Mahal Alvarez-Backus ’15; Catalyst for Change

Mahal Alvarez-Backus ’15 reports on her summer research internship at Catalyst.

In today’s turbulent social atmosphere, there is a great need for inclusion, diversity, and understanding. Indeed, individuals, colleges, universities, organizations, and companies have increased their efforts to create welcoming environments for all. The benefits of compassion and equality are obvious, yet many in the dominant groups of society need facts, figures, and proof to convince them that there are deep-rooted inequities in society. On a slightly smaller scale, companies and businesses that successfully nurture inclusive climates reveal the good that comes from celebrating everyone. Countless studies show the economic and social benefits of having a diverse workforce. One organization that constantly turns out reports on workplace diversity and inclusion is Catalyst. Catalyst is a well-established and highly regarded research, consulting, and thinking nonprofit in the corporate diversity and inclusion world. Their mission is to accelerate the progression of women and other minorities in the workplace. Their research topics range from Otherness and inclusive leadership, background on women of color and visible minority women, engaging in conversations about Gender, Race, and Ethnicity, to engaging men to advocate real change. This summer, I worked as a research assistant for the Gender, Race, and Ethnicity (GRandE) team. They strive to understand the lived experience of people of color and visible minorities in order to provide tools that work to achieve workplace equality. One of their most recent publications, Emotional Tax: How Black Women and Men Pay More at Work and How Leaders Can Take Action, highlights how feeling different from peers impairs Black women and men’s health and success in the office and as an extension of their findings, I wish to explore what happens after five o’clock when these employees leave their work spaces, but do not escape the feeling of Otherness in their lives outside of the office by examining the mental and physical health consequences of discrimination.

Not only does the “emotional tax” levied against people of color in the workplace impact successful navigation of one’s career, but health becomes increasingly disturbed. Catalyst defines an emotional tax as the “heightened experience of being different from peers at work because of your gender and/or race/ethnicity and the associated detrimental effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work” (Travis, Thorpe-Moscon, McCluney, 2016). Disrupted sleep, vigilance for discrimination, decreased the sense of psychological safety, and diminished ability to contribute all work to corrode Black employees’ sense of well-being. A staggering 45% of those who feel different from their peers due to gender and race/ethnicity had sleep problems versus the 25% of those who did not feel different and over half (54%) reported they consciously prepared to deal with discrimination by avoiding certain social situations or covering an aspect of their identity compared to the 34% who did not feel different. This heavy burden of Otherness decreases one’s ability to contribute at work. Of those Black women and men who did not feel different based on race/ethnicity and gender, 74% spoke up about important issues at work, while out of those who did feel different, only 56% spoke up and 75% reported more creativity and innovation at work compared to only 61% of those who felt different. (Travis, Thorpe-Moscon, McCluney, 2016) I would speculate that perhaps those who do not feel Othered take more interpersonal risks at work because they feel psychologically safe allowing them to speak up, make mistakes, and trust their co-workers. Catalyst concludes the report with suggestions such as supporting flexible work arrangements, having honest conversations, and speaking up against exclusionary behavior for leaders to foster more inclusive workplaces to alleviate the emotional tax.

Further, numerous studies examine the mental and physical health consequences of discrimination in everyday life. In a meta-analysis of perceived discrimination and health studies, Pascoe and Richman (2009) synthesize the literature on discrimination and its impact on mental and physical health. Indeed, research suggests that there is a significant negative effect on mental and physical health when one experiences discrimination (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). Mental health consequences include depression, psychological distress, anxiety, and decreased well-being. Amazingly, experiencing discrimination chronically can lead to the breakdown of the physical body as well. Chronic discrimination can lead to hypertension, self-reported poor health, and breast cancer, as well as being a contributing factor to obesity, high blood pressure, and substance use (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). The authors explain the stress and coping framework that states that discrimination is a social stressor that creates physiological responses, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol secretions, which in turn create long-term effects on health. When discrimination is persistent, it becomes a constant stressor that depletes one’s protective resources while increasing one’s vulnerability to physical illness. Moreover, when allostatic systems are chronically overworked, allostatic load accumulates. Allostasis is defined as “the adaptation process of the complex physiological system to physical, psychosocial and environmental challenges or stress” (Logan and Barksdale, 2008). Pathology and chronic illness result from the allostatic load, or the long-term result of failed adaptation. Self-control resources decrease and participation in unhealthy behaviors increase. Pascoe and Richman (2009) conclude that the relationship between perceived discrimination and health occurs through the mechanisms of stress responses and health behaviors and that social support, active coping styles, and group identification can serve as buffers.

