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Toronto business owner Abena Anim-Somuah says that employers need to listen to their employees of colour when it comes to creating an atmosphere that is welcoming for everyone.Lucy Lu

In March 2020, Emma Bell began working from home, like so many Canadian workers after the Government of Ontario ordered the closure of all non-essential workplaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bell, a postdoctoral research fellow at a Toronto medical centre and a person of colour who uses they/them pronouns, says it’s now become their preferred way to work. “I love it and have no intention of returning [to the office] any time soon,” Bell says.

When working in the office, Bell says they often felt the burden of educating others when it came to race and identity, something they say “wasn’t in my job description” and felt like overtime.

“It can be demoralizing that, instead of spending my energy on working, I [was] spending it on just trying to exist in the workplace,” Bell says. “But when I’m at home, it’s so much easier to manage. Interactions are bite-sized, whether it’s meetings via Zoom or answering emails.”

Bell is not alone in their desire to work from home. As organizations begin to transition to an in-office model again, some workers of colour are not looking forward to heading back into the office. A March 2021 study of knowledge workers by Future Forum, a research group launched by Slack Technologies Inc., revealed that only 3 per cent of Black workers want to return to the office, compared to 21 per cent of white workers.

As well, this year’s McKinsey & Company “Women in the Workplace” report, which examined data from over 400 major U.S. companies, found that while there has never been a bigger conversation around advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, women of colour continue to experience the same rate of microaggressions and “othering” as they did two years ago. Microaggressions are everyday slights – whether intentional or unintentional – that can communicate derogatory or negative attitudes towards culturally marginalized groups.

The McKinsey report also found that those who face these kinds of issues in their workplace are twice as likely to feel burned out.

Being an ‘only’ in the workplace

The burden of “identity labour” is why working from home has become preferable for some people of colour, says Kamilah Clayton, a social worker and psychotherapist based in Whitby, Ont.

Clayton explains that Black women in particular may feel forced to do both formal and informal emotional labour in the office. This can lead to representation burnout, which refers to the stress and exhaustion a marginalized person can feel when they are the only person of a particular identity in the workplace.

“There is an underlying idea that we are just so committed to the work that we’re going to do whatever it takes, and often that means going above and beyond,” Clayton says. “And so we are putting ourselves in these positions where we are caring for others, we’re mentoring others, but that leaves us completely exhausted.”

After the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, which led to a reawakened Black Lives Matter movement just months after the pandemic began, Clayton notes that many organizations didn’t do the work, but did “virtue signal” by putting Black people in important positions without meaningful purpose or necessary resources.

“In my own practice, I’ve heard many say, ‘I feel unappreciated and that my work is not accounted for,’” Clayton says. “The additional work they’re doing to support the organization feels invisible.”

Abena Anim-Somuah is the Toronto-based founder of Food Supply, a platform created to empower culinary creators to build their brands. Anim-Somuah says her parents drilled the idea of working “twice as hard for half as much” in her head “because when people see me, they don’t just see Abena, they see an entire race.”

She adds, “That burden can be really difficult, because you’re having to deal with systemic issues, with people judging you without getting to know you.”

Clayton says while workers of colour may be extremely skilled, they are left feeling like they aren’t, because their organization may not be affirming their identify or validating who they are and the work they are doing.

“[Then] comes burnout, imposter syndrome, and bitterness and resentment towards your employer,” Clayton says.

How to change it

According to Clayton, working from home has reduced the amount of time people of colour have had to spend dealing with racial politics, leading people of colour to feel less stress, a greater connection to their work and a greater feeling of accomplishment.

However, the Future Forum study notes that while hybrid and flexible working arrangements can significantly improve satisfaction for Black workers, “This isn’t about simply giving Black employees the ability to work from home, while white executives return to old habits. This is about fundamentally changing your own ways of working and holding people accountable for driving inclusivity in your workplace, including how and where you hire, when and how you show support.”

Employers need to listen to their employees of colour when it comes to making real change and creating an atmosphere that is welcoming for everyone, says Anim-Somuah, adding that it’s something she thinks about “constantly” as a business owner with staff.

“That’s the beauty of living in countries like Canada and cities like Toronto where diversity runs deep; you get to experience and understand so many cultures,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want to bring that into the workplace?”

For workers hoping to share their concerns with their employers, Clayton suggests advocating through a collective as opposed to approaching management as an individual.

“Coming together and forming employee resource groups or communities of care within the organization is a great way to address this,” Clayton says. Employees can talk about what their experiences are and discuss what they need in order to feel safe to return to the work environment.

“Document it, and then take it not just to middle management but all the way to the top and say, ‘This is what we need in order to feel safe,’” she says. “And finding allies along the way is the way to build a better workplace for everyone.”

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