Unconscious bias by name and by nature – especially around mental health

Woman looking downUnconscious bias – a bias that those that demonstrate it through their words and actions, are quite often blissfully unaware of.

For every conscious bias we hold, there are many multitudes more unconscious, illogical, hidden beliefs and assumptions whispering to us in our every waking moment. And when we come to the area of mental health, these become even more acute.  In fact, this area is one in which it’s almost impossible to discuss the difference between conscious and unconscious bias. And both can do significant damage, not only to the individual concerned, but also potentially to your organisation.

The statistics show that we probably all work with someone experiencing a mental health problem. In any one year, one in four of us will experience some type of mental health issue – some mild, some less so.  With the pressures upon us mounting daily, the reality is that anyone of us can have a period of time when depression, anxiety or a combination of both may impact us.

Hidden bias about people who suffer with mental illnesses, such as “These people are flaky, weak or cannot be trusted with key projects or clients” may be about the very people you are limiting the career of by assuming they cannot cope. Perhaps the very people with the key idea that will ensure success for your business. Where would be now without Steve Jobs who suffered with obsessive compulsive personality disorder? Or Winston Churchill who referred to his “black dog” and the view that it played a major role in World War II – where it was claimed that it was only a recurrent episode of depression that allowed him to realistically assess the threat of Germany.

Allowing your bias to assume that someone with a known mental health issue cannot function at work is akin to assuming a wheelchair user cannot travel.  Look around you now, if you can see around 8 people it is likely that 2 of them have mental health issues, and even more likely that they are keeping it to themselves.  And is it any wonder, with the comments, jokes and career damaging decisions that might happen if word got out.

We must create workplaces where we accept human frailty and not condemn others simply because they have, at this point in time, a health issue of any sort.

As part of our training workshops designed to create inclusion for all groups, we often ask leaders to explore their vulnerability.  The reason for this is if I can admit and understand where I feel most vulnerable, I can better connect and support those around me that may simply be experiencing vulnerability in a different way.

So what should organisations practically do?

Firstly, there must be some acknowledgement that bias exists; raising awareness and starting conversations is the first step to preventing discrimination and offering a truly inclusive environment for everyone to have the space to be themselves.

Secondly, sharing some of the statistics mentioned here in a non-judgmental way, reminding your team, and yourself that someone experiencing this is likely to be sitting not so very far away from where you are right now.

Thirdly, discover more about the issues, offer great workshops and resources designed to reduce the stigma.

Fourthly, discourage any jokes, comments or stereotypical judgements around mental health. Actively doing this creates a safe space for those needing support to get through a tough time to openly approach you.

Finally, when a colleague or team members does approach you, remember – no assumptions.  Deal with that colleague in the same way you would with anyone sharing the fact that they are ill with you.  Support, listen and ask how they want you to help.

Reducing unconscious bias around mental health must be addressed.  We cannot ignore a subject that is so prevalent in our workplaces, any more than we can ignore our bias against it.


Angela Peacock is the dynamic Chair of the People Development Team, an award-winning global training organisation, specialising in leading-edge virtual delivery.