Of course, as the data show, there is a relationship between discrimination and health outcomes, but in order to fully understand the stress, one must examine the intersectionality between race, racism, socioeconomic status, and health behaviors. Williams and Mohammed (2008) investigate the multiple mechanisms of racism. Racism is the “organized system that categorizes population groups into ‘races’ and uses this ranking to preferentially allocate societal goods and resources to groups regarded as “superior”, which leads to prejudice and discrimination (Williams and Mohammed, 2008). Racism does not only happen on an individual level but is also deeply embedded in society. Institutions such as housing, labor markets, criminal justice, and education contain policies that keep the dominant group in power. Williams and Mohammed (2008) highlight how stress from residential segregation, differential access to societal goods and internalized racism add to and interact with the burden of explicit discrimination. Residential segregation molds SES and health outcomes by restricting access to education and employment opportunities. The concentration of poverty and lack of infrastructure make it hard for residents to engage in good health practices, lead to exposure to heightened economic hardship and other stressors, adversely impact interpersonal relationships, and increase exposure to concerning levels of environmental toxins, poor quality housing, and criminal victimization. Further, the non-dominant group has reduced access to services, especially medical care. Lastly, the internalization of negative cultural images creates certain expectations, and reactions that negatively impact social and psychological functioning. William and Mohammed (2008) also point to a discrimination-stress-health relationship. Anticipatory coping and heightened vigilance (cultural paranoia or state of being on guard) cause worry, rumination, and anticipatory stress. Again, we see this repeated and prolonged activation of a cognitive process exacerbates the negative effects of stress on health and leads to emotional and physiological dysregulation. Indeed, institutional racism significantly impacts health.

In direct relation to the work Catalyst produced about the emotional tax that Black employees pay at the office, a study by Himmelstein, Young, Sanchez, and Jackson (2015) investigated how responding to everyday discrimination with anticipatory vigilance impacts the health of Black men and women while also exploring gender differences. A sample of 221 Black adults completed measures of discrimination, adverse life events, vigilance coping, stresses, depressive symptoms, and self-reported health. The additive and negative nature of daily discrimination is well-documented. Research shows that discrimination indirectly, yet incredibly negatively, impacts health due to an increased physiological stress response and unhealthy coping behaviors—which leads to  overall poorer self-reported health and increased depressive symptoms  (Himmelstein, Young, Sanchez, and Jackson, 2015). Discrimination-related vigilance (what Catalyst refers to as the state of being on guard) refers to the coping mechanism in which people attempt to protect themselves from “anticipated discrimination by continuously monitoring and modifying [their] behavior and surroundings” (Himmelstein, Young, Sanchez, and Jackson, 2015). Worry and rumination accompany this prolonged anticipation which leads to somatic complaints, disrupted immunology and sleep, increased blood pressure, and negative cardiac effects. In conclusion, the authors found that vigilance coping is indeed a mediator between discrimination and stress, and in turn, stress has health consequences resulting from discrimination. Further, they highlight the importance of considering gender differences in the relationship between discrimination and health. Even though both men and women experienced a connection between depression symptoms and stress, women had a stronger relationship than men and rated their health more poorly in response to stress than men.

Looking towards the future, research done by Cook, Purdie-Vaughns, Meyer, and Busch (2014) uses a multi-level system to understand interventions that can reduce social stigma and the health disparities. The authors propose a three-level ecological system to examine the dynamism of stigma. Stigma occurs when a characteristic is labeled with a negative stereotype and thus creates a feeling of Otherness. Interpersonal interventions are, one, aimed at altering the physiological, cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses among the targets of stigma and two, reducing the expression of stigma among the non-stigmatized. Such interventions can include education, counselling, expressive writing, and values affirmation. Further, interpersonal interventions seek to leverage small group interactions to reduce stigma, such as small groups being facilitated to purposefully process information or contact interventions. Finally, at the structural level, communicating diversity values, passing inclusive and protective legislation, and accurately portraying commonly stigmatized groups in advertising and mass media all combine to reduce the effects of stigma.

Even though society has made seemingly tremendous progress in racism, disparities in health, opportunities, and policies prove otherwise. From lack of representation in Fortune 500 companies to systemic segregation to individual beliefs, racial and ethnic minorities are far from feeling included. Catalyst research shows that minority employees’ productivity and health take a turn for the worse when they feel like they cannot bring their whole selves to work. Importantly, daily and institutional discrimination have significant health consequences for minorities as well. While there has been an increase in research on the link between discrimination and health outcomes, continued investigation is needed. Such research is vital not only for protecting and bettering people’s lives, but is also important for making just and educated policy regarding health, raising awareness of inequalities and racist sentiment, and increasing levels of tolerance and civility.

Women of color in the United States (

Cook, J. E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Meyer, I. H., & Busch, J. T. (2014). Intervening within and across levels: A multilevel approach to stigma and public health. Social Science & Medicine,103, 101-109. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.09.023

Himmelstein, M. S., Young, D. M., Sanchez, D. T., & Jackson, J. S. (2014). Vigilance in the discrimination-stress model for Black Americans. Psychology & Health,30(3), 253-267. doi:10.1080/08870446.2014.966104

Logan, J. G., & Barksdale, D. J. (2008). Allostasis and allostatic load: expanding the discourse on stress and cardiovascular disease. Journal of Clinical Nursing,17(7b), 201-208. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2008.02347.

Pascoe, E. A., & Richman, L. S. (2009). Supplemental Material for Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin. doi:10.1037/a0016059.supp

Travis, Dnika, J., Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, and Courtney McCluney. Emotional Tax: How Black Women and Men Pay More at Work and How Leaders Can Take Action. New York: Catalyst, 2016.