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Could tackling unconscious bias reduce mental ill-health in the workplace?

5 Apr 2019 By Paula Whelan

Unintended micro-behaviours towards minority groups can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and even mental health issues, argues Paula Whelan

Employees’ mental health and wellbeing is as important as their physical health and wellbeing. MIND suggests that one in six employees experience common mental health issues including anxiety and depression, with work being the biggest cause of stress. Evidence suggests that women are more likely to have a common mental health problem and almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety.

But could mental health in the workplace be improved if unconscious bias was highlighted and addressed?

Unconscious biases are our unintentional people preferences, influenced by our backgrounds and experiences. They affect attitudes, perceptions and behaviours and inevitably impact on our everyday interactions. 

As a result of these biases, we categorise people into ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’, not only on visual similarities but also on factors such as accent, level of education and religion. We make more effort for those in our in-group, whom we view as individuals, than for members of an out-group, who we usually regard as ‘all the same’.

Within many sectors, women are still significantly underrepresented. This is exaggerated at senior level and even more evident for BAME women and those with disabilities. Unfortunately, stereotypes and assumptions about women in terms of their skills, abilities and potential in the workplace remain. Some of these biases are conscious, many will be unconscious, but either way this invisibility or marginalisation can have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. 

In male-dominated workplaces, women will be unconsciously placed in out-groups, increasing their sense of isolation. Not only that, but gender bias – a preference for one gender over another – combined with affinity bias – an unconscious preference for people who share qualities with you or someone you like – significantly influence how women are perceived and engaged with. They negatively impact on women in terms of recruitment or promotion, performance reviews, levels of bonuses and pay, inclusion in decision-making or participation in meetings, etc.

Unconscious bias can often show up in our micro-behaviours, the subtleties in our body language or choice of words, for example, that show how we regard those around us. Micro-behaviours can have an enormous impact on whether people feel valued and included in a team, group or organisation, or whether they feel excluded and unappreciated.

Have you ever been constantly interrupted during meetings or discussions with colleagues, gone to a meeting where you were the only one not introduced or had your ideas ignored or dismissed only for the same idea to be accepted when put forward by a colleague? These are just a few examples of behaviours that are faced by people in out-groups in the workplace.

An accumulation of these micro-behaviours can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and eventually even mental health issues.

It is important that we are all aware of our micro-behaviours and unintentional biases; by merely raising awareness, we can begin to mitigate the effects.

So how can we guard against these biases in the workplace?

  • Develop self-awareness – are our own biases impacting on how we view ourselves in the workplace? Do we stop ourselves from going for that promotion because of our own judgements and assumptions? Why not take the Harvard Implicitly Association Test to get a better understanding of your own biases?   

  • Speak out – if you are on the receiving end of/observe negative micro-behaviours it’s important to speak out. Unconscious biases are just that – unconscious – individuals often aren’t even aware of their behaviour, never mind the impact it’s having. (If you don’t want to tackle the problem head-on, talk to a manager or HR representative)

  • Build a support network – being isolated in the workplace can severely impact on our mental health, and this can be further compounded if you are on the receiving end of toxic micro-behaviours. It is important to actively seek out people in your workplace who are positive and supportive

  • Manage stresses and triggers – if you know what these are you can begin to identify how to reduce and manage them effectively. It is important to develop a good work/life balance, so begin by reflecting on where the current balance is and what you can do to get a balance that works best for you


Paula Whelan is head of diversity and inclusion at training solutions provider RightTrack Learning

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