I recently opened up about a time in my career when I was the only woman of color at a previous job. The endless racial gaslighting and exclusionary behaviors that I endured took a serious toll on my mental health, which ultimately led to me to quit that job (and I’m grateful I had the privilege to do so). I go into detail in my last issue of Inclusion is Leadership, Recovering From Being the Only Woman of Color at Work. So many of you responded to it on LinkedIn, and it’s been encouraging and heartbreaking to read your stories.
What’s hardest about my experience was that at first, I actually blamed myself for what was happening. I found out later that this is all-too-common.
In fact, let me put it plainly: women of color blaming ourselves for systemic bias is a workplace crisis.
Danielle Jenkins Henry, a licensed marriage family therapist associate (LMFTA), relates to my experience. The mental health challenges she faced after dealing with discrimination and bullying at a toxic workplace led to her become a licensed therapist and set up her own psychotherapy practice.
She wanted to ensure that Black women could get the mental health support they need. She quit a lucrative tech job and set up her practice so other Black women would not have to go through the same isolation and lack of support that she did.
Jenkins Henry also shared four strategies for women of color to preserve their own mental well-being until they can safely remove themselves from toxic situations rife with systemic bias:
Know you can leave. Some women of color feel they need to stay and fight for their “place at the table,” but it’s simply not worth sacrificing your mental health. “There are parts of our spirits that are being damaged, and that is what needs protecting when we experience discrimination in the workplace,” says Jenkins Henry. Even if leaving isn’t a practical option for you or your family right now, you don’t owe a toxic job your loyalty.
Find adaptive coping strategies. There are many reasons that can make it difficult to leave a toxic work environment. In those cases, it's imperative to find adaptive coping strategies. Jenkins Henry suggests meditation, exercise, healthy eating, and adequate rest as a way of building internal reserves.
Find a support network. Reflect on who your support network is. Once you’ve identified who can support you, tell them about what you’re facing at work so you don’t feel so isolated. Examples of potential support groups are religious organizations, a sorority or fraternity, or employee resource groups. I needed this advice so badly; I remember isolating myself when I was facing bias at a previous job, because I was so ashamed for not being “tough enough” to cope.
Plan your exit strategy. Leaving a toxic workplace immediately isn’t always possible, but you can start planning. Looking for job opportunities within and outside the company is great, but if you feel that you can no longer take it, Jenkins Henry advises seeking a clinical diagnosis and filing for medical leave. Even taking a sabbatical can do some good for your well-being.
Jenkins Henry’s goal with these four strategies is to prevent women from experiencing what she (and I) did: reaching crisis levels of burnout from toxic, biased workplaces.
The mental health toll incurred by women of color who deal with constant racist, discriminatory and exclusionary behaviors in the workplace is only starting to be understood.
As always, we must look out for ourselves and each other by prioritizing our own mental health.
So yes, shore up coping strategies, find support and plan your exit. But most importantly, know that you are never to blame for systemic bias at work. And please share: Have you ever used any of Jenkins Henry’s coping strategies? Have you developed your own that you’re comfortable sharing? Let me know! I love to hear from you.