What is the True Cost of Emotional Labor?
People of color (POC) often have work experiences unique to those of their counterparts. Dealing with microaggressions and being tasked with additional, uncompensated diversity work are just some of the hurdles POC face when entering the workforce. This extra burden can cause stress, anxiety, and other health-related issues and has become a significant talking point within POC circles. However, there is little emphasis on emotional labor outside of these circles. Where there is, it focuses solely on the experiences of white women. Brianna Henson, Director of Curriculum Development at UK College of Pharmacy, honed in on this issue and is aiming to provide data to support the POC experience.
Earlier this year, Henson began focusing a portion of her work on the experiences of people of color in the workplace, setting up a survey to obtain reliable data on attitudes, behaviors, and opinions associated with employees who engage in diversity work. Through her survey, which is open to anyone in the workforce, Henson aims to quantify the impact that diversity and inclusion issues have on POC and justify more research on the topic of emotional labor.
The need for data to justify the experiences of POC most likely stem from the 1800s era myths surrounding the physiological differences between white people and Black and Indigenous people. During that time, these myths were used as a justification for slavery and inhumane scientific experiments —today, these myths are still prevalent, and their presence can be felt in nearly every arena. In 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA published a study conducted with 222 white medical students finding that over half supported at least one myth about the physiological differences between races. These myths are dangerous and contribute to the constant invalidation of POC and their experiences.
These myths have evolved and created even more barriers for already marginalized people. In the workplace, this comes in the form of emotional labor. POC are often tasked with duties like heading diversity committees, training new employees of color, and other tasks that transcend the duties of their actual job. Assigning someone work—that often goes unpaid—“because they can handle it” creates a toxic work environment wherein individuals are singled out based on their perceived tolerance. This issue becomes intertwined with the prevalent myths surrounding POC and leads to them shouldering a significant burden that has the potential to cause them harm.
Avoiding the issue isn’t as easy as just saying no; social politics in the workplace can lead to POC becoming alienated if they act in a way that makes colleagues uncomfortable. Henson emphasizes that the stigma associated with people’s race has a significant influence on how people react to feedback from marginalized groups. POC often feel the need to downplay their feelings to avoid falling into racial stereotypes.
“POC often feel as though they need to suppress their reactions,” says Henson. “For instance, if I get visibly angry about an inappropriate comment, that behavior can be seen as socially unacceptable—even if my response is warranted—because of the ‘angry black woman’ trope. As a result, productivity and clear communication take a hit, invalidating my feelings as a contributing member of the team.”
To many, the idea of racism in the workplace seems almost archaic, something that no longer exists. Yet, racism and oppression are not only present but have evolved into something more subtle. This quiet oppression negatively affects the health, social mobility, and literal existence of POC in white spaces. Henson’s research aims to quantify the impact and put emotional labor at the forefront of people’s minds to make way for meaningful conversation and, eventually, progress.
Individuals looking to participate in Henson’s study on the emotional labor surrounding diversity work can find the link here.