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How to deal with microaggression in healthcare

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As a nurse, you’re probably used to hearing thoughts from other healthcare professionals or even patients about everything from your skill level to your appearance. Despite how common this is at work, microaggression in healthcare — subtle prejudicial comments or actions — is not appropriate at any workplace.

A recent SurveyMonkey and Fortune magazine study found that many employees agree. 68% of Americans say microaggressions are a serious problem, and 26% are sure they’ve experienced a microaggression at work. Read on for tips on identifying microaggression in healthcare and putting an end to it.

What are microaggressions?

Simply put, a microaggression is a quick statement or action that expresses a negative message about someone. These are often unintentional, but they affect people of all races, genders, orientations, and cultures. Here are some examples you might not have realized were microaggressions:

  • Comments about your career (“You’re too smart to be a nurse.”)
  • Judgments about your body
  • Being addressed unprofessionally
  • Questions about your dating life
  • Conversations implying your age affects your work (“You’re too young/old to understand.”)
  • Demeaning comments about coworkers
  • Someone speaking over you
  • Being told you’re “well-spoken”
  • Someone taking your idea and not crediting you
  • Comments about gender (“I feel like I’m talking to my wife/husband.”)
  • Questions about whether you’re right for your role (“I’d never have known you were a supervisor.”)
  • Jabs about your religion
  • Commands that question your skill (“Get out of the way and let a doctor handle it.”)

Sound familiar? The most common microaggressions noted in the survey were unprofessional behavior, demeaning comments about peers, and someone else taking credit for an idea — and nearly 25% said they’d leave their job because of them.

Microaggression in healthcare often includes many of these examples, and even offhand comments can affect your perception of yourself and others. Fortunately, there are ways to make coworkers, leaders, and even patients and families more aware of their behavior and the biases they harbor.

Preventing microaggression in healthcare

While you’ll never be able to predict (or control) what someone else says, you can choose how you react to it. Here are some suggestions:

Talk about how a statement or behavior made you feel

This won’t always work, especially when talking to a supervisor or someone completely oblivious about how their behavior affected you, but you can sometimes tactfully tell someone they’re out of line.

doctors-nurses-microaggression
  • Dating questions: “I don’t like to discuss my personal life at work, but I understand that romance is always an interesting topic!”
  • Rude comments about a coworker: “I think John could tell you himself if he’s been struggling at work. Maybe you should discuss the problem with him instead of me?”
  • Someone taking your idea: “I’m glad you brought up my idea with George. Next time, can you let me know you’re discussing it first so I can weigh in?”

It’s important to address the microaggression, not the microaggressor. For example, calling someone racist or homophobic will only make the situation worse. Make it clear that you have an issue with what they did or said, not the person themself.

Finally, you can always email a colleague if there isn’t time to say something in the moment (or you don’t know what you should say). This also gives you time to be more diplomatic and make your concerns clear.

Use humor

While you might not want to use the term “mansplaining” in staff meeting if a coworker talks over you, you can be a bit lighthearted when pointing out how you feel. Try something like this: “Brad, I totally get that you were excited to share your idea, and I want to finish sharing mine now.”

Tactful, well-placed humor can often defuse a situation. If someone makes an age-centric comment, fire back with something like, “I’m a regular Doogie Howser,” if appropriate. If someone asks if that’s your real hair, tell them, “I’m not wearing a wig, if that’s what you’re asking.” Carefully toe the line between humor and sarcasm and decide whether it’s right for the situation.

Create a team that supports you

Of course, “mansplaining” can be a derogatory term in its own way. Build a group of friends from both genders who can support each other and speak up when they notice a microaggression. You might have a friend who’ll point out that someone is speaking unprofessionally to you — or maybe you’ll speak up when someone interrupts a coworker’s idea.

This team can also be a support system when something happens and you don’t feel comfortable addressing it head-on.

Use empathy when considering the situation

Part of the reason microaggression is so widespread is that everyone has biases — and most people are unaware that their comments were inappropriate.

Before you get angry or respond in a way you’ll regret, use empathy. Consider the person’s background, age, culture, education level, and other factors. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it does make it easier for you to understand why they acted the way they did.

Report incidents promptly

Your human resources team is there to help you and trained to offer support when you do face microaggression. If you feel comfortable, you can also tell your supervisor about the situation, especially if someone continues to say or do something hurtful.

Many workplaces also offer an anonymous way to report harassment, so look into this option if you don’t feel safe reporting an incident in person or through email.

Microaggression, whether intentional or unintentional, is not appropriate in the workplace. These suggestions can help you protect yourself and others, and they can also make you more aware of your own behaviors that might impact others. Acknowledging that you’ve been hurt — or that you’ve hurt someone else — can help you create a healthier work environment for staff members, patients, and their families.

RELATED: Nurse bullying and harassment and how to prevent it

Have you experienced microaggression in the workplace? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

About the author

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Lindsay Wilcox

Lindsay Wilcox is a healthcare writer and editor with more than 10 years of professional writing experience. When she's not circling typos, she's enjoying fish tacos and hanging out with her family.

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