You know the routine. You wake up to your alarm clock set for 5:30 a.m. and push snooze (five more minutes, please). You get up just in time for a cup of coffee and a moment to run through the to-do list in your head. Then you leave the house.
But here’s where the routine can diverge: Do you head to work with the doldrums or with an attitude that says, “It’s time for work!”
While on-the-job pressures can be a major source of stress, a recent study found that many black Americans are happier than white Americans when they are in the workplace. “Despite working in more routine and less autonomous jobs, having fewer close friends at work and feeling less supported by their coworkers, blacks report significantly more positive emotions in the workplace than whites,” says Melissa M. Sloan, Ph.D., a sociologist and the lead researcher on the study.
Sloan’s work included only Florida government employees, so I question if this is true across all professions. But in some ways, it makes sense. After all, many black Americans may place a high value on simply having or keeping a job. This could have a domino effect, making them feel less stressed about personal finances and the emotional pressures that come with job insecurity.
But for black women, finding joy at work — and a significant boost to mental health — can be complex. It’s important that you cultivate social support on the job, find your place in the organization’s culture and try to hold on to a positive attitude while possibly dealing with the glass ceiling or discrimination.
Purpose Equals Passion
For some of us, work is connected to a strong belief in having a purpose or mission. And, of course, it helps to have a job with the right fit.
“My perspective on work is something that has kept me balanced especially during challenges,” says Judge Amara Byrd of Austin, Texas. “I work for a purpose as opposed to many white counterparts whose purpose is to work. Work does not define my purpose in life. My life has purpose,” continues Byrd, 43, who is also a wife and mother.
Her perspective is shared by other black professionals who make the best of hard-won achievements, by turning negative circumstances into sources of motivation. “Being underestimated has provided tremendous opportunities to perform a stealth move to the top,” Byrd says. “As a black woman, I’m not offended by professional disregard. … I embrace it, knowing I can blow others out the water effortlessly.”
Samia Dancy, a 41-year-old single mom and high school English teacher, relishes “being able to motivate young minds and stimulate students’ desire to learn new things. That’s what makes me feel happy at work.”
Byrd and Dancy, who lives in Hampton, Va., find happiness in their daily routines in part because they are in professions well-suited to their personalities, goals and dreams. Finding that fit, or getting as close to it as you possibly can, is a large part of job satisfaction.
Focus and Emotional Balance
Thousands of words have been written about achieving work-life balance. The truth is, it may not be possible to achieve perfect balance when you are the chief breadwinner — as many black women are — and working nearly 60 hours a week. But you must make a consistent effort to protect your personal life and have fun at least a few hours a week. Find something that recharges your batteries and allows you to relax — preferably an activity completely different than what you do for a living. Take a knitting class, try yoga or learn to make jewelry. The point is to free your mind and spirit on a regular basis.
Of course, no matter what you do, as black women, we are likely to encounter negativity at work. This can include office politics, the “crabs in a barrel” syndrome, subtle discrimination, sexism and people taking credit for your work.
These issues aren’t always directly about you. Often, they’re related to the internal struggles of the person who is projecting the negative energy. Some people choose to leave a toxic workplace. That’s what chiropractor Zara Patton decided after years of feeling marginalized, overworked, underappreciated and stressed out. Now she’s happily building her own business in Washington, D.C.
“Taking a leap of faith and opening my own medical practice was one of the most liberating paths I have ever taken in my life,” Patton explains.
Of course, not everyone can or wants to become an entrepreneur, so here’s some advice on finding your path to peace on the job.
1. Stay cool when things get hot. Demonstrate that you can and will rise above the crap. No matter what goes down, take a deep breath. Step back. Think about your positive qualities and strengths. This type of self-empowerment will better equip you to handle a tense situation.
And get real. Acknowledge any contributions you may have made to a dicey situation. Try to clear the air with an open, honest conversation.
2. Never take sides. Do not gossip, and keep your personal issues to yourself. It’s fine to have friends at work; in fact, it’s a necessary part of enjoying your job. Just realize than anything you say can, and probably will, be held against you — at some point.
3. Always be aware of your value. Toxic bosses and co-workers often invest a great deal of time in tearing other people down. Realize that this is their problem, not yours. Do not allow anyone to define your worth, sense of self or value in the workplace. A motto to use is “let your work speak for itself.”
Although, black women are often undermined and their talents may go unrecognized, it is imperative that you not fall into an abyss of insecurity. Make a mental list of your exceptional abilities, qualities and achievements. This will help you to reframe negatives into positives, and increase the likelihood that you can “see the silver lining” in challenging situations — which may become opportunities for you.
4. Take short breaks. It’s amazing what a little fresh air can do. Take an occasional stroll, and try to do lunch away from your desk. Take time to rejuvenate and motivate yourself so that you can complete the day’s remaining work tasks.
5. Work out. Try 30-minute morning or lunchtime workouts to ease stress. Exercise also raises your energy level — a great way to avoid afternoon slumps — and it helps you focus. If you’re having a tough time coming up with an idea while staring at your computer, it can help to walk around the block.
6. Maximize the power of mentors. No matter how smart you are, you cannot go it alone. Develop relationships with a diverse group of mentors. Men and women from other cultures can broaden your perspective and help you navigate through the chaos of office politics.
7. Don’t be afraid to change course. If your dream job turns out to be a nightmare, reassess your skills, interests and career path. If you’re unhappy, seek out new opportunities.
8. Resolve conflicts to stay sane. No matter how great your job is, you may find yourself facing conflicts. Consider your company’s culture before you choose a route to seek help. In some cases, seeking assistance from your manager, human resources department or mental health counseling for conflict resolution may be an option if a situation becomes extreme. In other cases, it may mean it’s time for you to move on.
9. Know when to leave. If a work environment becomes extremely overwhelming — and you know that you have exhausted all strategies and resources — make an informed decision to remove yourself from the negative atmosphere. If you are consistently passed over for well-deserved promotions, bombarded with negative comments and slights or encounter racism and sexism, moving on will be better for your mental and emotional health.
If you cannot leave, find a way to improve things to protect your health. Consider transferring to another department. And definitely get professional help. Seek therapy so that you can keep things in perspective and minimize the damage to your mental and physical health.
10. Take a vacation. Use your vacation days — you’ve earned them. No matter how much you love your job, you will love it more if you take some time off to enjoy life. “Staycations” count, but don’t spend your time cleaning out the closets. Have some fun. Try out the local day spa, or take a few day trips. Go for it!
Kisha Holden, Ph.D., is deputy director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.