Why do women of colour pay an 'emotional tax' at work?

Close up view of mid adult businesswoman in animal print blouse, resting head on hand in office, introspection, daydreaming, distraction, pensive
In the workplace women of colour often face exclusion and microaggressions which take their toll on their mental wellbeing, physical health and careers. (Getty)

Discrimination levelled against women in the workplace comes in many different forms. They are more likely to be talked over and interrupted, less likely to be promoted to top jobs and more often than not, judged on the way they speak and look.

This unfair treatment means many women carry an invisible weight at work. The state of being on guard — and consciously preparing to deal with potential bias or discrimination — leads to a significant emotional tax. And it is a problem most acutely experienced by women of colour.

In workplaces dominated by white men, women of colour often face exclusion and microaggressions which take their toll on their mental wellbeing, physical health and careers.

According to a survey of professionals by the women’s workplace non-profit Catalyst, 60% of the women and men of colour they polled said they had experienced an emotional tax at work.

READ MORE: Why coronavirus is fuelling an economic crisis that will hit women the hardest

“Emotional Tax or undue burden is levied on many people of colour — specifically those who identify with Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial backgrounds — as a result of unfair treatment,” explains Dr Dnika Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst.

“With all fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneous protests condemning racial injustice, we are bearing witness to social inequities magnified,” she says. “By taking a hard look at experiences of emotional tax, companies can advance their conversations on race and racism and bring that dialogue to action. Now is time to dismantle the status quo. Now is the time for positive change.”

Impact of emotional tax on wellbeing

“Being on guard is a harrowing and everyday aspect of emotional tax,” Travis says. “Think about being in a constant state of having to greet each day anticipating racial or gender bias — whether at the hospital, in a meeting, or walking through a park.

“Think about the strain of having to constantly brace yourself for verbal and nonverbal slights that can chip away at your ability to feel valued or respected,” she adds.

This mental strain impacts an employee’s sense of psychological safety, which can contribute to exhaustion, stress, anxiety, burnout and other associated problems too.

Researchers at Catalyst found that a large percentage of Asian, Black, and Latinx employees in the US and Canada who are on guard are also more likely to have sleep issues, which can significantly impact physical and mental health.

READ MORE: How employers can support people's mental health as they go back to work

“This finding is quite compelling and shows a clear risk to productivity and employees’ ability to fully contribute at work,” Travis says.

Impact of emotional tax on women’s careers

Emotional tax can also impact women’s sense of value and their confidence, as well as contributing to retention problems within businesses.

“For example, we found that 50-69% of Black, East Asian, and South Asian professionals in Canada who are highly on guard against bias have a high intent to quit,” Travis says. “Emotional tax is a challenge companies cannot afford to ignore — particularly in these unchartered and uncertain times.”

From a business perspective, then, companies need to do whatever they can to keep driven and committed employees. Catalyst recommends several ways to create a more inclusive environment and reduce the emotional tax felt by BAME workers.

READ MORE: Black and ethnic minority workers hit hardest by coronavirus job losses

Firstly, it helps by making sure companies include supporting and role-modelling flexible work arrangements, as well as facilitating open and honest conversations about experiences and promoting inclusion every day.

Listening to people of colour when they speak about the issues they face is key, as is taking measures to learn and fix the issues within a business or workplace. Speaking up against exclusionary behaviour is a good start, but employers need to act on these behaviours and make sure people are held accountable to ensure they stop.

⁠Careers clinic
⁠Careers clinic