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  • 05 June 2023
  • 10 min read

Microaggressions, Freedom Of Speech And The Workplace

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    • Richard Gill
    • Laura Bosworth
  • 2
  • 1333
Dignity, respect and the workplace“It is important that nurses, healthcare colleagues and patients are all treated with dignity and respect, and the use of microaggressions is in direct contrast to these core nursing values.”

Mental Health Nurse Chris discusses microaggressions and their impact within the workplace, and what nurses can do to safely challenge and confront them.

The issue of microaggressions has been an increasing concern within the healthcare environment for several years.

The term was first used in the 1970's by the psychiatrist Dr Chester Pierce in response to increasing difficulties related towards the open discussion of race and structural racism. More recently, as societal awareness has increased around the barriers towards inclusivity, the issue has attracted closer attention amongst researchers and within the wider media.

Despite this, the systematic favouring of dominant groups within society remains prevalent and there are still many words and phrases used in our day-to-day language that continue to perpetuate this imbalance.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions can be described as comments, acts and behaviours that convey a subtle bias towards an individual who belongs to a group that has a marginalised status, for example through race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and gender.

These acts usually present as being innocuous, however the reality is that they are insidious language habits that can help preserve culturally embedded conscious and unconscious bias towards particular groups.

Microaggressions differ from overtly prejudicial acts, for example racism and sexism, usually because those who engage in this behaviour do not have any negative intent or hostility behind them. They will usually occur as these types of actions exist outside of the typical level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.

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What Impact Can Microaggressions Have?

Discourse around microaggressions has been met with some criticism by commentators who have suggested that society has become too sensitive towards casually made remarks. However, research has shown that these seemingly innocent statements can have a significant impact upon the recipient’s wellbeing, as well as within workplace organisational systems.

For this reason, it is important for nurses to be vigilant around the use of microaggressions and their development amongst "office culture".

On an individual level, increased blood pressure, stress, depression, and sleep difficulties are all associated with experiencing microaggressions. Furthermore, these actions can have a negative effect upon a person's career due to them having reduced confidence, increased burnout, and less job satisfaction.

Organisational culture is also impacted: 7 in 10 workers in one study reported that they would be upset by a microaggression, and half said that they would consider leaving the job if experiencing these issues. The use of microaggressions in the workplace creates a divisive culture and reduces inclusivity, which subsequently makes it a less attractive place for employment.

What Does The Legislation Say?

Although microaggressions are clearly harmful acts, there has been some discussion relating towards how the concept fits with existing laws that relate to freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech belongs to the wider concept of freedom of expression, and it is considered to be a fundamental right at the centre of a democratic society.

The right is protected in UK law under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."

A central principle of this freedom is that every individual is allowed to freely express themselves and hold an opinion, even where these views are unpopular and can upset others.

The law protects the right of an individual to communicate and express themselves through any medium, such as words, pictures, and actions. The right is important as it allows for the exchanging of information and debating ideas. It also underpins artistic, commercial, and scientific development, as well as holding public bodies to account.

The use of microaggressions in the workplace creates a divisive culture and reduces inclusivity, which subsequently makes it a less attractive place for employment.

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Does This Have Limitations?

However, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute and it has restrictions. It is known as a qualified right as it must be balanced against the interests of wider society.

The legislation does not protect statements that unlawfully discriminate, harass, incite violence or hatred against individuals or groups, in particular by reference to their race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, language, and national origin.

Furthermore, it is a criminal offence to incite religious or racial hatred, or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 also affords some protection from harassment or offensive conduct experienced within the context of employment, education, and service delivery.

The Equality Act states that any behaviour that is unwanted and is related to age, race, gender reassignment, disability, religion or belief, or sexual orientation and has the purpose of violating that person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment is considered to be harassment.

Unwanted behaviour within this context can include any behaviour, including written or spoken words, graffiti, imagery, facial expressions, physical gestures, jokes, pranks, acts affecting a person's surroundings or any other physical conduct.

Workers will not be protected from disciplinary action where there has been a breach of the Equality Act or of the employers’ policies.

Although freedom of speech is a vital right within a democratic society, when considering the existing law it is clear that perpetrators of microaggressions cannot rely on the legislation to protect their actions.

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What Does The NMC Code Say?

Furthermore, the use of microaggressions is against the Nursing and Midwifery Council Code which states that nurses must treat people with kindness, respect and compassion.

Nursing is a multicultural profession, made up of individuals with different backgrounds; nurses also treat patients who are themselves from a diverse background.

It is important that nurses, healthcare colleagues and patients are all treated with dignity and respect, and the use of microaggressions is in direct contrast to these core nursing values.

How Can Microaggressions Be Challenged?

A central means towards treating others with respect is to take time to be intentional within the language being used. Nurses should be thoughtful about the language they convey and change the use of their words if they become aware that these words are problematic.

Adopting an actively inclusive mindset can help nurses to reduce the frequency of micro-aggressive language within their cultural lexicon.

When encountering microaggressions from colleagues, it is important that nurses challenge these as it can help prevent them from becoming embedded within workplace culture and negatively impacting upon the inclusive and welcoming environment.

Many incidents of microaggressions do not intend to cause offence, however there should be an acknowledgement by perpetrators of its potential impact - intent does not excuse any subsequent impact. Challenging microaggressions also results in the perpetrator being deterred from using such harmful language in the future and can help form the parameters for a more productive conversation.

Challenging microaggressions can be an intimidating prospect and should only be done if the nurse feels safe to do so.

It is important that nurses, healthcare colleagues and patients are all treated with dignity and respect, and the use of microaggressions is in direct contrast to core nursing values.

How To Confront Microaggressions Safely

Confronting microaggressions head on can create conflict, especially if carried out in front of other colleagues. Therefore, it is important to consider the environment where the discussion takes place and create a safe space for open, honest, and authentic dialogue.

When confronting microaggressions, nurses should ensure that they give the person the opportunity to explain the meaning behind the words being used. This will reduce the risk of any misunderstanding.

It is also important to explain to the person why their actions may be harmful, and it may also be necessary to refer to your trust policy so that they do not feel personally attacked. A calm and consistent approach will also help to ensure that any challenge does not escalate further.


Microaggressions clearly have the potential to cause significant harm within the workplace, and nurses should be vigilant towards their existence and ensure they maintain self-awareness around the language they use, as well as challenge colleagues who engage in this type of behaviour.

If left unchecked, microaggressions can become part of an organisations culture and this is in direct conflict with any service that promotes inclusivity.

Where nurses feel unable to directly challenge a colleague, they should discuss the issue as soon as possible with their manager.

Thank you for reading.

About the author

I am a Registered Mental Health Nurse working in NHS Forensic Services as a Clinical Nurse Specialist for the Crown Courts. I hold undergraduate degrees in Nursing and Journalism, a Masters Degree in Law (specialising in Human Rights Law) and a Masters Degree in Clinical Research. I am interested in evidence based practice, social justice and supporting those who are at a disadvantage.

    • Richard Gill
    • Laura Bosworth
  • 2
  • 1333

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    • Janet Dalton 11 months ago
      Janet Dalton
    • Janet Dalton
      11 months ago

      Thank you for writing this article Chris. This is a topic I had not considered much before. As a student ... read more

    • Fiona Kane 11 months ago
      Fiona Kane
    • Fiona Kane
      11 months ago

      Excellent piece Chris, microaggressions can be subtle but felt for a long time after by the recipient.

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