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. Persistent symptoms include skin rashes, digestive challenges, heart issues, migraines, fertility issues, adrenal fatigue, and chronic fatigue.
At a time when companies are looking for empathetic leaders well versed in leadership and diversity issues to manage complexity and lead global teams, the women of color who could be their catalysts are exiting to tend to bodies that have reached a breaking point.
Disrupt the ‘Tox-Sick’ Cycle
Like so many others, women of color are asking themselves the most fundamental question: Are my job and career worth the cost? Companies and managers should, in turn, ask themselves what they can do to make their employees’ work indeed worth it.
Managers who want to retain these hardworking current and future leaders and to break this “tox-sick” cycle can, with the guidance provided here, ameliorate current workplace burdens and set a new tone for workplace well-being.
Don’t Make Women of Color Guess — Communicate Success
Since many women of color are firsts in their families to hold professional roles and few have peers in similar positions they can consult with or rely on, they often navigate on their own. Blanca was a clear “first.”1 She had reached the highest level a woman of color had ever achieved in her Fortune 100 company. English wasn’t Blanca’s first language, and she felt she had to work harder than her peers to prove herself and be taken seriously. She often hid parts of her culture and background. Her audition process for a regional market leader role, high on the company org chart, lasted nearly a year. One morning, at a company retreat on the brink of the hiring decision, she woke unable to move one side of her body or get out of bed. After painful hours inching to her phone, she was rushed to a hospital and diagnosed with a heart condition — one that was treatable, but she was warned that she needed to take it easy.
The yearlong process had taken its toll, and in hindsight, Blanca had been tired for months. She had been trying so hard to be what she thought the company wanted that she was losing parts of herself and sacrificing her health. Yet even as this incident happened, Blanca hid it from her leadership team, ashamed that her body was failing her and worried that any perceived weakness would deem her incapable. She had been muting pain signals from her body for a long time, warding off awareness of the exhaustion and isolation of being a “first.” Blanca told herself that she’d be able to let her guard down once she had the new role, but the pressure only seemed to build.
Blanca was promoted to the role. Only after the process ended was she told that she had been considered a “shoo-in.” The role had been hers to lose because of her track record and having lived in many of the countries in the region. The background she had worked to hide had in fact been an asset.
Blanca wished she had received more indications that she was a front-runner, which might have eased the pressure she felt as a “first and only” woman of color promotion candidate. In fact, many high-performing women of color share that they have never been told by their companies that they are high performers. They believe they may be under consideration in succession planning efforts, but no one in the company has confirmed that they have sponsorship or are on an accelerated path.
Many high-performing women of color share that they have never been told by their companies that they are high performers.
Companies and leaders could help by better communicating success to women of color. So often, these women are buried in microaggressions and fighting stereotypes. They often receive more negative feedback than their peers. It would serve companies well to do more to counter these challenges with overt support and communication.
These high-performing women of color are often trailblazing and have limited role models, so they adapt and edit themselves within companies. Leaders need to find ways to better signal support and validate that leadership can look like them.
Don’t Overlook Bias — Drive Process Change
For other women, it will take significant process change, not just support and communication, to help them feel seen and heard. A serious automobile accident, rather than illness, was the unexpected wrench in Imani’s career. The senior technology leader and data security expert sustained injuries requiring extended medical leave time. After six months, her direct supervisor began to question her diagnosis despite having received all of Imani’s required medical documentation. Eventually her supervisor openly questioned whether Imani was actually injured and asked HR to request additional documentation and expert verification.
HR brushed off Imani’s concerns about the request, telling her that her leader was just worried about the work getting done — and asked her to produce additional documentation beyond what the company policy required. This distrust on the organization’s part caused Imani greater stress, exacerbating her physical symptoms and causing depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, and eventually suicidal ideation.
Imani told us, “When women of color try to address issues as they become intolerable, we come up against processes designed to isolate and silence. That cycle shocks most of us physically, mentally, and spiritually. In short, confronting the human impact of covert, overt, and systemic racism literally makes and keeps minorities ill.”
We often hear from women of color that organizational processes don’t support them in “telling their truth.” Microaggressions, bias, and stereotypes have always been part of the workplace experience for the women of color we interviewed but are now being reported more widely. Many of the women we interviewed suggested that when they file grievances related to racism or inappropriate behavior, those reports get ignored or, worse, they face retaliation. There is a lot of “he said, she said” that happens in reported cases, and companies are still struggling to manage investigations of racist incidents.
In Imani’s case, it might have been better to engage an outside investigator or assign a senior leader to properly investigate why extra documentation was being required. Stating more clearly and explicitly why this case required verification beyond the company policy would have also helped Imani feel that it was not a personal attack.
The idea that women of color have to sacrifice themselves to work harder and do more to prove themselves in every arena — from promotions to medical leave — emerged over and over again in our conversations. Many women of color are producing beyond the job they were hired to do. Whether it is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments or recruiting activities, women of color take on significant extra responsibilities. In most cases, they struggle to say no, often at the expense of doing work better aligned with career advancement.
