Are mental health problems at work caused by our unconscious bias?

A lot of business leaders and managers are talking about mental health at work, which is great because it raises awareness of this important topic.

But, not so many people are talking about how ‘they’ are often the main cause of mental illness and distress in the workplace.

Think about it. Who impacts the wellbeing of people at work? The boss!

A stressed-out manager will almost certainly result in a stressed-out team. A boss who can’t recognise an employee who is close to melt-down will almost certainly cause a melt-down.

The big questions is, do leaders and managers consciously behave in a way that negatively impacts on the wellbeing of employees, or do they cause mayhem in complete ignorant bliss?

Unconscious bias plays a big part

The reality is, our attitudes and behaviour towards other people can be influenced as much by our instinctive feelings as by our rational thought process. In fact, our brains and minds are highly developed organs that rely almost entirely on unconscious decisions.

Imagine if you had to consciously process every step of your journey to work each day. Your conscious mind would be faced with a massive task, with hundreds of decisions to make. It would collapse under the strain. Instead, our brain uses the unconscious part to get us to work. Autopilot, some would say.

Take a look at the picture below. Very quickly, think about five words or thoughts that come into your mind while looking at the image below.

head-illusion

Your unconscious bias is a work. Some people will instantly think ‘dislike’ when they see the photo because they hate coffee. Some people will immediately think positive thoughts, associating the image with their favourite brew.

I often use this image when delivering our Unconscious Bias for Leadership course. It always amazes me at some of the things people come up with when they see the image.

We categorise people too

We instinctively categorise people and things around us using rapidly observed information, just like with the coffee image. Facial expressions, movement, skin colour, hand gestures are all observed rapidly by the unconscious mind. We judge people unconsciously because it frees up the brain to get on with other things.

However, the impact of this biological method of conscious versus unconscious processing can get us into all sorts of trouble. Our behaviour, which is largely driven by our unconscious mind, can lead to perceived discrimination. It can lead to unfair treatment of employees, and it can result in mental distress too. It can result in frustrations and negativity amongst our teams, and it can lead to low productivity and low morale. And, all of this is done without the manager even realising it!

What is the answer?

Thankfully, we can avoid unconscious bias.

There are lots of tests and exercises that can help people to uncover their unconscious biases, thereby reducing the impact on their teams.

Understanding people’s feelings is a critical skill in today’s workplace. Leaders and managers need to acquire this skill. How do your employees really feel towards the demands being placed upon them? Are they engaged. or are they just saying they are engaged? Are they motivated, or are they just telling you what they think you want to hear, all the while thinking, what a prat!

Managers let deadlines, they allocate resources and they give out work. But do they do these things in the full knowledge of how they are being perceived by their employees? Or, is their unconscious bias so strong that they press on regardless, without realising their teams are close to braking point?

Project Implicit

Amazing research is being done at Harvard University on the subject of unconscious bias. They have a few fantastic questionnaires that you can try, to find out if you have unconscious biases.

Coffee beans and coffee faces

By the way, did you see the face in the coffee beans? If not, perhaps one side of your brain is working more than the other. Bliss!

Let me know if you have any thoughts or experiences of ‘unconscious bias’.

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