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Experts say workplace discrimination can affect your physical and mental health. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • A new study indicates that people who feel they are discriminated against at work have a significantly higher risk of developing high blood pressure.
  • The findings are similar to previous research in which scientists reported that even a moderate amount of workplace discrimination can impact physical and mental health.
  • Experts say policy changes and cultural reforms need to be implemented in workplaces to reduce discrimination.

Feeling discriminated against at work could raise your blood pressure — and not just metaphorically.

People who report feeling highly discriminated against at work were 54% more likely to develop high blood pressure than those who reported low levels of workplace discrimination, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers looked at data from 1,246 adults in the United States who did not have self-reported high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, at the beginning of the study and who filled out assessments to gauge their levels of workplace discrimination.

The participants were mostly white and had a range of occupations and education levels. About half were men and about half were women.

Participants were then followed up for a period of around 8 years.

Perceived workplace discrimination was assessed using a validated questionnaire. Participants were asked questions about their work experiences, including whether they felt there were treated unfairly, whether they were watched or ignored more closely than others, whether job promotions were rewarded fairly, and how often they were exposed to ethnic, racial, or sexual slurs or jokes.

Each question was scored from 1 (never) to 5 (at least once a week). Based on the overall score, participants were divided into three groups: Low, intermediate, or high discrimination.

“Scientists have studied the associations among systemic racism, discrimination, and health consequences. However, few studies have looked specifically at the health impact of discrimination in the workplace, where adults, on average, spend more than one-third of their time,” Dr. Jian Li, the lead study author and a professor of work and health in the Fielding School of Public Health and the School of Nursing at the University of California Los Angeles, said in a press release. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first scientific evidence indicating workplace discrimination may increase people’s long-term risk of developing high blood pressure.”

Past studies have suggested that racism and discrimination can have significant effects on both physical health and mental health, so to a certain extent, these findings are no surprise, experts say.

Even moderate levels of workplace discrimination appeared to have an effect. People with intermediate workplace discrimination scores were still 22% more likely to report high blood pressure compared to those with low discrimination scores.

“We know that discrimination has profound health impacts that are a result of an exacerbated stress response,” said Anjali Gowda Ferguson, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist.

“Individuals can experience trauma symptomatology that essentially places the body in fight or flight mode. These prolonged experiences of distress begin to wear on the physical health of individuals,’ Ferguson told Medical News Today.

Alicia Walf, PhD, a senior lecturer in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, agreed.

She described discrimination as a “chronic psychosocial stressor” that needs to be addressed.

“The effects shown in this study of an increased risk of developing high blood pressure in individuals who reported that they faced discrimination at work has far-reaching consequences because, unfortunately, people are discriminated against in situations other than the workplace,” Waif told Medical News Today. “As well, high blood pressure is a salient measure because it is linked to increased risk of other diseases beyond the cardiovascular system, such as immune and metabolic disorders.”

“I think that this is an important first study looking at these links between discrimination in work for this one indication of the negative health consequences, such as high blood pressure,” she added. “I hope this spurs future work determining whether there are individual differences based upon factors, such as age and the type of discrimination faced.”

One difficulty with workplace discrimination is that if the workplace human resources department isn’t responsive to workers being discriminated against, there may not be a lot that workers can do.

“The workplace is where race-based discrimination if it exists, cannot be avoided,” said Gena Cox, PhD, an organizational psychologist. “Therefore, the stress is persistent and ongoing.”

While this might not be available to all workers, working remotely can sometimes alleviate the stress of workplace discrimination, Cox noted.

“Many Black Americans who had the chance to work from home for the first time during the pandemic said they enjoyed this change because, for the first time, they could do their jobs without having to consistently deal with overt and subtle acts of exclusion and discrimination from their managers and colleagues,” she told Medical News Today.

Beyond that, experts say policy changes and cultural practices to reduce discrimination are needed.

“Organization and systemic understanding of the impacts of trauma and how racial trauma and discrimination can impact health outcomes [are required],” Ferguson said. “If organizations become trauma-informed, they can develop better programming that is conscious of protecting their most vulnerable employees. Further, it’s important that these conversations and trainings are had from a top-down level so that organizations and systems can be built to address and eliminate these issues holistically.”

Walf agreed.

“As much as a particularly useful technique to reduce stress is to engage socially in a positive and affiliative way, negative social interactions or a lack of support or feelings of belonging (as can occur with discrimination as well as other workplace situations) produce clear negative stress effects,” she said. “So, for a healthier community, we need to deal with the root of this stress caused by anti-social relations and put in place support systems.”