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How To Deal With Representation Burnout In The Workplace

Anabel Pasarow

In January, Anne Helen Peterson deemed millennials “the burnout generation,” and in May the World Health Organization officially legitimized burnout as a medical syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” But there’s a more specific form of burnout that has gotten a lot less attention.

Representation burnout is defined by feelings of exhaustion that come from being the only person of a particular identity in an environment and the othering that can occur as a result. And Marah Lidey and Naomi Hirabayashi, the founders of self-care app Shine, are tackling this issue head on. After meeting at work and bonding over their shared experience of being women of color in the workplace, the two launched their app to provide a resource for mental and emotional health support to their community.

“No one’s talking about what this is like — not only just to be the only woman in a room, but to be the only queer person in the room, the only Black person in the room, the only person with a disability in the room. So we thought it was really important to bring light to this issue with Shine,” said Lidey. Ahead, we chatted about what workplaces can do to better support their employees.

How can workplaces (and allies in workplaces) better support employees who may be feeling representation burnout?

Lidey: Businesses have to be thinking about building diverse teams, but also fostering inclusivity from day one. The first and most important thing is to understand that representation is nuanced. Whether you’re thinking about it from a hiring and diversity perspective or an internal inclusivity perspective, one of the things that people don’t often think about is invisible experiences — be it someone’s socioeconomic background, their ability, their access, their family experiences. For example, financially, if you’re creating a culture that is thoughtful of people’s socioeconomic backgrounds, you might not ask them to pay for a plane ticket up front, or even lunch up front. Representation burnout doesn’t just come from a lack of other people in that particular environment, but it also comes from a lack of systems. Things like affinity groups at work, sponsorship, mentorship, creating places within the company or connecting people with others outside the company where they feel they can go if they’re experiencing something that they may be feeling because they’re the only one experiencing that specific thing.

Also, intent doesn’t always equal impact. A lot of great leaders in the space have really great intentions, but unfortunately we don’t see that impact in either the numbers — in terms of representation and diversity — or in terms of how people actually feel. So it’s okay as a leader to ask for help and just have outside resources. As much as you might have great intentions, if that’s not translating to impact, you need to try something else.

Hirabayashi: At Shine we have unlimited vacation, and if you need to take a personal day, we don’t have a cap on that. Marginalized groups experience mental health issues at a higher rate [than non-marginalized groups]. Maybe something that happened in the news makes you feel like you need to take a day, and you don’t want to explain that to your boss and you just want to be able to take a day. The idea is that we’re not asking people to always speak to why they need it or what it is or tracking every single day, but giving people space to get their job done and making sure they’re taking care of their mental health along the way. For Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we talked to our community and found that 95% of our community knows that they would benefit from a mental health day, but only 28% of people feel comfortable taking one.

Lidey: Even just the word PTO tends to represent vacation, and we wanted to let people know, no matter what you’re going through or what you’re dealing with, feel free to take a self-care day. It’s completely normal, and we’re not going to ask you what’s wrong with you.

What advice would you give to someone who works in a more old-fashioned corporate environment, where there isn’t discussion around burnout and mental health?

Lidey: It’s really all about boundaries and spaces — finding your safe space where you can go if you need support, whether it’s from people who are like you in an affinity group, or it might be an ally, someone who isn’t like you but is able to communicate to people that are like them that might be more in the majority. Another thing is to know your warning signs. Let’s say you’re going to a conference, and you look it up and know there are going to be a lot of people who are not like you there. It’s about understanding what boundaries you want to set once you know that warning sign. If you’re already feeling uncomfortable, it might be something you don’t actually want to go to. Or if you’re feeling a little bit uncomfortable, you might set boundaries like staying for a certain amount of time, or boundaries around what you talk about or are willing to engage in. We all exist within systems, and we know that the most effective change we can have is by changing the systems fundamentally, but on an individual level, we have to find ways to cope and to process the day-to-day. So setting boundaries, knowing your warning signs, and leaning on allies are incredibly important. These micro-actions can really help you feel a little bit safer.

Obviously the news cycle is intense, so it’s also important to remember to take digital breaks. Representation burnout is something that very much intersects with our online world, so it might be overwhelming when you hear something racist online, for example, whether that’s from a political perspective or a video going around. Just remember that it’s okay to disengage. Unplugging does not mean you don’t care. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions of the time that we’re in, where activism is finally becoming more common. We also need to balance it with our own self-care.

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