Managing ‘Cultural Taxation’ and Combating Burnout

 Marketing Director   January 17, 2024  Professionals of Color

Download our free ebook, “Having Our Say: Black Voices on Working in Higher Education,” featuring stories from Black faculty and staff at different career stages and in a variety of roles at colleges and universities across the U.S. Through their stories, you’ll learn how to survive and thrive in the academy. The following article is from the ebook.

Work-related burnout is so prevalent that it’s now recognized as a condition by health officials. Burnout among workers from underrepresented groups presents its own unique challenges. Experts, however, say you can prevent and recover from burnout if you recognize the signs and implement key self-care practices.

Recognizing the signs of burnout

“Signs can include apathy or a general lack of caring about the work that you’re doing,” says Jo Teut, Assistant Director of Diversity & Inclusion Programming at Centre College in Kentucky. As a diversity specialist, Teut has witnessed this pattern firsthand in faculty and staff on various campuses.

Shanza Isom, Assistant Professor in James Madison University’s Department of Social Work, echoes Teut’s assessment. “One sign is when you see people coming to work and you can tell they don’t want to be there; it just seems like it’s a chore.”

If you’re starting to devalue your job or lack the motivation to succeed at work, you could be experiencing burnout. Isom says this lack of engagement inevitably leads to a loss of energy, which in turn fuels the apathy. A clear indicator of burnout, she says, is when “you start the day feeling the way people leave a day.”

Another indicator is prolonged negativity, says Teut. “Having a super negative attitude all the time about everything” often points toward workplace burnout.

Causes of burnout

While the causes of burnout vary, staff and faculty from underrepresented groups typically experience two specific stressors: “cultural taxation” and heavy workloads.

Cultural taxation is the extra work faculty and staff of color take on by being the ethnic representation on university committees and serving as unofficial diversity consultants on campus. While the campus benefits from their presence and voices, workers are not compensated for these tasks. Instead, this tax leads to a second stressor—a heavier workload.

“When you’re the only one [of an underrepresented group] or one of a few, students who are like you tend to seek you out,” says Isom. “So then you find yourself doing extra advising, extra mentoring.”

Teut says that many staff take on this extra responsibility because they understand that if they don’t, no one else will—or sometimes, can. Teut adds, “You can’t stop because if you do, the work won’t get done.”

This extra responsibility often goes unnoticed, according to Isom: “We have an added workload responsibility that’s not recorded anywhere. It’s not a part of your regular workload requirements. It’s not a part of our faculty plan.”

Self-care solutions

Self-care is a viable option, even if you consistently manage a heavy workload. Isom advises workers to talk to their supervisors about their extra responsibilities and figure out how to include this work on their annual report. She says that “keeping track of the number of [student] requests and what they came by for” helps you track your time and clearly show your supervisor your additional commitments.

Teut also encourages workers to understand “what’s negotiable about your job and what’s not.” Isom agrees that negotiating work commitments is critical to preventing burnout. “It’s important to have a clear understanding of what’s a job requirement versus a request, and knowing what you can say ‘no’ to.” She adds that once you understand what’s negotiable, you can set boundaries to create a more sustainable work-life balance.

Isom also urges university employees not to ignore the basics: eating lunch, taking a stretch break, leaving your desk, and even doing shoulder rolls are simple best-care practices you can implement daily to alleviate stress.

Another key preventer of burnout is a solid support system. Teut insists it’s critical to “find those people who share your identity that you can talk with.” These people can offer advice, support, and if cultivated—can grow into a coalition that can advocate for systemic change throughout campus, the kind of change that can alleviate the burnout you’re experiencing. If your campus doesn’t already offer an Employee Resource Group, you (or your budding coalition) might consider advocating for one.

Moving forward

By building a support system, strategically navigating the cultural tax, and caring for your body, you will be able to meet the needs of your campus and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Teut offers a wise reminder often overlooked, “Higher ed can always hire someone else, but you can’t get your life back.”

Download our free ebook, “Having Our Say: Black Voices on Working in Higher Education”

About the Author: Chanté Griffin is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her socially conscious work centers race, culture, and education. When she’s not writing, she’s either trying to read one of the two dozen books piled next to her nightstand, or pretending she’s really active on The Twitter @yougochante.