What Burnout Can Teach Us About Workplace Biases

IRIS, leaders in the international HR space, offer crucial understandings on how employers need to change the approaches that have led to biased burnouts.

Workplace experiences vary greatly for minorities. The emerging “occupational phenomenon” known as burnout, which was identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, is one area that’s often experienced disproportionally by marginalised groups of workers. 

An employee in any minority, whether gender, sexuality, race, ability or ethnicity, is more likely to experience burnout, especially when compared with their cisgender, heteronormative and white male counterparts in the workforce. 

Following a year of unnerving disruption, the relevance and risks of burnout in the workplace are rising, with a pattern of increasing cases over the past 18 months. Given the challenging landscape during the global pandemic, along with emerging workplace trends like hyperconnectivity, the previous year has taken a sizable toll on underrepresented demographics the most. 

The Burnout Problem, Explained 

With sweeping change affecting different lifestyles, work habits, and beyond, it’s critical to understand how minority demographics are being affected differently from their co-workers. There has been a long-acknowledged disconnect between minorities and fairer workplace experiences, especially when it comes to racial, gender or sexual equality. The recent year has been a headwind of disruptive change, but that shouldn’t mean employers should ignore the importance of inclusivity. 

According to unique data collected from a COVID-19 social survey at University College London (UCL), racial minority participants were more likely to experience high rates of depression or anxiety, which were felt more during the national lockdown. Other groups including younger adults, parents, those with household incomes below 30k annually, and women were also amongst those identified as more likely to experience anxiety. 

Another report titled “Women in the Workplace”, published by McKinsey and Lean In, discovered how burnout rates have increased by 10% when compared to conditions before the pandemic. One of the key findings revealed how burnout is escalating faster for women than men, where high employee turnover figures suggest that professional women are leaving their positions as a result of poor workplace experiences. 

What Biases Exist In The Workplace? 

Measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace, the global pandemic has brought into focus the many disparities that inhibit different types of employees. Biological biases, for example, are widely spread in the workforce, and professional women are often disproportionately affected by change. Inequality can stall workplace progression, holding women back from promotions and other career opportunities. The troubling perception that female employees are only ever the primary caregiver for a household, and their professional identity is secondary, is just another example of how minorities can be typecast. 

For identities in the workplace that are more fluid and varied, language can be a barrier that’s often hard to overcome. Employees who do not identify as straight, heteronormative terms (like “husband” and “wife”) can be a point of frustration, especially because this can create generalised assumptions that get loosely applied to an entire workforce. As many relationships cannot be captured in conventional language, and are instead fluid, all workplaces should be encouraged to learn about and embrace other communities like LGBTQIA+ members. This applies to other aspects of sexuality, where straight and gay are not exclusively the only ways to identify. This openness and inclusivity should be as planned as a policy and as spontaneous as a colleague’s unconditional understanding and courtesy towards those with marginalised identities. 

Racial bias is increasingly becoming a central point in the workplace conscience. Racial tension starting in America after the death of George Floyd resulted in many brands and businesses alike investing in and committing to  DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives. Cruel and unequal assumptions are too causally forced on racial minorities. Workplace anecdotes about racial injustice range from unfair and improper jests about poor English, to assumptions that an employee of colour is somehow foreign or doesn’t belong. There are too often hurtful and aggressive misconceptions that stigmatise racial identities. This history of abuse and generational trauma has been inherited across different families and communities for centuries and is still ongoing.

The problem with workplace bias is how easily it can be concealed in everyday gestures and language. Whether in the popular media or the daily act of discrimination, including micro and macro aggressions, the issue of occupational burnout is becoming more relevant as it is a risk for marginalized identities in the workplace.  

How Can Employers Remove Bias? 

Bias reduction needs a proactive approach, rather than relying on tokenism and empty gestures. The careful and attentive creation of policies that support marginalised identities, and goal posting your progress, means that you can measure and benchmark the effectiveness of changes in your workplace. HR professionals should use policies as the foundation for progressive change but measure the progress of these regularly to ensure that all employee experiences within the workplace are fair and equal. 

Build The Right Language 

Encourage a company-wide sensitivity to a more inclusive vocabulary, and one that reduces learnt discriminations. Language is difficult to control, and HR can empower colleagues to become more understanding about bias when they make everyone aware of hidden biases. Broad terms such as “guys” can isolate employers who do not identify with male pronouns or presentations. 

Using the likes of auto-response features in Slack, employers can help colleagues receive live prompts to “edit” their language to reflect a more inclusive vocabulary. 

Be Active Rather Than Passive 

A proactive approach describes an employer willing to act out against discrimination, rather than observe an issue, report it, and archive issues. Discrimination needs more than paperwork. This extends beyond the walls of an office space, as discrimination by nature is not exclusive to one setting, but rather defines a sense of fear and hatred that targets an individual regardless of where they go. 

For example, a black employee may experience aggressive acts either during their commute to work, or see it reflected in the media. Work with employees and nurture them through the everyday trauma of racism, showing your support in small acts, such as listening, or accommodating workloads to help them feel comfortable. 

Issue Benefits Flexibly 

Conscious or unconscious bias can be hard to uncover when it’s concealed in the everyday practices of a business. HR specialists are trained to identify all forms of discrimination including those invisible barriers that may be withholding different members of a team from progressing. 

When it comes to structuring career progression plans, including benefits and salary increases, it helps to ensure this is fairly distributed across all employees. If you feel unsure about this, consider auditing and comparing employee promotions and salaries across similar roles, including those from marginalised backgrounds (if this information is properly consented to be given).  

Burnout Reduction 

Every employee has different conditions, which makes it imperative that employers are proactively encouraging bias and burnout reduction. With so much disruption and change afoot outside of the office, employers should focus on building safe, comfortable working environments to combat the uncertainty and anxiety caused by a global pandemic, and the tumultuous year or so that has passed. 

Mitigation of burnout and bias goes hand-in-hand, resulting in greater employee retention rates and wellbeing that can be applied at work, and beyond it. 

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