You’re Not Alone

by Katherine Giscombe,PhD

Feeling exhausted all the time? Can’t sleep? Stressed out? Most people would probably say “yes” to all of the above. But does race have anything to do with it? Could the fact that you are a person of color somehow impact you differently? A growing body of research suggests there is a difference: race does play a role in an individual’s overall

If you think about the daily interactions of people of color, both inside and outside the workplace, it’s not hard to imagine the stress they are under. They can endure daily micro aggressions—small snubs and insults that remind people of color that they’re different and not valued as highly as others. Maybe they’re followed around a store a little too closely by a store employee. Or maybe they’re mocked for their accent. Or—and this one is a favorite of many—someone says, “You’re so articulate,” as if surprised by it. All these little interactions add up.

In Catalyst’s new study, “Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace,” we found that the additive effect of these experiences puts professionals of color in a constant state of being “on guard,” bracing themselves for the next insult or biased act. Over time, this daily battle takes a heavy toll, imposing an “emotional tax” that affects their health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work.

Our research shows that 58 percent of Asian, black, and Latinx employees who are on guard are likely to have sleep problems. We also found that black women who are on guard experience a loss of psychological safety at work, meaning they don’t feel that their organization’s leaders and team members “have their back.” When this happens, they are not willing to take risks like speaking up about difficult issues. This obviously inhibits their full participation at work. Not surprisingly, we also found that employees who take on these “daily battles” and who feel on guard are more likely to quit their jobs.

At Catalyst, we’ve worked for more than 50 years to educate corporations on the importance of diversity and build the case for why it matters. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a shift in the conversation away from why it matters toward what it takes to build inclusive cultures.

Diversity alone—simply having the requisite number of people of color on the payroll—has limited benefits. The advantages accrue when everyone’s perspectives are valued—when diverse voices are truly heard and acknowledged. That’s what companies now understand: Simply folding diverse employees into the status quo culture doesn’t work. You have to change the culture too.

So, you’re not alone if you feel especially stressed and exhausted. It’s part of the human condition of being a person of color. While that’s obviously not ideal, I do have hope for a brighter future. I know that, together, we can be agents of change. We can help our organizations accelerate their efforts in building inclusive cultures. That will move the needle more than anything. Then perhaps we can all get a good night’s sleep. DW

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.

Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most
powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.

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