Unconscious bias: How systemic inequality is destroying employee wellbeing
Employee wellbeing is about so much more than free fruit at work and cycle to work schemes. Before we can truly say we’ve invested in wellbeing, we need to tackle unconscious bias and systemic inequality.
What is wellbeing? As an anthropologist, I wouldn’t locate wellbeing purely within the individual; wellbeing is linked to our social and physical environment as well, making it a cultural experience in addition to an individual one.
We’re all constrained by societal norms and values – the groups that we’re aligned to, the friends we know and the family we come from, and the idea we have of ourselves. Wellbeing has to be situated within this web of relationships and experiences.
It’s worth considering that depression in the workplace can be linked to a systemic culture where compliance and a related fear are overly present.
This is why there is a link between unconscious bias and wellbeing. Our unconscious bias is systemic in nature. In other words, it is often representative of our cultural expectations. When you think of a builder, who pops into your mind? Whoever it is, the image that pops into your mind has been shaped by both your culture and your individual experience.
This is also why it’s so important to bring systemic inequality into the light and talk about it. By systemic inequality, I mean that some people in society are privileged because society has been built by them and for them; other people face obstacles in fitting into this world. Regardless of whether those who lack privilege want to fit into this world or not, to survive they often need to.
This is the backdrop against which I’d like to look at wellbeing. Biases inevitably create impingements upon an individual’s ability to be truly self-expressed. This can take the form of being on the receiving end of micro-aggressions from others or the feeling of being an imposter, known as imposter syndrome.
The roots of imposter syndrome
Psychologist Derald Sue defined micro-aggressions as: “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalised experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.” Think of micro-aggressions as Freudian slips that expose the systemic inequality that is coded into all of us.
Imposter syndrome also often is an expression of systemic inequality. For example, someone who feels that they must fit in to whatever is considered the norm in order to survive, will often suffer from imposter syndrome – they feel they have thrived by pretending to be something they are not, and are just waiting to be found out. They feel this individually, but it can also be due to systemic inequality, which leads them to feel that they are in some way lacking.
By correcting systemic inequality in your workplace, you create an environment where wellbeing is more likely.
This is the push and pull of compliance – to fit in, to bend and shape yourself, to yield and to compromise. Sometimes it feels acceptable to go along with something that doesn’t seem entirely aligned with yourself, and you might be able to brush it off.
At its worst, however, it can lead to people having to adopt ideas or values that they are actually uncomfortable with or that deny them the right to just be themselves. Having to yield to somebody or something else can feel like a compromise of one’s own sense of being. This happens consciously and unconsciously, individually and systemically/culturally.
In other words, a person’s wellbeing is often linked to their cultural experience. What are the adverse effects on someone who feels they must be compliant? One of the most common problems is that an individual will start to feel resentment or anger or, very often, sheer exhaustion, which over time can turn into a profoundly depressed state. It’s worth noting that there are a vast number of days lost to productivity in the workplace due to depression and anxiety. It’s worth considering that depression in the workplace can be linked to a systemic culture where compliance and a related fear are overly present.
Tackling systemic inequality head-on
If we truly want people to find their wellbeing, we have to lay bare the structures of systemic inequality, so that we can see where the roots of problems in achieving wellbeing are cultural, and where they are individual.
In a way, this makes wellbeing easier to approach: by correcting systemic inequality in your workplace, you create an environment where wellbeing is more likely.
I’d like to finish with two tips that relate to how you can begin to chip away at systemic inequality, as seen in micro-aggressions and imposter syndrome:
- Look at your policies and procedures, especially around bullying and harassment: think about what you can put into place to prevent micro-aggressions (this might be around training or expectation-setting, as well as consequences).
- Challenge the ‘should’: you can start to chip away at the causes of imposter syndrome by, for example, challenging accepted stereotypes of what kinds of people “should” fill certain roles.
Interested in this topic? Read Diversity at work: the business case for an inclusive culture.
Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of...