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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity
  3. December 1, 2023

Are You Constantly On Guard at Work? You Might Be Experiencing Emotional Tax

The enormous cost of an unjust world

Upset woman who doesn't want to go to work
Photo courtesy of Liza Summer

Are you always on high alert, defending and explaining yourself when you really shouldn’t have to? Maybe you hide your true self, trying to deflect comments and inferences, trying to fit in and belong. If you have to do that, whether you’re shopping, going for a walk, at a party or in the office, you’re paying a steep emotional tax and must be exhausted.

We’ve got your back.

Read more: What Is Systemic Oppression? Definition, Examples & The Impact on Marginalized Groups

What is emotional tax?

Emotional tax is defined as a psychological burden, usually as a result of being different from those around you in terms of race or gender. 

While certain jobs and situations can certainly be emotionally taxing, such as working in the healthcare industry or attending a funeral, it’s not the same as the constant feeling of not fitting in because of who you are or what you look like.

“The state of being on guard—consciously preparing to deal with potential bias or discrimination—is the hallmark of Emotional Tax,” writes Joy Ohm, vice president, science writer and advisor at Catalyst.

Ohm gives the following examples of what people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups have to guard against:

  • Insults or nonverbal slights (e.g., microaggressions, being ignored in a meeting).

  • Avoiding certain situations at work in response to anticipated bias (e.g., declining an invitation to happy hour, or turning down a project).

  • Code-switching, aka changing your appearance to protect against unfair treatment or discrimination (e.g, changing your hair, nails, and clothing choices to conform with dominant expectations).

Read more: The Difference Between Overt & Covert: Recognizing Hidden Systemic Racism & Sexism

Who experiences emotional tax and how is it experienced?

Women no longer experience emotional tax more than men, a Catalyst study finds. However, the majority (53 percent) of Americans from marginalized racial and ethnic groups report being on guard for bias and discrimination at the workplace. Three-quarters (74 percent) of LGBTQ+ employees and 85 percent of trans and nonbinary employees report being on guard as well.

And while many women employees aren’t paying an emotional tax due to gender, that doesn’t necessarily hold true for women executives. The higher they climb the corporate ladder, “the fewer women and minorities they see,” writes Tamara E. Holmes at Essence. 

She gives the example of a corporate controller at Xerox, Ingrid L. Morris, who for four years was the only Black female sales executive in her division. “Morris learned how to play golf since her coworkers often closed deals on the golf course,” Holmes writes. “She also pushed herself by reading different periodicals and waking up early each morning to watch the news so she would be informed enough to participate in conversations at the office.”

Read more: The Perils of ‘Professionalism’: How Dress Codes at Work Discriminate & Exclude

Dee C. Marshall, CEO of Diverse and Engaged, explains a very specific emotional tax related to hair. “Black hair discrimination is the emotional tax Black people are subject to every day they walk in to work or show up on camera and someone questions their professionalism, their presence, or their ability to deliver value.”

While the C.R.O.W.N. Act has made discrimination against Black hair illegal in 23 states nationwide, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And until hair discrimination is against the law across the country, Black people will continue to pay that particular emotional tax.

Of course, it’s not just Americans who experience emotional tax. True inclusivity is hard to find all over the world.

In Canada, for example, Indigenous people pay emotional tax, writes Rose LeMay, who is Tlingit from the West Coast and CEO of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group (IRG). When she was younger, she says she thought everybody “put on their armor” before going to work. “I didn’t realize that non-Indigenous people don’t. It was a lightbulb moment.”

Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Belonging in the Workplace

Ramifications of emotional tax in the workplace

If your company has disengaged employees, low morale, and can’t seem to attract quality talent, you may want to take a look at your inclusivity culture. If it’s not being enforced or cultivated, you’ve got some work to do.

Any kind of emotional tax paid by employees fighting to belong in an unwelcoming environment will deplete those employees emotionally and, in terms of mental health, driving them to leave.

“Being on high alert for racist remarks or insults, changing your appearance to ‘fit in,’ or avoiding work occasions, like evening drinks, is exhausting and debilitating for employees from marginalised racial and ethnic groups,” writes Rikia Birindelli-Fayne at LSE Business Review. “The additional burden of this ‘emotional tax’ negatively affects health, wellbeing, and the ability to thrive at work.”

There’s another burden faced by minority groups, which causes them to pay an emotional tax, and that’s being seen solely as a token.

Dr. Ananya Mukherjee Reed, Provost and Vice-President Academic of the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, calls it “diversity-as-deficit thinking—the negative conceptualization of people, tokenized for their identity, which results in the systemic reduction of their full dignity, worth, and skills to their ‘diversity.’” 

Tokenization occurs when fully qualified people, who are also part of a visible minority or underrepresented group, are asked by colleagues if they were hired for their ability or to check a box. 

These “token” employees are often excluded from discussions about anything other than race and diversity. That exclusion hurts the company, by limiting their professional contributions, and also adds to their emotional tax, knowing that their subject matter expertise is neither valued nor seen as legitimate.

Read more: ‘Culture Fit:’ The Diversity Issues with This Hiring Practice & How to Build Culture More Inclusively

How can employees cope with emotional tax?

Mindfulness coach and consultant Sonya Lee tells InHerSight that navigating emotional tax on a personal level starts with prioritizing self-care. She makes it a non-negotiable part of her daily routine, whether “it's a brief meditation session or a long walk in nature.” Those quiet moments help her “manage stress and maintain emotional balance.”

