Workplace Toxicity Is Not Just a Mental Health Issue
Women of color are getting physically sick from work. How can managers disrupt this “tox-sick” pattern?
The dramatic reckoning between health and social safety nets that has erupted over the past few years has by now taken a severe toll on almost everyone in the workplace. Many tired employees have identified their jobs as a draining force and are questioning the proportion of their lives that work consumes. Some employees have exited their roles under the banner of the Great Resignation, while others are reassessing how they want to live. The common thread: Workers are making meaningful shifts to prioritize their physical health and mental well-being.
And it’s a gravely needed shift, especially for women. Women leaders are demanding more from their work and are switching jobs at the highest rate on record. Data continues to show that women are among the most affected groups coping with the pandemic-era challenges of managing the needs of their families. Within this group, women of color have suffered even more acutely, in many cases serving on the front lines of the pandemic in public-facing roles and bearing the brunt of new pressures from ever-transforming workplace cultures and increased workloads.
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Many women of color show signs of being physically sick from workplace stress. In the process of interviewing over 500 professional and executive women of color for her book The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America, Deepa was stunned to discover that 2 out of every 3 women were battling chronic stress-related conditions. The frequency of these symptoms and the similarity across hundreds of stories suggest that we may be seeing not only a pattern but a crisis.
The women we have interviewed and coached are constantly on alert for threats like microaggressions, being passed over for promotions, or being asked to lift more than their fair share. All of these situations can drive maladaptive coping strategies (hiding part of one’s identity, for example) and escalate behaviors such as overworking. Such vigilance also keeps women in a constant state of activation, leaving their nervous systems chronically on high alert. This leads to a host of negative outcomes in mental and physical health alike and is part of the reason toxic workplaces are making women of color sick.
It’s critical to note that the level of stress these women experience isn’t “just” burnout; damaging workplace conditions are manifesting physically.
1. All names used in the article have been changed.