By Ludmila N. Praslova 8 minute Read
There is much good advice about getting more rest and preventing burnout. Yet, many still go without time off and work through weekends, year after year. They are “holding the fort” when others are on vacation, taking a long weekend, or out on leave.
In my diversity and inclusion work, I have heard this sentiment too many times: “I am tired. But people like me must work twice as hard to be seen as half as good as the others. So I keep going.”
I have also said this too many times. Just keep going, on fumes and antidepressants, whatever it takes.
“Like me” comes in many forms: first-generation college graduates and immigrants, people of color and people with disabilities, early-career professionals and mid-career professionals by threatened ageism.
Some learned the “work harder than others” approach from their parents. Others were told point-blank by their bosses that they are expected to work more and better than their coworkers. Black employees know that their work is likely to be scrutinized. And single women are often assigned more work than their coworkers. Multiply marginalized individuals may experience all of the above.
The self-help advice, in this case, does not help. When people look for tips on how to advance their careers despite workplace bias, well-meaning mentors and advice columnists urge making up for any prejudice we face by overperforming and overdelivering. This advice to “pay extra dues” is given to young professionals and those over 50women who want to “lean in,” and those who need flexibility (and are counseled to pay “tax” on it by delivering more).
The “overdelivering tax” on people from stigmatized groups should be addressed systemically. At least three parties should be involved:
1) Individuals affected by biases and fearful of taking time off
2) Managers and employers who can help create more just workplaces
3) Thought leaders and culture influencers who can help shape cultural norms and expectations
I confess, I have major anxiety about taking time off. It is likely that being raised on my grandmother’s stories of starvation during World War II and the extremes it took to survive had something to do with it. Being a first-generation college student aiming for top academic scholarships reinforced my overdelivering habit. So did one of my long-ago boss’s insistence on evaluating the work of immigrants by much higher standards, and another boss’s belief that single women must produce more and work weekends because they have nothing else to do with their lives. I am far from “cured” from the overwork habit, but the tips below are something I use to develop a more sustainable approach to work.
Understand that overdelivering is a trap. Whether you are just starting out in a biased world or have a long-standing habit of overdelivering as means to cope with injustice, it’s important to understand that overdelivering does not work. More often than not, outstanding, “out of the ballpark” performance provides only an illusion of safety, while setting us on the road toward unsustainable demands. With the exception of rare jobs based on objective individual criteria, in most workplaces, overdelivering results in setting a higher baseline. The more you do, the more will be expected of you. Bosses, coworkers, and clients will keep coming with: “Oh, but you are so good at this, it will only take you ten minutes (or days, weeks, or months).
This may seem like a good “job security” strategy, but in many workplaces there is a real danger that, if not this year, then next year or the year after, you will be buried by the avalanche of work, and your health will suffer—and with it , your job security. (Research also demonstrated that other “side effects” of exceptional performance include bullying and even sabotage from coworkers.)
Humanize yourself. Of course, performing well is important. High—but not twice as good, twice as much —performance, however, is best when coupled with relationship building, or “humanizing yourself,” because one of the most problematic aspects of marginalization is dehumanization. High performance without relationship building is likely to reinforce dehumanization of the performer. We become cast as workhorses, there to carry the load—and it is almost impossible to recover without leaving your job.
Bringing more of yourself to work as a person from a marginalized group can be scary. Many stigmatized people are used to masking disabilities and cultural code-switching at work. When you are different, sharing often results in blank stars at best and ridicule at the worst. (For instance, try sharing truly authentic cultural foods and see what happens.)
I understand the disclosure anxiety. In some cases, sharing is giving people ammunition—like the one time I told someone I am autistic and they immediately used it against me. But the anxiety and the lack of connection create a vicious cycle that needs to be broken somewhere. While immediate and full vulnerability with everyone is not the answer, connecting in baby steps is likely to work. A photo here, a mention there, a story another time.
Sharing is also difficult when your lifestyle, family makeup, or a living situation are different from most. But it is still possible. When others talk about their kids and weekend plans, talk about whatever matters in your life, be it pets, sports, or creative pursuits. When others share photos of landscaping their large yards, a close-up photo of your thriving container garden can be just as attractive.
Take baby steps. The baby steps idea also applies to taking time off and to saying “no.” Try taking a weekend off. Then a long weekend. Then a short vacation. You will be more productive when rested.
Say “no” to one small project that will force you into overwork, citing your other projects. Then say “no” to a committee setting if it’s not aligned with your goals. Then say “no” to take over someone else’s responsibilities—and don’t bother explaining.
If working reasonable hours results in the work pileup, or if at any point of your baby steps experiment your manager or coworkers push you into overwork, consider looking for a better environment, or helping to bring about the change in your current organization.
Look for a better fit for your talents. Yes, changing jobs is a big step. And sometimes, we may feel that the stigma will travel with us, so why bother? But it is possible to find a more inclusive organization. Moving can also help establish a fresh expectations baseline. But the baby step approach can also work here, and perhaps an internal transfer within your current organization will help with both finding a more accepting subculture, and with a baseline re-set.
Finally, an ability strategy that can help you (as well as others) is becoming involved in the effort to create A healthier workplace for everyone, by collaborating with coworkers or community organizations focused on advancing well-being and inclusion at work. But make sure to put on your oxygen mask first.
Managers and employers
It’s the responsibility of leaders in organizations to check who is guarding your fort while others take care of themselves. Is it the same people every time? Are these people underrepresented overachievers?
I asked Karen Lee, an award-winning author, diversity champion, and provost At Wheaton College, how leaders in organizations can support employees who might be affected by inequitable workload expectations. Her suggestions call for leaders to carefully examine both individual and systemic sources of potential unfairness. “It’s important to stay attuned to those unconscious behaviors rooted in bias, and how these behaviors can result in unfair treatment,” Lee says. “Are there some employees who tend to pick up the slack, while others offload their work onto others? Are there double standards for professionalism, especially for women, racialized minorities, and other marginalized employees?”
De-biasing workload distribution may also present an opportunity to work collaboratively with all employees on improving the workflow and enhancing overall effectiveness. An honest, transparent, and fair approach to work, in turn, is likely to strengthen the overall morale, as demonstrated by Ron Carucci’s detailed research in his book, To Be Honest.
Ensure systemic fairness. Organizational leaders must also ensure that every segment of the talent management process, from job design and hiring, to promotion and leadership development, is attuned to talent diversity. While segmented interventions are not likely to work, supporting all employees in a fair and transparent manner does.
In many cases, an honest examination of workloads will reveal that one person is doing the work previously done by two or three people. The ultimate solution for this problem is moving away from the anorexic organization staffing model. And while ensuring proper staffing may take some time, especially during the Great Resignation, leaders can—and should—make an immediate difference. If you as a leader are asking someone, regardless of their background, to take on an additional load, check what you can de-prioritize to keep the work manageable.
If you write advice columns or mentor CEOs, you can greatly help in creating a more just world. “Overdeliver” advice, reflective of status quo and given with the best intention, perpetuates the status quo, with all its biases, iniquities, and the exhaustion tax on stigmatized individuals. Fairness is incompatible with the system that expects people of color, people from modest backgrounds, older women, people with disabilities, and other systemically disadvantaged individuals to keep overdelivering to “prove their worth.” The business world and the larger society need to hear clear, consistent messaging of the equality of human “worth” and the importance of systems that evaluate performance in valid and objective ways. Just systems support the human dignity of all without extorting the overwork tax on the marginalized.
Ludmila N. Praslova, SHRM-SCP, uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, ability, and neurodiversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor and director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.