Supporting BIPOC Mental Health: Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace

To create an environment of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, it becomes imperative for leaders and colleagues alike to understand and proactively address these issues.

Written by
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Ariel Landrum
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
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    Imagine entering work each day prepared to contribute your skills, only to encounter subtle comments or actions that consistently undermine and marginalize you. Sadly, this is the harsh reality faced by many BIPOC employees. 

    These subtle acts, known as microaggressions, refer to everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental insults, whether intentional or unintentional. They convey hostility, derogation, or negativity toward individuals and can significantly affect the mental health and sense of belonging of BIPOC employees, especially when combined with other forms of discrimination.

    A recent study found that these experiences lead to decreased job satisfaction, heightened burnout, and a higher likelihood of leaving the workforce. Moreover, organizations that fail to address microaggressions experience lower productivity, decreased employee morale, and higher turnover rates among BIPOC employees. 

    By understanding and actively addressing microaggressions, organizations can foster an inclusive and supportive work environment where employees feel valued, empowered, and able to contribute their best work.

    The impact of microaggressions on BIPOC mental health and work environments

    Microaggressions can often be covert and go unnoticed by those who don't experience them directly. Yet, their effects on mental health, team dynamics, and productivity are profound and far-reaching. Research consistently shows that microaggressions have significant implications for the mental well-being of BIPOC employees and the overall work environment.

    One recent study examining microaggressions found that workplace racial microaggressions were associated with higher stress levels, depression, and anxiety among BIPOC employees. Another study reveals that microaggressions can trigger a decline in long-term mental well-being, mirroring symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Additionally, microaggressions can erode trust, create divisions, and hinder effective communication among team members. Strained relationships can impede collaboration, diminish cooperation, and hinder team performance and cohesion.

    In addition to the psychological and interpersonal effects, microaggressions significantly impact job satisfaction and engagement. According to a study in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, employees who experience microaggressions are less satisfied with their careers, have lower career self-efficacy, and are more likely to consider leaving their jobs.

    Understanding racial battle fatigue

    Racial battle fatigue describes the mental exhaustion experienced by BIPOC individuals due to ongoing exposure to racial microaggressions and systemic racism. It’s a deeply rooted exhaustion that takes a toll on one’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

    One study examining racial battle fatigue found that individuals experiencing this phenomenon face heightened depression, anxiety, and mental well-being. The constant exposure to racial microaggressions and systemic racism becomes overwhelming, leading to chronic fatigue that affects work performance, productivity, and professional engagement.

    Moreover, the effects of racial battle fatigue extend beyond the workplace, impacting personal lives and communities. The constant battle against racial injustice can leave individuals drained, disheartened, and disconnected, profoundly impacting their quality of life, relationships, social interactions, and overall well-being.   

    Recognizing workplace microaggressions and their forms

    Microaggressions come in many forms, and it’s essential to be aware of their diverse manifestations. While the examples we discuss below are important, it’s crucial to recognize that numerous other microaggressions can occur in the workplace. 

    These include: 

    • LGBTQ+ microaggressions 
    • Ableism microaggressions 
    • Age microaggressions 
    • Religious microaggressions 
    • Nationality or ethnicity microaggressions 
    • Socioeconomic microaggressions

    Each microaggression chips away at a person's sense of belonging and reinforces the need to identify and address harmful behaviors. Let’s take a closer look at racial, gender, and intersectional microaggressions.  

    Racial microaggressions

    In the break room at work, a colleague asks an Asian coworker where they're "really" from, implying that the coworker doesn't truly belong and subtly reinforcing feelings of otherness and exclusion.

    During a meeting, someone compliments a Black colleague’s "well-spoken" nature, unknowingly perpetuating a racial undertone. 

    These seemingly innocent remarks are examples of racial microaggressions. They reinforce stereotypes and create an environment where BIPOC employees feel like outsiders, constantly reminded of their differences.

    Gender microaggressions

    Imagine being the only woman in a meeting, sharing an innovative idea that goes unnoticed and disregarded. Moments later, a male colleague echoes the same idea and receives instant praise and recognition.

    Additionally, mundane office tasks like note-taking and cleaning are repeatedly assigned to you, while male counterparts are exempt.  

    These experiences represent gender microaggressions, damaging behaviors that undermine individuals based on gender. Such acts erode a person’s confidence, hinder their professional growth, and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

    Intersectional microaggressions

    Intersectional microaggressions occur when multiple aspects of a person’s identity are targeted simultaneously. 

    For example, a Black woman confidently shares an innovative idea, but her colleagues focus on her box braids instead of acknowledging her work contributions.

    This scenario exemplifies the nature of intersectional microaggressions, where biases intersect and impact an individual based on several aspects of their identity—in this case, race and gender. These layered microaggressions amplify the impact of bias and discrimination, making them particularly harmful.

    Preventing microaggressions in the workplace

    Transforming a workplace into a respectful and empathetic environment is challenging but worthwhile. The first step is to prioritize training and accountability, implementing comprehensive sessions that cover microaggressions, unconscious bias, and cultural competence. 

