Let's say your colleague shows up for your Zoom meeting crying. When you ask what's wrong, they share that they're having a tough time balancing the demands of work with three young children at home, caregiving for aging parents, and dealing with a spouse who travels constantly for work.
So, what does this colleague look like? Did you picture a woman?
If so, you're not alone. Like so many of us, you may have some implicit gender bias about things like who's more likely to cry at work, who takes care of young children, or who is a caregiver for aging parents.
Gender bias is the tendency to associate certain traits with one gender over another. Sometimes, this means favoring one gender over the other. And gender bias is just one of many biases that we need to be aware of--and work on--to support our colleagues during stressful times.
But let me start with some good news if you're struggling with the assumptions you made: If you have a brain, you have bias. We tend to think of bias as a bad thing, but it isn't always.
Bias is a natural byproduct of the way our brains work. Biases help us categorize objects so that we can quickly determine what's safe and what isn't. Biases help us make decisions more easily so that we don't have to tap into our cognitive bandwidth every time we decide something. A bias toward eating more vegetables and less dessert is a healthy bias, for example.
For most of us, starting at a young age, we start to discriminate between those who are like us--the "ingroup"--and those who are not like us--the "outgroup." Recognizing our ingroup can help us develop our sense of identity, belonging, security, and safety-- but it can also lead to harmful prejudices.
As researcher Jennifer Eberhardt explains in her book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, "at its root, bias is not an affliction that can be cured or banished. It's a human condition that we have to understand and deal with."
So, let's look at some biases we should all be aware of, especially when creating a climate of openness and trust for our colleagues who are experiencing stress.
Be Aware of Discrimination and Its Effects
Chances are, you're working with colleagues who are part of marginalized populations, which are groups that may experience discrimination because of unequal power relationships across economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions. Here are just a few:
- LGBTQIA+ professionals
- Senior citizens
- Racial/cultural minorities
- Military combat veterans
- People with physical disabilities
- People with mental illness, including substance abuse and other addiction disorders
- People on the autism spectrum
Of course, your colleague doesn't have to identify with one of these categories to be subject to discrimination. Perceived discrimination consistently has been shown to be associated with diminished mental health, and even the anticipation of discrimination can lead to higher stress levels. Constantly feeling on edge or unsure about how you'll be treated can trigger a long-standing stress response.
Whether it's related to ethnicity, sexual orientation, or beliefs, feeling undervalued and uncertain about the future directly impacts mental health now and in the future.
Learn About Stereotypes and Microagressions
So what can we do about discrimination issues? We need to be mindful of our own stereotypes and microaggressions. Stereotypes are oversimplified ideas about a particular type of person or a group of people.
So, if you're speaking with a woman about her stress, make sure you don't assume that she's the primary caregiver at home. If you're speaking with a colleague with a disability about their stress, don't assume that their stress is related to his disability.
And what about microaggressions? According to Columbia University's Derald Wing Sue, "microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership."
So, if you're speaking with a non-native English speaker about stress, don't "compliment them" for being able to speak so clearly or fluently. If you're speaking with a non-binary colleague about their stress, don't say, "I can't keep up with your latest pronouns."
Finally, we shouldn't assume that the stress a colleague of ours is experiencing right now is about their marginalized group experience. And we also shouldn't assume that it isn't. There's more about other people's experiences, cultures, and backgrounds than we can ever truly understand. So be thoughtful, careful, compassionate, and open to feedback about how you're speaking and showing up for everyone -- equitably.