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Origins of stigma around rest
There are a few conversations that most Black parents must have with their children at around age seven to arm and prepare them for the world. One of those speeches involves the “Black tax.”
The conversation goes something like this: “You can’t just be good. You have to be great to be successful in this world, because you aren’t going to be given the same chances as other people.”
The culture of rise and grind
One direct response to the Black tax that is deeply ingrained in the Black psyche is the “rise and grind” mentality. This shows up in our music a lot, and these messages reinforce that Black people don't get to be tired, soft, or take rest—which is something all humans need.
I’ve known since I was a kid that I can’t show up to work and not be 110%, every single day. I’ve learned that if I show up at 90%, I’ll be graded like I’m at 70%.
There are deeply ingrained stereotypes about Black employees being lazy, and we end up overcompensating with diminishing returns for our mental health.
The stakes get higher for Black employees
These messages, stereotypes, and the daily lived experiences of racism made me feel old, even as a kid.
This feeling only becomes sharper as you get older, and the consequences become even more serious in the professional world. Our livelihood is dependent on our performance, and that performance is often penalized because of the biases about Black employees.
As the stakes get higher, the Black tax becomes heavier, contributing to the exhaustion that Black employees feel. Of course, this often leads to burnout and employee attrition.
Building a culture of rest
From a business perspective, well-rested employees are more productive, more efficient, and provide higher quality work. Rest also fosters creativity, decreases burnout, and betters mental health.
Structurally embedding rest as part of a workplace culture is beneficial for all employees. Here are a few ways to do this that directly support Black employees.
Take the time to understand
This may be the first time you’re hearing about the Black tax or rise and grind culture. Take the time to understand how this is impacting your Black employees, and also investigate whether any or all of your employees feel safe to take breaks and actual lunches during the work day, and use their vacation time, even if there are adequate policies in place.
People leaders also need to understand what it takes to be good at the tasks they’re assigning people, and how much work each role on their team involves.
In most organizations, BIPOC employees are disproportionately at the bottom of company power structures—in roles that are essential and also really difficult. This takes a toll on employees who don’t feel comfortable saying they’re taking on too much, that it’s really a job for two people, or they need a break or additional support.
Schedule mandatory breaks as part of the workday
Research shows that employees are most efficient when doing 52 minutes of work, followed by a 17 minute break. In the study, employees who worked in that pattern were actually more efficient than those who simply worked through their day without breaks.
Find out if your employees are taking regular breaks, and if they’re not, start asking questions:
- Is the workload too much? Is it a reasonable amount?
- Are breaks a part of policy?
- Are breaks mandatory?
- Are people skipping breaks because the workload is too high?
- Are managers creating a culture where breaks are seen as necessary and good?
Accommodate medical needs
Allowing breaks throughout the workday is also necessary to accommodate employees with medical needs. Eighty percent of Black women have uterine fibroids. This is something I’ve dealt with, and it made working incredibly difficult for me.
Sitting down for long periods of time was uncomfortable, and I needed to use the restroom more frequently than most.
HR leaders, ask yourself, is your workplace set up for this kind of medical need?
It’s essential to give your employees the flexibility to take care of their medical needs, and communicate this across the organization, so no one feels guilty or like their job is in jeopardy.
Working nonstop without time to take care of mental and physical health is detrimental to well being, and contributes to deep-seated exhaustion.
Acknowledge the work of Black employees
If you’re an HR leader or manager supervising Black employees, acknowledge the great work they’re doing, and recognize and reward their effects. Check-in regularly, and make sure they’re set up for success.
Examine your leadership style to make sure you’re not charging employees the Black tax we discussed earlier. The weight of that tax is what keeps them from feeling safe enough to take breaks, to rest, and take time off.
Provide actionable performance reviews
Research shows that Black employees—especially Black women—are less likely to get actionable feedback in performance reviews. Instead, they often get feedback that is personality based.
Be aware of this whenever you’re conducting performance reviews. Identify and work on your own biases, and ensure your feedback is actionable for all employees. Consider Black employees for promotions, and mention their contributions.
These actions contribute to a culture where Black employees are valued and have a seat at the table. Both are necessary for employees to feel safe enough to rest.
Make time off accessible
It’s not always easy to support time off alongside the needs of business. As we’ve already discussed, working nonstop takes a toll on mental and physical health. If your employees have a hard time getting approval to take time off, the staffing model needs to be revisited and managers must be on board for this to change.
If this is a workplace issue, pinpoint where the barriers are:
- Are managers stopping employees from taking time off?
- Is there a coverage issue?
- Does time off policy need to be revisited?
Address any issues you find, and also ensure your PTO policy is giving employees the rest they need.
Create psychological safety
Black people are vigilant about whether people are “safe” in the community or workplace. This includes coworkers, HR leaders, and supervisors who could potentially become allies in the struggle against racism.
Leaders who ensure Black employees feel safe taking breaks, going to lunch, and taking time off without being penalized show they’re safe, and can be trusted. This can lead to stronger relationships with Black employees, who feel like they can be more open with you.
Allyship is action
Racism is not something Black people can or should fix. If you’re a leader, it’s my hope that you’ll commit to doing the work to become an ally, and address racism in your workplace.
You can’t fully support and be an ally to Black employees without understanding their experiences through the lens of the racism they experience, particularly in the workplace context.
There is so much research about racism and bias in the workplace. Acknowledge that. Be aware of those dynamics playing out in your workplace, and then become part of the solution.
No one can be an ally without taking action. Don’t assume you’re an ally. You have to do the work, first.
Reframing rest in the workplace
Rest and recuperation are not equally accessible to everyone, and they’re not fringe benefits that employees need to earn. Rest allows us all to be fully human, as workers, parents, and partners with lives outside of work.
HR leaders and supervisors are in a powerful position to make rest acceptable and accessible for everyone, especially Black employees. This requires taking action on their behalf by ensuring that rest is integrated systemically into the workplace, and everyone is able to rest and recharge, without risk.
Learn more about why BIPOC employees are burning out, and what HR and People leaders can do about it.