Returning to Work: Navigating Anxiety, Race and Gender in the Covid Era
At the beginning of October 2021, I tweeted about the strain that I and some of my friends and peers were feeling due to the return to in-person work. I spoke particularly about the experiences that women and members of UK minority ethnic (UKME) groups might be dealing with:
“Can we talk about how working from home meant 18 months free from racial micro-aggressions, cultural tensions, sexual harassment and other forms of workplace madness for many? And how going back to the office means extra emotional and mental labour for many of us or...?”
The response from other people in the Twitterverse seemed to suggest that I was not alone in having these concerns, and various people shared how working from home had had some positive effects for their sense of wellbeing in comparison to their usual working life in the office. Two areas came up most: the reality of racial microaggressions and concerns about how women are perceived and treated at work.
What are microaggressions?
Racial microaggressions are those sometimes-subtle comments or behaviours which further exacerbate the sense of ‘otherness’ that ethnic minority people can experience in white-majority work settings. Many of these microaggressions are unintentional but reveal hidden prejudices or a lack of cultural awareness. They can range from something as seemingly small as being asked to explain a new hairstyle in front of a group of white colleagues in a work meeting, to the larger problem of a person being characterised as aggressive or overlooked because of prejudices about their cultural background.
The impact on wellbeing at work and career prospects can be severe. As several Black women rightfully tweeted in response to my tweet, racial microaggressions did not disappear during lockdowns and home working, they simply evolved into online forms. Yet the return to in-person working means a return to places that can (even unintentionally) be hostile environments for UK ethnic minority groups.
These interpersonal work issues are taking place in the wider context of a pandemic that we know has had a disproportionate impact on UK minority ethnic communities. Avoiding Covid-19 infection has been a concern for many people from all ethnic groups but is even more pronounced because of the fact that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to contract Covid and also to die from Covid than the white population. This disproportionality has been linked to the broader issues affecting these groups such as the higher levels of poverty and inadequate housing, but also to the higher rates of ethnic minority workers in frontline roles such as in the NHS. The need to keep hold of a job coupled with the risks of going to work have undoubtedly created additional mental strain.
These factors have not, for the most part, translated into greater consideration regarding the specific risks being faced by members of UKME groups and their families, due to the return to in-person work. Thus, UKME workers may well be forced to bear the additional consequences and anxieties of going back to work – if they have been able to work from home at all – alone, and with these pressures, increasing risks in terms of mental health.
We may not all experience these forms of microaggressions, but it is true, I think, that many of us, whether on the basis of gender, race, culture, class, sexuality or disability (or a combination) are dealing with additional anxieties and stressors when it comes to the return to in-person working.
For women, anxieties about returning to work may be associated with concerns about gender-based prejudices and sexual harassment. In tweeting earlier in September about the joys of not having to worry about clothing and perceptions of my body as a professional woman during lockdown, it was clear from some responses that many women could relate. For many women, this may involve some concern about what they wear and how this will cause them to be perceived by colleagues. Gone are the days when we might wear whatever we were comfortable in (at least on the bottom half) and could maximise our mental capacity for the tasks ahead of us. The return to work may mean the return to worries about changes in our weight or body shape, appropriate work clothing and the sexualisation of our bodies. There is of course, an additional level of mental and emotional labour required on the part of women who have been experiencing harassment at work, and were spared some aspects of that physical threat, by working from home.
Re-entering the workplace physically means readjusting to those realities and re-learning coping strategies for spaces that can be hostile, even unintentionally.
It is important to note that these pressures often go unnoticed or unnamed even by those being affected – I did not recognise that these issues were taking a toll on me until I unexpectedly spent 50 mins talking to my therapist about them! When they are highlighted in relation to ourselves or others, finding a safe space to process those feelings is essential, as is taking practical steps to support colleagues and friends facing more than we might imagine.
You may not be experiencing any of these pressures, in which case you are perfectly placed to be a supportive friend or colleague. If someone shares something with you, then listen intently to them and refrain from judging what they share. Often microaggressions and harassment may not sound as destructive to an outsider, as they feel to the person experiencing them. Remember that their feelings are valid.
What can we learn from the Bible?
From a Christian perspective, we might hold on to the simple (but not easily enacted) words of Jesus, who invites us not to worry about tomorrow, but to focus on today, to seek God’s reign and God’s justice:
"So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:31-34)"
It might seem too simplistic to think that we cannot or should not worry about what we might eat, drink or wear (yes even for women at work!) – but this is not an invitation to be irresponsible, but to put our focus elsewhere. Not worrying does not mean we ignore racial disparities or gender prejudice – on the contrary, seeking God’s righteousness means that we absolutely should notice, pray and act when we see injustice and evil taking place. But we do not have to allow fear to dictate how we think or what we do. While we do not know the future or have the ability to control every outcome, we are not alone as we find our way through.
It is important to begin responding to these matters with this recognition that we are not alone, even if we might feel alone in our circumstances. There may be others experiencing similar things who we can talk to as we figure out how we want to respond. It is worth saying that whether you choose to respond to any mistreatment or anxieties by finding your own personal coping mechanisms or by raising issues with colleagues or more senior staff, the choice is yours. It is important to be in tune with yourself and what you feel capable of doing at the time. Be kind to yourself.
A few practical tips...
Though coping mechanisms and strategies might vary, there are some general steps that might be taken to dealing with some of these realities:
1. Talk to decision-makers
If your workplace prioritises staff wellbeing you may be able to share your concerns with someone who has the power to do something to ease the strain. This might be someone in HR, a line manager who might advocate on your behalf or a senior staff member who can make a change. It might be helpful to write down the different points you want to make, so you can clearly communicate the specific issue(s) and any solution(s) you would like to suggest.
2. Find a safe space
You may work in an environment where you do not feel comfortable sharing your experiences or you may not want to. You may choose – as many are doing – to find a job where remote working is standard practice. But if you choose to stay it is important that you pay attention to your health and find a safe space to process your feelings and concerns. This might involve talking therapies with a professional therapist or with a friend to share or discuss coping strategies.
3. Locate resources
There is no end to podcasts, books and blogs with resources to enable us to manage stress and anxiety around work. These wellbeing and work resources can be general or specific to particular groups such as professional women and/or people from UKME backgrounds. There are also many resources available on inclusive work cultures and environments for leaders who may not be affected by these issues themselves but who want to support their team members.
Even if we cannot find comrades for the journey, when we take the action of self-care, complaint or advocacy to ensure that the dignity God has given to each of us is recognised, we can trust that God is on board with us.
Dr Selina Stone is a tutor and lecturer at St Mellitus College.