, implies something that is subtle, but its impact is felt." For example, someone once asked her: “Are you allowed to go to work with your hair like that?” (You can read her full piece here).

It’s ostensibly banter and not overtly racist but it’s immediately singled her out as different. It alludes to her 'exoticness' and physical attributes, both things that have nothing to do with her job or her ability to work.

Black first, co-worker second

Micro-aggressions can be very hard to call out because, individually, they may seem innocuous. Nadia recalls such innocuous comments earlier in her career: "How does a Zimbabwean get to Switzerland and work in a Swiss bank?" Her response was: "I swam and ran here through the desert."

But humour as a defence mechanism shouldn't be necessary in the workplace. Plus, it can only work for so long before, unchecked, a micro-aggressive workplace makes victims feel diminished and, as Riepenhausen puts it, "play small at work."

In his recent State of Mind blog for, Leron Barton commented: "I have always been a Black person before any title, and the office space never let me forget that."

So what can be done about it?

How to tackle microaggressions in the workplace

Mind your language 

Micro-aggression is often verbal - and often the result of a lack of thought. For example: ‘Blacklist’ and ‘Whitelist’ are expressions with their roots in the slavery age.

Telling someone to 'man up’ suggests that strength only equates to one gender. On top of that, it can be a symptom of toxic masculinity, too.

It might seem like the epitome of micro-management, but encouraging more thoughtful language at work can have a significant positive influence on team dynamics and company culture. Of course, this will not happen overnight. It will require consistency and time.

Call it out

Timing and context will influence how you should best react to any micro-aggressions you spot among staff.

Remember the comment about Abdul not minding the heat? How might you manage this? A light touch response could be: "Well, as Abdul lives here that’s not really relevant, is it? I think the heat is affecting us all just the same."This might be seen as stamping on banter - but it's actually stamping on inappropriate comments and signalling that they are not welcome.

Call them in

After the meeting, it might be useful to pull the micro-aggressor to one side and communicate your thinking. Phrasing it in ways such as: "I’d like to give you a bit of context for my response to your comment earlier. You probably didn't mean it this way, but that’s a classic micro-aggression and I think it would be helpful for you to know."Once there is an understanding there may be a genuine apology. Better, there may be more thought before making similar comments next time.

Workshops on micro-aggression can shift perception and will back up the manager who must make these interventions - and they must.

Reciprocally, workers should be encouraged to open up to their managers about their situation and sensibilities. Nadia started at The Adecco Group at a difficult time in her life, and she felt comfortable enough to open up about those circumstances to her manager. This was a meaningful experience for her. "I felt like I could show up as myself and feel somewhat empowered," she recalls. "That's not to say that the micro-aggressions don't still happen, but I found my confidence and my voice again."

Here are some classic micro-aggression that managers should look out for: 

To a woman: "I expect you want to get away early for the kids."

To a person of a different nationality: "Your English is so good! Where did you learn?"

To an Indian/Chinese person: "You're probably a real tea connoisseur, right?"

To an older employee: "Don't worry, it's almost time to put your feet up."

Micro-aggressions can be perceived as just that - small, harmless pokes. But their cumulative effect should not be underestimated. A National Library of Medicine study proved a micro-aggressive environment damages sleep - and even promotes a preoccupation with suicide. 

None of this is small. The Adecco Group's Global Workforce of the Future Report 2022 reveals that 24% of the global workforce have seen their mental health worsen over the past year. On top of that, 55% do not think highly of how their employer is tackling mental health issues. So would they like to see? 40% expect their employer to create a culture of trust where employees can truly be themselves, and 36% of workers want their company to promote an environment of inclusivity and belonging. 

Addressing micro-aggressions might seem like a small step in a long journey, but just like their negative impact can often be downplayed, so can the positive impact of eliminating them. If a little goes a long way, let's take on something as big as micro-aggressions.

Listen to our Future of Work episode on Microaggressions below.