Can being marginalized or discriminated at work have a mental health impact?

Marginalization is a systemic problem that can occur in any setting, even in workplaces. Its mental health impacts are many, and can be effectively managed at the workplace.

What is marginalization? How does it occur?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, marginalization is “the treatment of a person, group or concept as insignificant or peripheral.” It can isolate, traumatize and lower the person’s self-esteem and self-worth.

Madhumitha Venkataraman, a diversity and inclusion evangelist who herself has a disability, and is a member of Diversity Dialogues, a collective representing multiple affinity groups working on inclusion, says we must recognize that marginalized groups exist everywhere, but most spaces cater to the majoritarian group as it’s convenient. This makes it hard for marginalized groups to find their voice.

Some aspects that create marginalization are:

  • Majority: Gives no voice and space to the minority

  • Personal beliefs: On who is superior and who is inferior (caste, religion)

  • Hierarchy: Access and privileges due to seniority

There are two ways in which marginalization plays out in the workplace. One, it plays out due to underrepresentation, which means that in cases where there are very few people from a certain caste, gender, religion, educational qualification, ethnicity or identity, the chances of them being marginalized by any other majority group is much higher. And two, it plays out as a hierarchy that is based on importance and superiority. For instance, people from a certain caste, higher educational qualification or a higher income society get a higher pay for the same role as any others, thus marginalizing those who do not belong to these categories.

Ruchita Chandrashekar, a Chicago-based psychologist who explores marginalization and its impact says, “Marginalization is a process of discrimination where an individual or a group of individuals is underserved in comparison to the others. It's exploitation. For instance, women being paid less than men for the same amount of work, the transpersons not receiving employment opportunities that match their training and expertise, assuming poor competency of Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi individuals and thereby costing them opportunities and remuneration, or not considering them for promotions. These practices are still prevalent, especially in upper class workspaces and often in our own homes, where househelps are not paid reasonable wages or given any days off.”

Aliyah (name changed), a counseling psychologist who worked at a sexual and gender-based violence clinic, shares her workplace experience, "Some managers were keen on bringing psychologists on board, so that people can vent out and discuss their personal problems. But when the managers changed, the system also changed. And, even in that space, although there were people who were working towards mental health and they themselves were counselors, the stigma around mental health was very high."

Aliyah who was diagnosed with depression and also identifies as queer says, “It was opening up about my depression that caused marginalization. When I told a few colleagues, their first reaction was, how can you be a counselor and be depressed? They would immediately question my ability, and check if it is affecting my work in any way."

The problem, and the impact of marginalization
Divya Kandukuri, founder of The Blue Dawn mental healthcare group and a freelance journalist who works on the intersections of caste, gender, and mental health shares her perspective, “Mental health of all marginalised sections is a social issue. We live with generational trauma by default and additional fears and traumas that add on with other intersections of gender, sexuality etc. In these conditions imagine someone telling you that you cannot write or that you need English grammar lessons."

Kandukuri recalls that this led to her constantly questioning herself about her ability to write, and triggered mental health issues. She says, "Healing has been a long, constant process. Self-doubt and inferiority complex are some of the things I live with, most of us do - and they take advantage of this by constant gaslighting."

What happens when there is no move towards inclusion?

The need for inclusion of people with mental health issues is rarely addressed at workplaces and this is something that needs to change. Awareness, acceptance, empathy, sensitivity and mental health provisions are vital for this transformation.

Chandrashekar says, “Marginalized groups can start accepting exploiting behaviors as something they deserve because it starts getting increasingly normalised. This makes them more vulnerable in different environments, and depending on their experiences, they can fall prey to everything from anxiety and depressive disorders, PTSD and other trauma disorders, poor self-worth, and poor physiological health as a result of additional stress.”

And while their need is to demand that organizations be more accessible or accommodative, the marginalized often end up adjusting to the organization’s environment in the fear of losing their job. Venkataraman adds, “For someone who is marginalized due to a physical or mental disability, the need to prove oneself is very high. This adds pressure, stress and leads to harassment.”

Coping with marginalization at the workplace
“India is a collectivistic society. Our healing begins in our communities. Finding an affirming community can provide immense strength to marginalized groups. It reduces feelings of isolation and the collective healing of a group aids individual healing. Marginalized groups can also find healing in resistance - participating in activism, advocacy, movements etc. can increase feelings of solidarity,” says Chandrashekar adding that it also helps to seek help through support groups and affirmative mental health professionals.

Venkataraman shares a few thoughts which could help navigate identifying with a minority group at the workplace:

Workplaces must take steps to reduce marginalization by drafting and implementing policies that provide equal opportunities and fair hiring practices for all, encouraging an inclusive work culture where every team member feels included, valued and appreciated, and conducting awareness workshops to remove biases among all employees.

With inputs from Madhumitha Venkataraman, Divya Kandukuri, Ruchita Chandrashekar and Aliyah.

Madhumitha is a diversity and inclusion evangelist and founding member of Diversity Dialogues, a collective which brings awareness on lesser spoken topics of diversity and inclusion.

Divya Kandukuri is a freelance journalist, a Bahujan activist and founder of The Blue Dawn mental health care support group for Bahujans.

Ruchita is a Chicago-based trauma psychologist providing mental health services to survivors of gender based violence, including the LGBTQIA community.

Aliyah (name changed) is a counseling psychologist who previously worked in a sexual and gender-based violence clinic.

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