Workplace ‘isms’ and Their Effects on Mental Health

Haymme Marin
·4 mins read
Workplace ‘isms’ and Their Effects on Mental Health
Workplace ‘isms’ and Their Effects on Mental Health

01 Discrimination based on factors like race, sexual orientation and age is measurably harmful to our mental health.

02 When people are treated unjustly, their self-esteem takes a hit, and they are a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders.

03 In order for things to change, employers must take action to address discrimination in the workplace.

The Cut recently published an article titled, “Racism at My Job Literally Gave Me PTSD.” In it we learn how the repeated bad experiences of a Black attorney created a feeling of insecurity and distrust of her white bosses. After discussing it with her therapist, she was told she was likely suffering from workplace post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Oftentimes PTSD is considered a condition that only affects veterans of war, when in reality, PTSD can occur in people of any background, age or culture. 

When BIPOC experience racism it is considered racial trauma. It can result from workplace discrimination as well as an accumulation of small occurrences — such as racial profiling and microaggressions — and some not so small, like the pay and benefits received, the projects that are assigned or how work is being judged and rewarded.

PTSD can occur in people of any background, age or culture.

In addition to PTSD, racial trauma can also cause anxiety and depression. The latter being the most commonly reported condition across BIPOC. Repeated racial trauma can also impact a person’s self-esteem and lead to imposter syndrome, which psychologists have recognized as a potential precursor to mental health issues. 

This feeling of not belonging or being a fraud affects a large percentage of the population, but for BIPOC, it could reinforce some of the emotions racial trauma evoke: a feeling of otherness, hyper awareness of being different and not being good enough, not only at work, but in every aspect of life.

The Effects of Racism at Work

A look at the personal impact that racism has on emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Women who experienced sexism were 3x more likely to suffer from depression.

University College London

Racial trauma in the workplace is only one of several types of discrimination that can affect a person’s mental health. A 2019 study by University College London found that women who experience sexism were three times more likely to suffer from depression. 

Gender discrimination in the workplace can be the wage gap between women and men in the same role. On average, according to census data, women earn roughly $.86 for every dollar a man earns. This number is lower for BIPOC. 

Sexism in the workplace could also mean not getting hired, being denied a promotion, getting pushed out of a job due to pregnancy, sexual harassment or being insulted or called a name based solely on sex or gender identity. A Pew Research Center survey from 2017 found 42% of US women have experienced some form of gender discrimination, versus 22% of US men. 

Sexism In The Workplace Isn’t Dead — We Checked

Fast Company hit the streets of NYC to hear about stories of sexism in the workplace — directly from the women who’ve experienced them.

Age discrimination is also associated with “higher psychological distress and lower positive well-being” according to a 2007 study. This same study also found that women’s mental health was more negatively impacted than mens. 

In the US it is illegal to discriminate against someone in employment based on their age if they are 40 or older, but it still happens; so much so, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 15,000 reports in 2019.

Some signs of ageism at work include but are not limited to hiring practices, being passed up for projects or promotions, being pushed to retire or getting harassed based solely on age. Mental health isn’t the only thing being affected by ageism. Becca Levy, PhD, assistant professor of public health at Yale University conducted a study of persons 50 years and older and found that those with positive perceptions of aging lived 7.6 years longer than those with negative perceptions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Poor mental health and stress in the workplace can have negative effects on job performance and productivity, engagement with one’s work, communication with coworkers, physical capability and daily functioning.” 

Actions businesses can take to address discrimination:

  1. Acknowledge that these types of discrimination exist in the workplace.

  2. Address each incident with empathy and without judgement.

  3. Provide a space for employees to openly discuss these issues without fear of retaliation.

  4. Create awareness surrounding the effects these types of discrimination can have on mental health and provide support.

  5. Change hiring practices if the company isn’t as diverse in gender, age and race as it should be. This also applies to equal pay for employees.

  6. If the staff is diverse, ensure management reflects that diversity.


This is a unique moment in time where we are all being given the opportunity to stop and listen to what needs to change in the world. We should take advantage of it.