Brown Burnout: Why People of Color Are Burning Out on Corporate America

Erika Pryor
The Startup
Published in
7 min readFeb 10, 2020

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Near the end of 2019, I decided I wanted to up my networking game in the new year, and elected to network with 30 people in 30 days in January. Out here in Columbus, Ohio, home of “The Columbus Way.” We boast having a welcoming business community, where you’re only about three degrees or less away from anyone else, and collaboration is part of the secret sauce helping drive our continued economic advancement.

So, I anticipated connecting with 30 people in 30 days would be achievable — and it was. Over the course of January 2020, I met with a number of women and men of color, some I already knew, and others for the first time. I’m a journalist at heart, so I love to ask questions and hear people tell their stories.

During this networking spree, I came across the article, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat,” and a few things clicked. For me, this article contextualized many of my own experiences in the workplace, and seemed to adequately reflect the experiences of many others I had just heard from. Also, I shared the article with my LinkedIn network and came to learn it’s not just a phenomenon facing women, but men of color as well.

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All these qualitative data points got me thinking about the admission by many that these types of situations over-and-over, at various employers have created a sense of burnout on their corporate, non-profit, and government jobs, driving employees of color to opt out of corporate America. Many elected an entrepreneurship, remote or project work route to avoid becoming an office threat once again, have the ability to draw boundaries that are important to them, and gain greater control of their economic future. The pet-to-threat phenomena is one of many reasons I believe employees of color are burning out and bailing on this version of the American Dream.

In case you’re on the fence about the realities of burnout, consider a recent Gallup study of nearly “7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.”

Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially classified burnout as a medical diagnosis. Identified as a problem associated with employment or unemployment, “burnout is, a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Recognize any of these symptoms?

Feelings of energy depletion or physical exhaustion.

Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.

Reduced professional efficacy.

So, burnout is something people are actively experiencing, but I think “brown burnout” is a uniquely important issue. By brown burnout, I mean burnout that is experienced and realized by people of color differently and more intensely than traditional burnout.

The pet-to-threat phenomenon is one key way employees of color experience brown burnout. Here are a few other ways your company may be moving employees of color to brown burn out.

Working multiple jobs within a single role. I can’t tell you how many people I talked with who either left or was let go from their private, public or non-profit sector position because they were required to manage the responsibilities, duties and goal achievements of more than one position within their single role. In these conversations, I heard people say: I tried to communicate to my employer that the work load was unreasonable and overwhelming and they told me I need to better manage my time. The company had to hire 2, 3 or an agency to manage my workload after I left.

I get it, companies are nimble, there’s a talent shortage, new projects come at lightening speed. I’m all about that life. But this inequitable workload is amplified when, brown employees are handed work that our white colleagues are unable or unwilling to complete. Add to that they receive higher pay, advance more quickly, and continue to rely on people of color for “the assist.” These conditions beg the question:

Why are women and men of color tasked with twice as much work as their white counterparts? Moreover, how do you create a work environment that sets up employees to win in a single role, rather than systematically fail in multiple roles?

Lack of access to professional advancement. In many of these above cases, the women and men of color indicating they were tasked with an impossible workload, experienced even greater frustration during annual performance review time. It’s at that moment, you realize that your additional wok has only translated to management as low job performance, and not someone they would consider for promotion or advancement. That’s called maintaining a system which does not provide access to advancement opportunities for employees of color.

On the other hand, if the employee of color’s additional efforts are lauded, you can expect to learn during your review that “because you are doing so well in their role, management wants you to stay exactly where you are, doing exactly what you’re doing.” That too is called maintaining a system which does not provide access to advancement opportunities for diverse employees.

You see how that double bind works? If you do the excessive work and you’re not hitting all the performance goals, you are underachieving, and if you do accomplish the additional workload, you are pigeonholed and prohibited from advancing and benefiting from your additional labor. Sounds great… right?

Why are some organizations challenged when it comes to recognizing and advancing employees of color at the same rate as their white counterparts? Moreover, how do you companies create a workplace culture that recognizes, rewards and values and the additional contributions of women and men of color?

Inability to establish boundaries without retaliation. Here’s a classic practice people of color know well and will cause folks to run for the hills — which seems to be the point. You are overworked and trying to manage these overwhelming demands, so you connect with your manager or supervisor to negotiate and draw boundaries to ease your impending burnout status. Another magic pet to threat moment.

During your conversation, your manager seems to be on board, and moves a few projects off your plate even. However, within a few weeks, you realize you’re not being included on certain meetings or email threads about some of your existing projects. You later learn your manager has reported to HR you are unwilling to do your job and “difficult to work with.” This is called “freeze out” and these activities should be considered retaliatory.

This experience aligns with many of those I connected with during my 30 day networking journey. What’s difficult to reconcile is the high number of white professionals I’ve talked with or know that have very strict boundaries around their time are praised for “not answering emails after 6pm; leaving the office by 6pm sharp, or not working on the weekends, etc.”

Why are women and men of color prohibited from drawing boundaries in the work place without experiencing retaliation? Moreover, how do you create a work place culture that embraces employees drawing boundaries intended to preserve their mental and emotional health because it means they can be more engaged while at work?

Increased expectations to manage workplace racial-gender emotional labor. Although there seems to be an increase in awareness regarding the racial and gender emotional labor that people of color are automatically expected to do regardless of their position or role; the practice endures. And this can frequently mean diverse employees and team members are charged with helping white folks:

Feel better about their exclusive activities, practices and policies, in the hopes that you will feel good enough to actually review and reimagine how these things are lived out in practice impacting people of different social, racial and gendered subject positions differently. You get that someone can never know what it means to “walk in your shoes,” but an attempt at empathy would be great, rather than claiming ignorance every time.

Understand that they have some microaggressions they’ve been working out on you and that you don’t have time for that. You can report this to HR, if there’s an HR, but more than likely you’ll be told that “it’s your responsibility to resolve the conflict. Thanks for the support — not.

So you are now tasked with explaining to your aggressor that you understand their microaggression was not malicious, and yet their actions still exist as microaggressions. Sometimes that’s not enough and you do your due diligence by providing additional examples for clarification. You hope this means they will stop targeting and harassing you. It’s hit or miss.

By being openly available for diversity, equity and inclusion consultation which although may be outside your wheelhouse, you are expected to contribute and often lead these discussions and instances of organizational change. Not every employee of color wants to be a spokesperson or advocate. But many times, if you’re POC, you don’t get a choice. That’s emotionally taxing.

The emotional labor list can go on and on, my point here is:

Why are employees of color expected to perform this additional emotional labor which goes unrecognized as additional labor, unacknowledged through promotional advancement, and uncompensated financially?

Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that black women are the fastest growing group to become entrepreneurs and business owners. But, that’s not for everyone. And if you’re still willing to be part of corporate America, working a traditional job, I think now is the time for employers — private sector and non-profit, education and government — to review, reimagine and implement diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives in strategic ways to support employees of color and embrace the opportunities that come with greater diversity at every level of your organization.

If you think this isn’t happening at your company, check into it. You just might be surprised at what you learn.

Dr. Erika Pryor is a communications, marketing, UX researcher, community builder and startup evangelist in Columbus, Ohio. She consultants and teaches on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion and utilizes culturally-informed storytelling to help clients connect with niche audiences, users, and customers. erika@coolcreativedesign.com

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Erika Pryor
The Startup

Founder, CMO @ EPiC Creative + Design, Culturally-informed Storyteller, Startup Evangelist, Community Builder. Dr. Mom.