Why BIPOC Employees Are Burning Out—and What People Leaders Can Do About It

Here are five ways to help BIPOC employees navigate their unique experiences in the workplace and avoid burnout, while creating a more inclusive culture.

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Kelli Washington
Spring Health Provider
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    The current realities of the world are emotionally taxing for everyone—pandemic disparities, racial injustices, political division, bodily autonomy—the list goes on. Unfortunately, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) are even more impacted due to an overall lack of support. Many employers and co-workers are unable to relate to their pain or perspective, and they can feel singled out as news breaks on a race-related issue. A sense of division arises with political or racial worldviews, along with an inability to understand the personal impact that some of these topics have on a person of color. 

    Racial trauma, which refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes, can have similar psychological effects as other forms of trauma. Imagine the emotional burden of a person of color being exposed to this trauma on a daily basis now that we have such consistent access to what’s happening around the world.

    There is a big difference between seeing a news clip that breaks your heart and imagining yourself or your loved one in that news story. 

    Why do BIPOC employees experience higher rates of burnout?

    Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” And burnout looks different for BIPOC, especially at work. BIPOC employees are constantly exposed to incidents of racism—via the news, social media, and their own personal experiences. The emotional toll that it takes to not only process these events on a daily basis, but recognize their impact in your own personal life—while being expected to meet deadlines at work—can be incredibly overwhelming.

    Many BIPOC feel isolated and invalidated at work, rather than a sense of belonging and community, which can also lead to burnout.

    The heightened pressure to perform

    When there are few BIPOC on a team or at an organization, these employees can feel pressure to perform at a higher level. There may be an expectation to prove one’s self and exceed expectations, along with the burden of representing the BIPOC community as a whole, and a fear of failure altogether. Despite evidence of success, imposter syndrome is a common occurrence for BIPOC in a predominantly white work space. To be the first in your family to work in a corporate setting can trigger feelings of inadequacy, and being one of the only BIPOC in the space may cause an internalized fear of not being qualified. 

    The burden of exceeding expectations and being the representative for an entire marginalized group can create the need to push oneself beyond reasonable expectations or an appropriate work-life balance, thus leading to burnout. 

    Culture-changing advocacy begins at the top

    Advocacy in the workplace, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, often becomes the responsibility of the BIPOC—because they have the most experience and understanding. Unfortunately, that adds another level of responsibility for the betterment of the marginalized community, when they are already feeling immense pressure to meet expectations. BIPOC become tasked with not only navigating various disparities, but educating others as well. It would be more beneficial to see advocacy from the executive level, to provide more credibility to the work being done.

    How to reduce burnout for BIPOC employees

    Here are five ways to effectively advocate for your BIPOC employees, helping them  navigate their unique experiences in the workplace and avoid burnout.

    Develop a more inclusive hiring process

    One way to do this is by emphasizing the importance of diversity and inclusion during interviews and onboarding. This can truly make a difference when DEIB becomes a core value to the company, rather than a way of maintaining a “politically correct” workspace.

    Take a look at the salaries and roles of your BIPOC employees. Are they represented at all levels of your organization? It’s all too common for them to be in the bottom quartile of the company, and if this is the case at yours, there’s work to be done: 

    • Reexamine your job descriptions and find ways to make them more inclusive
    • Be open about the different kinds of people who could fill your open roles, get creative, and look for unexpected candidates
    • Ensure BIPOC employees are being paid fairly and have equal opportunities to advance and work with people at all levels of the company
    • Consider offering mentorship opportunities for your BIPOC employees

    Redefine “professionalism”

    To add another layer to these efforts, adjusting your standards of professionalism to more realistically meet the needs of your employees can create a safer, more inclusive environment. These standards, which are often invisible to the ‘average’ employee, refer to the competence or skill expected of a professional. Although this may sound appropriate and rather harmless, in most corporate settings, the standards of professionalism lean heavily toward the traditional white experience. Taking a closer look can reveal that they’re actually not representative of the real-life employees in these spaces. The traditional standards of professionalism ensure that the target demographic is able to seamlessly achieve recognition and career growth. For those who do not fall within that demographic, conforming is often expected and required to progress, which devalues the very characteristics that make BIPOC employees who they are.

    Acknowledge the impact of code switching among BIPOC

    Code switching, the act of changing our behaviors to conform to a different cultural norm, is a common tool for a BIPOC to more effectively “fit in” to their desired environment. Whether it is a change in speech, dress, or mannerisms, the pressure to consistently code switch can be both mentally and physically draining, often leading to burnout. Ensuring that the needs of the individual employees are addressed when enacting standards of professionalism in the workplace is an effective way to provide that more inclusive space. 

    Identify and address unconscious bias

    When discrimination is not widely discussed within the workplace, there is often a lack of awareness altogether. Education is a necessary step to help every leader and employee identify their own unconscious biases, and work toward creating a psychologically safe, inclusive work environment. 

    Addressing microaggressions and taking those incidents seriously is an effective way to demonstrate an employer's validation of the BIPOC experience, on a more consistent basis.

    Here are a few ways you can do this:

    • Encourage open, honest dialogue between executives and employees. This can lead to issues being acknowledged, validated, and addressed more consistently. One-on-one check ins in particular allow for this kind of dialogue.
    • Normalize conversations around advocacy in regular meetings—not just in those geared toward diversity and inclusion. Consistent efforts to create a more inclusive environment allows the overall level of tolerance to shift as well.

    Offer an innovative EAP

    Innovative EAPs are not only proven to increase employee utilization, they also provide fast access to a diverse network of therapists and coaches—and a space to safely process both personal and professional issues. This eases the emotional burden of the employee, and decreases the likelihood of burnout.

    As a therapist of color with Spring Health, many of my clients have been pleasantly surprised to see someone who looks like them and can more authentically validate their experiences. This is a meaningful way for employers to ensure their BIPOC employees are receiving the mental health support they need.

    The importance of a long-term commitment to DEIB

    Acknowledging the real life experience of a marginalized group can help leaders more effectively implement changes that go beyond the current performative allyship, and ensure every employee feels seen, heard, and valued. In addition to more consistently diversifying company work spaces and creating a more inclusive environment, taking these steps can help decrease burnout and provide a higher level of support for BIPOC employees.

    Read this blog next for what to say and do in the aftermath of racial violence.

    About the Author
    photo authr
    Kelli Washington
    Spring Health Provider

    Kelli Washington is a Licensed Clinical Therapist, practicing in both Utah and California, while living full-time in the California sunshine. Kelli specializes in working with teens and young adults, and is especially passionate about advocating for mental health within communities of color. Kelli has her own private practice and is currently working as a therapist with Spring Health.

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