When social identity issues are not addressed well in the workplace, it can cause a lot of stress. You know it’s rough when your workplace stress is about the navigating the dynamics of being the only minority on the Diversity Task Force, experiencing cultural isolation in the work place, or figuring out how to address hurtful and infuriating comments from coworkers, clients, and bosses that are based in stereotypes. You miss the everyday stress of deadlines, meetings, and projects.

Social Identity and The Workplace

What do I mean by social identity?

We create a social identity for ourselves based on how we fit into the world around us and the groups we identify with. Our gender, race, sexuality, religion, social class, and nationality can all shape our view of social identities. Others’ perceptions of our social identities may or may not overlap with our own, especially since some identities can be less visible and less acknowledged (e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, certain diseases or illnesses).

The Systemic Stuff

As a society, we have been pulled to minimize and avoid “real” conversations about systemic oppression and how it impacts us. As a result, workplace stress relating to social identity issues can often be ignored or inadequately addressed.

Unaddressed social identity issues can place a large burden on minorities who then need to spend effort on figuring out how to negotiate stereotypes, unrealistic expectations, and discrimination, while also making sure they meet their career goals. Unsurprisingly, these difficult dynamics makes it harder for individuals to figure out and address these issues, in a way that is protective and proactive. These issues, if unaddressed, can rob people of their passion and focus, resulting in symptoms of burnout

Helpful Language: Microaggressions

Microaggressions are defined as brief, everyday messages that communicate denigrating and limiting messages to individuals about their group membership. Microaggressions can be verbal or non-verbal, and can be intentional or unintentional. Some examples include being excluded from specific meetings, being called names, or asked to do specific tasks that may consciously or unconsciously feel like “putting you in your place.”

Signs of Social Identity-Related Workplace Stress

When we experience stress related to social identity issues, we might feel frustrated, disenchanted, sad, and hypervigilant about our quality of our work, our behaviors, and our words. Below are several signs of workplace stress specific to social identity concerns:

  • Avoiding specific topics about social identity with coworkers or bosses
  • Being on the receiving end of microaggressions
  • Feeling notably more rejuvenated by interactions with people who reflect more of your experiences and cultural values
  • Having consistent concerns that colleagues are evaluating and making conclusions about a larger group based on your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions
  • Feeling in charge of a lot more emotional labor than your colleagues on topics on diversity – for example, you might be the only minority at work and you often have to “translate,” explain, and break things now for others. This work feels really meaningful but this role wasn’t part of your job description, and you often feel exhausted.
  • Experiencing a heightened sense of irritability, sadness, or fear that comes up in response to a microaggression, highlighting the often discussed idea that microaggressions can feel like “death by a thousand papercuts.”

Coping with Workplace Stress Caused by Social Identity Issues

In order to take care of yourself, it can be helpful to address both your stress response and your stressors with a long-term focus. 

Stress Response vs. Stressors

First, it is important to understand the difference between the terms “stress response” and “stressors.” Stressors are outside events or stimuli that cause feelings of distress and anxiety. Common everyday workplace stressors include commuting time, industry deadlines, lack of job autonomy, and frustrations with supervisors.

Stress response refers to the chemical and psychological reaction to stressors. We feel the effects of stress in our body and also in our mind. Simply stated, we become stressed as a result of our stressors.

In the context of social identity issues in the workplace, the stressor is feelings of discrimination or cultural isolation in the workplace. The stress response is the repeated and regular impact of this cultural isolation or discrimination on you.

While you may not be able to find an immediate palatable solution to how you want to navigate cultural isolation or discrimination  in the workplace, you can take steps to minimize the impact of the stress you feel. Some ways to attend to your stress response could include:

  • Yoga
  • Higher intensity exercise like running or kickboxing
  • Talking honestly with a supportive friend
  • Creativity in the form of any kind that allows you to express yourself

Some ways to consider addressing the stressor long-term could include:

  • Reaching out to like-minded coworkers or supervisors
  • Finding a mentor or networking opportunities with others with shared identities outside of your workplace to learn and connect
  • Reading books or listening to podcasts by individuals who may have faced the hurdles you are trying to navigate
  • Creating a plan to clarify what you might need from your work, and different strategies to achieve it
  • Finding ways to convert this current pain-point that involves a lot of invisible unrewarded work into a marketable skillset that works more to your advantage

I hope this post helped you feel less alone in your experiences and gave you some ideas on how you can address your workplace stress in a way that protects your professional identity as well as your social identities!