The Stress of Exclusion

Apr 1, 2021 | Diversity & Inclusion

“I had to work 150% harder than my peers as I climbed the proverbial corporate ladder. But I would still come home and cry as I could not show weakness at work. I told myself that if I worked harder than everyone else then I would be acknowledged and visible. But the psychological costs were enormous, I had no idea what it was doing to me emotionally”

*Karabo, Senior Executive, Financial Services 

*Karabo’s story triggered me because it was all too familiar.

During my many years in the workplace, reports of social exclusion, commonly showing up as ostracism, bullying and rejection were all too common and unsurprisingly most frequently experienced by people from underrepresented groups. In my experiences mentoring and coaching women, both in South Africa and internationally, it became apparent to me that acts of social exclusion were more commonly experienced by women in environments where the conditions for success were set by men, for men. This made it difficult for women to fit in with the traditional masculine behaviours associated with success and to access male-dominated formal and informal networks. This was even harder for women of colour who experienced the added barriers of racial exclusion.

Exclusion challenges people’s fundamental need to belong to a social unit.”

It is a basic human need to want to belong and to be acknowledged. Given how pervasive the problem of exclusion is in workplaces and how much time people spend interacting with each other at work, it is not surprising that acts of exclusion can have a severe effect on emotional wellbeing.

Social exclusion is psychologically painful

“Social exclusion is more likely to cause employees to quit their jobs compared with harassment” – Jane O’ Reilly, “5 Proven, yet Overlooked Realities of Social Exclusion at Work

Social exclusion is an insidious source of anxiety and stress. Because it can often be covert, it may go overlooked. Jane O’Reilly, an Assistant Professor in organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Telfer School of Management has conducted extensive research on the effects of social exclusion on wellbeing. Studies show that within the workplace, experiencing social exclusion is associated with a host of negative outcomes for employees, including psychological distress and physiological signs of strain. In her article entitled “5 Proven, yet Overlooked Realities of Social Exclusion at Work” she puts forward that even what may seem like minor, fleeting acts of exclusion, such as ignoring a colleague’s greeting in the morning, looking at one’s phone when another is speaking, avoiding inviting a particular colleague to lunch with the rest of the group, or going silent when one seeks to join the conversation, can have an observable negative impact on employees. Concerningly they also found that social exclusion is more likely to cause employees to quit their jobs compared with harassment.

Micro actions matter

A few years back I reached a point of burnout. I found myself on the bed of an integrative medical practitioner. I told him I wanted a quick fix, perhaps a vitamin drip. He was not having it. After a series of tests, he sat me down and told me that my body was shutting down, and if I didn’t do something soon, I was at risk of serious health complications. At the time I was feeling trapped in a toxic work culture. I was battling to survive emotionally. I was feeling isolated, excluded and like I didn’t belong. The emotionally taxing effects of being excluded from in-groups, favouritism and lack of access to informal networks which helped to advance members of in-groups, was taking a severe toll on me mentally. My performance at work and overall mental health was suffering.

 It was the regular micro gestures that made an impact

This was in stark contrast to my experiences at another organisation, where I was working across multiple geographies, travelling extensively and on a global leadership track, all whilst juggling two demanding portfolios. But I was thriving mentally and physically. The work was challenging but motivating. I was supported, included and valued. It was the regular micro gestures that made an impact. English was not the first language of many senior people in the company, but whenever I joined a conversation or stepped into a room, they immediately switched to English. My boss often ended feedback sessions with a simple statement, “I value you”. And he showed it. My opinions were sought out at meetings. When I spoke, my boss would adjust his chair to face me, especially when I was the only woman in the room.

A female executive recently shared with me that while COVID has been challenging, working from home and feeling socially isolated from co-workers, it was also a welcome relief, as she had a “break” from the added stresses of dealing with regular acts of exclusion in her male-dominated workplace where she was one of few women.

“But we have to get back into the office soon, I have to start mentally preparing myself again” she added. It was disheartening to hear her express those thoughts, but it is a very real stress shared by many people from underrepresented groups.

If research is telling us that social exclusion is pervasive in workplaces and has a direct impact on emotional wellbeing and job performance  –  and that it is often the micro-actions that affect us the most –  then surely we can and must urgently get behind interrupting this pattern. Everyone deserves the right to belong, be included, valued and appreciated as individuals.

Practise inclusion every day

Getting to an inclusive workplace will take the efforts of all of us.

As we get behind the movement to create healthier workplaces where everyone can belong, be valued and have equal opportunity to progress, I implore you to pause and recognise your role in creating a culture of inclusion.

Play your part by starting with micro-steps today.  Greet your colleagues by name. Put your phone away when you are speaking to someone. Call in the voices of those who are silent and overlooked in meetings. Broaden your circles and seek out those who are different to you. Start today and make it a habit by being inclusive every day.

Inclusive environments are invigorating and liberating and serve us all.