    Develop clear guidelines and policies that define microaggressions and their consequences. Consistently enforce these policies across all levels of the organization, emphasizing the importance of recognizing, addressing, and preventing microaggressions.

    Establish a supportive and confidential reporting system to prevent microaggressions. Empower employees to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation, and cultivate a culture where everyone's experiences and perspectives are respected and shared. 

    Encourage open discussions on diversity and inclusion, allowing individuals to share their stories, insights, and challenges. By facilitating dialogue, organizations foster empathy, build stronger relationships, and reduce the occurrence of microaggressions.

    Respect and inclusivity must guide all company principles and actions. Employee resource groups or networks can be platforms for sharing experiences, exchanging perspectives, and collaborating on solutions. 

    Regularly measure the effectiveness of prevention strategies through anonymous surveys and feedback sessions to track progress and make necessary adjustments.

    The role of coworkers

    Developing a place where diversity is embraced and celebrated requires an active role on the part of employees. Here's how colleagues can contribute:

    • Practice active listening: Create a space where colleagues feel heard and valued when they share their perspectives and experiences.
    • Challenge biases: Reflect on your own biases and be willing to question assumptions and stereotypes that perpetuate microaggressions.
    • Advocate for colleagues: When you witness a microaggression, stand up for your colleagues by speaking out against the incident, offering support, and amplifying their voices.
    • Foster collaboration: Create an inclusive environment that welcomes diverse perspectives and encourages active participation.
    • Commit to learning: Take the initiative to learn about colleagues’ cultures, identities, and experiences.

    Remember, creating a supportive environment is a collective effort that requires ongoing commitment and open dialogue among colleagues.

    The role of leadership

    Leadership also plays a pivotal role in creating an inclusive and respectful workplace. A leader must set an example for inclusive behavior and accountability. 

    Here are some proactive strategies leaders can implement to address microaggressions:

    • Foster inclusive decision-making
    • Ensure diverse representation in teams and committees
    • Provide opportunities for BIPOC employees to grow and advance
    • Implement mentorship programs for BIPOC employees
    • Encourage diversity in project teams
    • Apply inclusive hiring practices
    • Establish clear and safe reporting procedures for microaggressions.
    • Conduct thorough and unbiased investigations
    • Show support for individuals affected by microaggressions
    • Communicate the company's stance on microaggressions
    • Equip employees with the knowledge and skills

    Through their actions, leaders inspire others to follow suit and create an environment where all employees feel valued, empowered, and able to contribute. 

    The role of HR

    Promoting change is integral for HR leaders to cultivate an inclusive workplace. As an HR leader, you can shape policies supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Here's how:

    • Spark discussions: Encourage open dialogue about diversity, equity, inclusion, and microaggressions.
    • Develop DEIB training programs: Design programs specifically addressing microaggressions and their impact on BIPOC employees.
    • Create clear rules for handling microaggressions: Establish policies that communicate a zero-tolerance stance on microaggressions.
    • Cultivate a culture of ongoing learning: Keep employees informed about best practices for handling microaggressions and supporting BIPOC employees.
    • Promote employee assistance programs (EAPs): Advocate for comprehensive EAPs, including counseling services and mental health support. 
    • Connect BIPOC employees with culturally-responsive care: Offer resources and information on mental health therapy options that understand the specific cultural backgrounds of BIPOC employees.
    • Advocate for Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Support and facilitate the formation of ERGs where employees with shared identities or backgrounds can share experiences, provide support, and advocate for change together.
    • Integrate mental health initiatives into company policies: Consider implementing mental health days, encouraging employees to take time off when needed to prioritize their mental well-being.

    HR leaders drive meaningful and lasting organizational change. Advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion creates an environment where microaggressions aren’t tolerated, and support for marginalized individuals is prioritized.

    Moving toward a respectful and inclusive future

    Microaggressions, although often subtle and unintentional, have an extensive impact on the mental health and sense of belonging of BIPOC employees. Recognizing the diverse forms and significant implications of microaggressions is crucial in our journey toward more inclusive workplaces. This endeavor requires active participation and a culture built on respect, empathy, and understanding.

    Remember, change is an ongoing process that demands continuous learning, growth, and commitment. By equipping your organization with a range of initiatives, you can collectively help build a workplace that acknowledges diversity and instills a sense of belonging. 

    In doing so, you create a fair and inclusive setting where employees can flourish and reach their full potential.

    Learn how to help BIPOC employees navigate their unique experiences in the workplace and avoid burnout while creating a more inclusive culture.

    About the Author
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    Ariel Landrum
    Spring Health Provider

    Ariel Landrum is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Art Therapist. She is a proud Cebuano Filipino American currently practicing teletherapy out of California. Ariel is a self-identified "geek therapist" who uses her client's passions and fandoms to create connections, strengthen identification, and support their individuality. She specializes in working with military members and their families, the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and survivors of sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse.

    About the clinical reviewer
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