Don’t Undervalue Culture Building — Acknowledge Organizational Contributions
In 2020, Mary was up for partner at her firm and was busy billing hours and trying to win new clients to demonstrate her contributions when she was asked to take on additional DEI activities. Mary felt conflicted and concerned. Of the six candidates competing for two partner slots, she was the only woman, the only person of color, and the only one asked to do this additional work. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, juggling responsibilities for her kids at home, and the demands of being up for partner, she was at her breaking point. Still, she worried that saying no would signal she wasn’t a team player.
Mary went on to set up the firm’s updated DEI strategy and programs to rave reviews, only to be told that her billable hours had dropped and she should have stayed focused on clients while in the partner process. She didn’t get the promotion; instead, she ended up in the hospital with the beginnings of an ulcer.
In hindsight, Mary realized she carried the extra pressure and stress of being an “only.” She felt that all eyes were always on her candidacy, so she had to be perfect, in addition to feeling responsible for making partner on behalf of all the other Black women in the firm. She wished she had negotiated better and made sure the new DEI assignment was truly valued and additive to her candidacy. She wished, too, that as one of the only senior women of color at the firm, she hadn’t been expected to carry the diversity load alone.
Companies and leaders need to better recognize and compensate women of color for their DEI and culture-building efforts. These activities can take up significant time and effort and should be included in pay, promotion, and evaluation decisions. If a company is asking a woman of color to take on work that serves the company’s good, that contribution needs to be seen and rewarded in the same way other work that helps the company is. Mary’s role in this work should have been seen as vital to company culture and valued positively in the partner evaluation process.
Companies Can Act Immediately
Leaders who want their organizational cultures to evolve should take some of the following actions as first steps. These recommendations not only promote productivity and well-being overall but also authenticate inclusion efforts by protecting those most vulnerable, which in turn can help to attract and retain top diverse talent.
- Do better with feedback. Understand that women of color are already facing the layered obstacles of racism, stereotypes, and microaggressions. Don’t make them guess about their performance or trajectory. If they are doing well, go out of your way to overcommunicate it.
- Present alternatives to “traditional” leadership. Find ways to emphasize that leadership can be varied (most effectively, by promoting women of color). Communicate that women of color need not conform, adapt, or hide their cultural backgrounds to rise in your organization. Watch what you signal with your words and actions; small comments about hair, clothing, and personal presentation can hold a lot of weight for employees who may feel like cultural outsiders.
- Choose coaches with care. Expand your roster of approved coaches and fund those who are savvy in working with women of color. Not all coaches are attuned to the unique workplace experiences that women of color face, but with adept coaching, these women can develop better coping mechanisms and support pathways. This also means finding professionals with trauma expertise.
- Foster community. Cultivate spaces like employee resource groups within your company where women of color can come together to problem-solve and share vital resources — or, if there are limited women of color in your organization, support them in finding external groups. It’s critical to fund and support these groups and reward the women who put effort into participating. These are valuable pursuits that will strengthen your organization and contribute to an inclusive culture.
- Recognize and compensate women of color for their DEI efforts. DEI activities better company culture overall and should be taken seriously — and those who drive such efforts should be compensated. People’s involvement should influence pay, promotion, and evaluation decisions. These activities may fall beyond an employee’s “official” responsibilities, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable than other workplace contributions.
- Encourage time away. Policies such as flexible work and vacation leave can support women of color — but only if they make use of these resources. Leaders and managers need to support women of color in taking well-being breaks and model the use of taking leave time when needed.
- Don’t reward toxic rock stars. Take action when racist incidents are reported. Companies must have robust processes in place to investigate grievances, along with an appetite to follow through and take action. Too many women do not feel that their companies act on incidents of racism and microaggressions. Don’t let a toxic rock star’s work results overshadow their damaging workplace behavior.
Looking to the Future
Blanca secured her promotion and also realized the importance of taking space for herself and setting healthy boundaries with work. She stayed in her newly promoted role for almost two years before realizing she didn’t want to remain at a company that required her to constantly prove herself.
Imani is still on extended leave, focused on getting healthy, and planning to seek a new job at a new employer. Her current employer recently agreed that she should not have been asked for extra documentation, and it apologized.
Mary has read a number of books on negotiation and works with a coach to practice pushing back and saying no. She left her previous role and joined another firm as a partner.
For these three women, as for the rest of the workforce, one silver lining of these past few challenging years will be a new understanding that as employees, we can’t sacrifice our health to succeed. For women of color, it’s time to expand our definition of success to include our well-being and health. For companies, it’s time to acknowledge, understand, and more actively support the challenges women of color face at work. To recruit and retain the leaders of the future, we must address not only toxic work cultures but tox-sick ones as well.
1. All names used in the article have been changed.