A toxic environment – at work, school, home, or in the community – can wreak havoc not only on the overall climate and culture, but on an individual’s mental health. Subtle, usually unintentional statements or behaviors, can be hurtful and offensive. Such situations are often described as “drop by drop,” because they cause harm slowly and consistently.
Often, these words or behaviors are usually dispensed by well-intentioned people who are unaware of the hidden messages they’re sending. But to anyone on the receiving end of this communication, slights don’t feel small at all. In fact, negative and hurtful messages can take a serious toll on an individual’s emotional, mental, and spiritual health. As slights build up over time, they also negatively impact the health and culture of the workplace.
Chronic stress from hostile environments causes the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol. As cortisol builds up over time, it compromises health and leads to conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, to name a few. People experiencing slights and exclusion have higher rates of anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, exhaustion, and frequent illnesses. In the workplace, isolation, productivity loss, engagement loss, and high turnover is common. Marginalized communities, including people of color, LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and religious minorities, are all too familiar with these experiences.
Some examples of slights, also called microaggressions, are, “But you don’t look Jewish.” “Where are you really from?” (This is a very different question than, “Where is home for you?”). “I don’t see race.” “That’s so gay.” Or petting someone’s service dog without their permission.
We’ve all likely heard these statements before and possibly have said them. Most people don’t mean any harm, and might not realize that what they’re saying is hurtful, offensive, and “othering.” When we become aware of how our statements and actions affect others, we have the power to catch them before they happen, and create welcome, inclusive environments that are better for everyone.
Ways to take action:
- Be an active bystander. If you notice these types of situations, speak up. Talk with co-workers, students, and supervisors about how to create a climate that is more inclusive. It takes everyone to change the culture.
- Give out positive affirmations often: Small and brief positive interactions make people feel acknowledged, valued, and supported. Be proactive and validate what people say. Examples: “Great job with . . . today!” and “I appreciated the idea you raised in our meeting.”
- Foster an inclusive environment that supports engagement and makes everyone feel welcome. Everyone can do this. Ask how people are doing and really listen to their response. Check in if you know someone is going through a hard time. Get to know people as people – their passions, families, and what’s important to them.