Similarly, closing rituals can help. Former massage therapist Jon Clancy says people who work in healthcare or other fields that rely on empathy often develop closing rituals. The ritual can be as simple as washing your hands after an encounter. While taking on another’s pain when caring for them is in no way the same as experiencing discrimination of any kind, creating a closing ritual might nevertheless be cleansing, healing, and helpful.

The American Psychological Association recommends finding healthy ways to deal with discrimination. These include:

  • Focus on your strengths. By doing so, you can “buffer the negative effects of bias.”

  • Seek support systems. “Family and friends can also help counteract the toll that microaggressions and other examples of daily discrimination can take.”

  • Get involved. Connecting with people going through the same experiences “might help you figure out how to address situations and respond to experiences of discrimination in ways you haven’t thought of.” When you take action of any kind, you reduce your own sense of powerlessness.

  • Try not to dwell. Instead, “try to come up with a plan for how you might respond or what you could do differently next time [you experience discrimination]. Once you’ve determined how to respond, try to leave the incident behind you as you go on with your day.”

Read more: Recognizing Racism in the Workplace & Lending Your Voice

What can managers or employers offer to support people who deal with emotional tax? 4 key strategies 

Lee tells InHerSight that she’s “witnessed the incredible transformation that occurs when a workplace prioritizes an inclusive culture and invests in programs that champion inclusion.

“These initiatives encompass a range of strategies, including mindfulness meditation, conscious communication, diversity and inclusivity programs, leadership training, community engagement, and robust anti-discrimination policies.”

A Catalyst study spells out four strategies companies can implement to address and reduce the consequences of emotional tax. Leaders must:

1. Listen

Normalize talking openly about differences—paying particular attention to listening to and affirming experiences that bridge gender, race, and ethnicity.

2. Learn

Take proactive, careful stock of the day-to-day experiences of exclusion and inclusion; don’t discount the subtle ways people can feel singled out or connected to their colleagues.

3. Link up

Team up with employees to leverage their drive to contribute; demonstrate through partnership the value you place on their contributions.

4. Lead

Ensure that leaders and employees are supported and held accountable for inclusive leadership behaviors. All of us have a role to play in creating workplaces where everyone is valued, is heard, and has fair opportunities to succeed.”

Read more: 13 Must-Have Inclusive Workplace Practices

A diverse workplace makes it less likely that employees will face racism and non-inclusive behaviors. But it’s equally important that company leaders make their “allyship and curiosity” known. One study shows a 10 percent increase in racist incidents when senior leaders don’t make their support evident.

IRG’s LeMay also notes how crucial role-modeling by senior leadership is. And that includes being transparent about their own education process: “If senior leaders can’t be vulnerable to role-model their own learning journey, it won’t happen in the organization,” she writes.

Read more: 10 Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer About Their Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

Emotional tax beyond gender: race, ability, LGTBQ+

Emotional tax affects people beyond gender, race, and color. Those other aspects of identity that can extract emotional tax include physical appearance, physical ability, age, and even religious beliefs.

Being a man—but Black and a first-generation professional (FGP)

Then there’s intersectionality. Agile and mindset coach Jordan Rawls is a man, so you’d think he wouldn’t have to deal with emotional tax. However, he’s a Black man and he’s an FGP: a first-generation professional. He admits that being the “only” in your organization can be quite enough of a burden (whether it’s your race, ethnicity or gender).

“But … bearing the additional tax of your family’s collective trauma, needs, and expectations made life fulfillment nearly impossible,” Rawls writes. “As a Black FGP, it was not easy to show up to work with a smile while coping with the high-functioning anxiety that came with constantly being on guard, battling imposter syndrome, survivors’ guilt, [and] unresolved trauma.”

Read more: 32 Quotes to Inspire Leaders to Prioritize Diversity Now

People living with disabilities often hide them

Here’s an article title that might give you pause: “Why Don’t We Hire People With Disabilities?”. It’s unsettling to see the truth blazoned in big letters, but the stats bear out the hype. In the U.S., 76 percent of people with disabilities don’t have jobs. 

“The bottom line is that all over the world a person with a disability is less likely to be employed than a person without a disability,” says Catherine Connelly, a professor of organizational behavior and Canada Research Chair at McMaster University.

And those living with a disability who are employed don’t always report their disability, says the article author Angela Kryhul. “Reasons range from a fear of rejection or negative repercussions to their careers, to simply not wanting to feel different from their peers.”

Read more: 20 Leaders Weigh In: Powerful Thoughts on Gender Equality & Diversity

LGBTQ+ are out in the cold

A Center for American Progress (CAP) 2022 study finds that “50 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents, including 7 in 10 transgender respondents (70 percent), reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination or harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status.”

Additionally, about one-fifth say that their sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status is directly linked to either being fired or not being hired at all. It’s also a factor in being denied a promotion, equal wages, or training opportunities. The most affected are transgender people, LGBTQ+ people of color, and LGBTQ+ people with disabilities, according to the study.

There’s not much recourse, note the authors of the report. That’s because “the current patchwork of nondiscrimination laws in states across the country and existing gaps in federal civil rights laws leave millions of LGBTQI+ people without protection from discrimination.”

When there’s nothing in the law to protect people from discrimination, it makes strong allyship and meaningful inclusion policies extremely important. Finding healthy ways to deal with intolerance and bigotry is unfortunately necessary in our world today, but we need to work toward a future where differences are embraced and celebrated.

“Navigating emotional tax and stress is a deeply personal journey,” Lee tells InHerSight. “Each individual's experience is unique, but the commitment to addressing these issues is universal. Implementing policies and programs that promote a conscious culture can provide valuable guidelines for creating an inclusive, empathetic, and supportive workplace where everyone can thrive, regardless of their background or identity.”

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