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July 12, 2022

A Quiet Threat: Workplace Discrimination and Depression

6 minute read

Workplace Wellbeing

Written by

Jess Maynard avatar

Jess Maynard

6-minute read

Alarmingly high rates of workplace discrimination are leading to depression

Despite growing awareness of the importance of DEIB, 61% of employees have either witnessed or experienced discrimination in the workplace based on age, race, ethnicity, gender, and/or LGBTQIA+ identity. 

With the 24-hour news cycle and onslaught of headlines about discrimination, it’s easy to gloss over the daily, lived reality of those numbers. 

I encourage you to take a moment to seriously consider the personal pain buried within these statistics, and how common it is for your employees to experience daily assaults on their well-being and mental health.

The well-established link between discrimination and depression

When employees face discrimination at work, there’s not only the one-off emotional cost of a specific incident or set of dynamics. It can also lead to:

  • Clinical depression
  • Disengagement
  • Lower productivity
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Dehumanization
  • Quitting
  • Other negative physical and mental health outcomes

There are many studies showing that discrimination in the workplace is widespread, and there’s a clear link between experiencing discrimination and depression. 

A large, peer-reviewed study published in the National Library of Medicine confirms that “exposure to workplace discrimination has similarly been found to harm mental health from diminished psychological wellbeing, increased risk of psychological distress, and pronounced depressive symptoms.”

Vickie Mays, a UCLA professor in the public health department, weighs in with her research assessment: “We now have decades of research showing that when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly, or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.”

The heavy toll of workplace discrimination on marginalized communities

Although any employee can be treated poorly at work, discrimination doesn’t affect all employees the same way. For example, BIPOC employees:

  • Deal more often with discrimination related to their race or ethnicity, especially when they are queer
  • Experience discrimination overall more frequently than other employees
  • Have a higher chance of depressive symptoms due to discrimination

Women who experience gender discrimination in the workplace also have higher odds of depressive symptoms, while women of color experience discrimination based on race and gender simultaneously, which plays out in unique ways.

Connections between identity, workplace discrimination, and depression

Identities that are frequent targets of workplace discrimination include:

  • Race
  • Gender 
  • Gender identity
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Immigration status
  • Sexuality
  • Economic status

We’re all complex beings, and people may inhabit multiple identities at once or fluidly shift amongst identities throughout life. 

But some of us live with identities that have long been marginalized, affecting our daily lives in the workplace and our experience in the world. It’s essential for companies and organizations to acknowledge that. 

Becoming the vanguard of anti-discrimination in your workplace

As a People leader, it may seem easier not to rock the boat, allowing microaggressions to go unacknowledged and letting it slide when managers “joke around” about race or women’s bodies

But workplace discrimination is both a moral and financial issue that businesses and organizations must face. 

Any employee who feels like their company doesn’t care about discrimination will eventually seek another job where their humanity and wellbeing are respected and valued. 

This is one of several solid business reasons for addressing discrimination at all levels of your organization:

  • Lowering employee depression that stems from discrimination
  • Moral issue: standing on the right side of history
  • Reduced employee attrition rates
  • Higher employee engagement in the midst of the Hidden Resignation
  • An environment that attracts top talent
  • Culture that foregrounds employee wellbeing is better for everyone

How can People leaders be the change?

The simple answer is that People leaders can fight growing rates of depression in the workplace by using their position to grapple with workplace discrimination. 

The more complex answer is that discrimination is still burgeoning in society at large, so of course it’s translating into the workplace—which means that a multi-faceted approach is necessary to combat such a widespread and complex issue.

A combination of actions at both the individual and policy level are necessary to change a culture of discrimination in the workplace, and the depression that arises from it.

Policy level change

It isn’t the individual employee’s responsibility to change a discriminatory culture. There’s only so much one person can do to push back against discrimination when it’s ingrained in the workplace. 

However, People leaders can take action on the macro or policy level in several areas:

  • Build responsive infrastructures with anonymous reporting mechanisms, treating reports seriously, and investigating and acting swiftly, letting employees at all levels know that reports of discrimination are taken seriously.
  • Follow up with employees who report discrimination. Do they feel like the situation was adequately taken care of? Do they feel supported? 
  • Clearly integrate inclusive values at all levels: into policies, procedures, practices, and incentives that address discrimination and ensure that all employees are held accountable. 
  • Take a vocal stand on both in-house discrimination and wider, society level discrimination. Showing employees that you care about their lives in the wider world improves psychological safety at work and shows awareness that those wider level issues are, of course, also present in the workplace. 
  • Management training. Most workplace dynamics start at the manager or supervisor level. They set the tone, and 98% of managers feel like they need more management training. It’s hard and complicated to manage people! Make sure your managers or supervisors have the tools they need. 
  • Check in with managers, team leaders, and supervisors. Do they feel confident navigating discrimination within their team? Are there ways to support them in creating a culture of well-being for their employees?

Individual actions People leaders can take

In concert with policy changes, there are many ways that People leaders can support employees dealing with discrimination and depression:

  • Use shared decision making
  • Learn about your employees’ individual’s experiences and cultural perspectives
  • Understand that your employees are the experts of their own lives—listen carefully to their needs and desires
  • Seek out opportunities to train you and your staff on cultural responsiveness
  • Foster a culture of psychological safety

Provide your employees with mental health support

Another facet of support that People leaders can provide is a mental healthcare solution with a diverse provider network. 

One of the biggest factors in the success of one’s mental health journey is their level of comfort with their provider. Employees who are experiencing depression need a therapist who truly understands their experiences, background, and culture. 

At Spring Health, 80% of our Care Navigation team identifies as Black, Indiginous, or BIPOC—which is five times the national average—and 47% of our provider network also identifies as BIPOC. 

This has led to 83% of our members sticking with their initial therapist despite having an easy path to switch providers when needed.

People leaders can take a stand for what’s right

Taking a firm stance against discrimination in a company or organization may upset people or ruffle feathers. But the existence of discrimination is far more damaging than bringing it to light and taking action against it. 

It’s scary when there’s a change to the status quo, but business as usual is even more harmful for so many of your employees.

Read this blog next to discover why BIPOC employees are burning out—and what People leaders can do about it.

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About the Author

Jess Maynard avatar

Jess Maynard

Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.