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  1. Blog
  2. Microaggressions
  3. September 16, 2020

How Microaggressions Affect Health at Work

In dealing with her toxic work environment, Chelsea began putting on weight, was more tired, and became short-tempered

How Microaggressions Affect Health at Work
Photo courtesy of Retha Ferguson; Illustration by Daniel Stapleton

This article is part of InHerSight's Microaggressions series. Our coverage explores the complexity of discriminatory language and bias and the effects of microaggressions on women’s livelihood and opportunities to advance.

I cannot recall my first incident of microaggressions at work, nor would I have recognized them as such. None of the qualities I had as a hardworking, ambitious young Black woman could overshadow the biased treatment I received from my bosses and even colleagues. Yes, perhaps I was sensitive at times, but when you notice a pattern of behavior directed only at you, you quickly learn that you are “different” or the “other.” 

“Other” is a club that I don’t particularly care for, one I’d rather not be in entirely. The cost of admission is high, often traumatizing, and seeking help is a journey in and of itself, a journey that starts with awareness and can have lasting effects on health. 

The term microaggression was coined in the 1970s and popularized in 2007 after a groundbreaking article, published in The American Psychologist dissected the phenomena. In their research, Dr. Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues noted that for most Black participants, microaggressions occurred within and beyond the workplace, including at stores and on the street. Anecdotally, participants shared the toll the microaggressions took on their health, including weight loss, insomnia, and depression. Later research added more symptoms to that bill: A survey of more than 3,000 Black adults between 2001 and 2003, found a correlation between hypervigilance (anticipatory stress) and hypertension. Microaggressions are real, and though they can take on many forms, they exist as obstacles to one’s potential and pose a serious health risk. 

A few of my own stories of workplace microaggressions include delayed promotions, in title and pay, compared to my white counterpart of similar age and experience. Once, a white male colleague encouraged me not to negotiate my salary even though I was qualified to earn more money. My name, hairstyles, home-cooked lunches, and even my diction were topics of discussion in the workplace. At one company, I created a private Slack group for my colleagues of other ethnicities to air their grievances and talk about microaggressions because they were such regular occurrences. 

Microaggressions in the workplace can exist in so many shapes and forms. Malaika Nicholas, a digital marketer, had horrifying experiences while in a senior role at a small family-owned PR agency: “All in all, my time there wasn’t the lowest points of my professional career, for sure,” she says. At one point, Nicholas, who was the only Black woman on her team and one of two Black women in her company, filtered her ideas and suggestions through her superior, a white man, in order for her voice to be heard, if at all. She was accustomed to being ignored, even though she had more digital marketing experience than most.

Nicholas says her work environment began to take a toll on her health. “I do remember having difficulty falling asleep,” she says “I would replay what happened yesterday or that day. I do remember my diet kind of changed. I felt so exhausted coming home. I didn’t have the energy to make my own dinners anymore. I started ordering out more or sometimes not eating a real meal, sometimes just eating a snack.” 

Read more: 13 Signs of a Toxic Workplace & When It Becomes Illegal

Ultimately, Nicholas turned to therapy for support and found another job after only nine months. She found the professional support helpful in alleviating mental stress versus complaining to her boyfriend. Ironically, her employer was not supportive of her therapy appointments, despite having a workplace health care program. 

In talking with Sophia Barilone, a lawyer based in Baltimore, Maryland, there was an ease to the examples she offered because they are so familiar to me. Her colleagues, however well-meaning or educated, made discriminatory comments about her hairstyles, tone of voice, and intelligence (presumptively based on her skin color). Passing remarks such as, You’re so smart and well-spoken and questions such as Is your hair real? nag at her because such commentary reduces her professionalism and work credentials to her speech and essentially a hairstyle. The association of her command of the English language coupled with her natural curl pattern is in conflict with Eurocentric standards of her profession and, perhaps, majority-white spaces. 

Midway through our conversation, Barilone says this of the legal industry: “There are few Black attorneys and even fewer Black women attorneys.” It’s true. The numbers, as reported per a 2018 diversity survey, indicate that there are women of color, particularly Black women, are severely underrepresented—to the tune of 3 percent.

Looking back, Barilone would’ve considered therapy, but that type of support never crossed her mind. “You just push it back in your mind and keep going” she says. She brings up the oft-mentioned trope of Black women having to be strong, having to endure. 

A common theme when interviewing almost a dozen Black women about their experiences with workplace microaggressions was increased anxiety and second-guessing their contributions. I experienced these issues, as did Cheya Thousand, who worked as a recruiter for a major retailer: “[Microaggressions] led to anxiety over performance and second-guessing my judgment of situations. I contacted the employee resource center and was connected to a therapist; and later left my role altogether as I didn’t feel I could have a fair chance at promotions as a result of the leaders’ behavior and the performance review comment in which I was told I needed to ‘be mindful of my facial expressions. As my facial expressions made me seem unapproachable and angry’.”

One woman whom I connected with was frustrated by the attention paid to her hair rather than her work ethic. “I once had a manager draw the attention of a room full of my colleagues to my hair in a morning meeting,” she says. “One person stated, ‘Omg, everyone look at Fallon’s new hair.’ To which another person replied, ‘That’s her old look you know she changes her hair every week.’ My other colleague, another Black woman, looked mortified (for me). I simply had braids, a common ethnic and protective style.”

Chelsea Jay, a resume writer and career coach, notes that the microinsults, microinvalidations, and microassaults negatively impacted her wellbeing. “For me, the attacks caused stress, anxiety, and depression. My body naturally reacted by putting on extra weight, becoming fatigued, and short tempered. Months later, I began to see the physical and emotional effects, and I began taking steps to dig myself out of my emotional rut.”

When you’re constantly wading through adversity, how do you even dig yourself out, though? Not alone is another consistent narrative.

Jessica Pharm, who has worked in HR since 2014, says she sought out a fitness trainer to help her cope with work bias and a support group, Your Corporate Black Girl, where she could vent her frustrations. 

Industry certified and an MBA, Pharm is also the creator of Blacknessandtheworkplace.com, a members-only platform for people to share their issues without the fear of retaliation. Pharm receives many LinkedIn messages from women dealing microaggressions in corporate America. 

She lists some recurring examples—tone policing in emails and the questioning of skills and education—but admits that microaggressions are tricky to identify and can depend on someone’s sensitivity. She says if you have the resources, look elsewhere for work. “At my last job, I was wearing a rosary to work: ‘Money saved up. I don’t really have to deal with this.’” 

But like Pharm says, not everyone has that option, and the widespread effects of microaggressions are concerning: The major takeaway from connecting with women who’ve dealt with microaggressions is that these seemingly innocent comments and behaviors negatively impact women of color, and particularly Black women. No matter their credentials, the microaggressions were detrimental in health and productivity in and out of work.

Can microaggressions ever go away? What does a workplace with bias and discrimination look like? How can employers intentionally advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion without targeting marginalized communities? These questions are ones that can open conversations and much-needed solutions for a true 21st-century work environment for employers and employees.

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Photo of Ijeoma Nwatu

Ijeoma Nwatu

Contributor

Ijeoma S. Nwatu is a contributing writer at InHerSight, where she writes about women and diversity in the workplace. Her bylines include Esseence.com and HerAgenda.com in addition to past content for the Small Business Administration. When not writing, Ijeoma enjoys reading, traveling, and documentaries.

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