6 Things Minorities Can Do to Stay Sane at Work

I think about happiness a lot. I don’t know if it’s on my mind because so many in the country and in the workplace seem to be unhappy these days, but how to be and stay happy gets a lot of my energy, and I don’t mind giving it.

I ran across this Forbes article, “Ten Habits of Incredibly Happy People” by Travis Bradberry, and I decided to adapt it in a diversity context. I’m departing from my usual blog format a bit in that I’m writing to women and minorities rather than to the companies that employ them. But I’m hoping this piece will get passed around to managers, talent and diversity leaders and such, so that everyone can gain greater insights that will help to improve the collective business environment.

These six steps could benefit anyone, but women and minorities often need more of a nudge to put themselves first because they’re used to being put last. So: 

  1. Practice self-care. If your foundation is rocky, everything else will be too. Daily exercise, fabulous grooming, getting enough sleep, eating well, the whole healthy lifestyle bit can have a huge impact on how you feel — and how you behave under stress. Don’t let other’s side eye, random, self-motivated guilt or judgmental comments keep you from getting and keeping yourself together. For instance, my niece is always impeccably groomed, and she stays riding around in the latest model Range Rover. It is amazing to me how many of our relatives give her crap about that. Like, why is it wrong that she enjoys the fruits of her labor? She works hard. It’s ridiculous.
  1. Stay positive. I’ve often thought that complaining is cathartic, a kind of release valve, if you will. But that only goes so far. Too often when things get rough — probably because we (women and minorities) have to deal with and explain the same things over and over and over — we become bitter and pessimistic. Don’t. The only person who loses in that scenario is you. There’s always a silver lining or something to be grateful for — even it’s simply that a crappy day is now over.

“The problem with a pessimistic attitude, apart from the damage it does to your mood, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you expect bad things, you’re more likely to experience negative events,” Bradberry wrote. I’ve found that to be uncannily true. It’s almost like you emote bad energy, so you attract more of the same. Focus on gratitude. Find that silver lining, and hold onto it, even if you have to use fingernails and teeth.

  1. Find someone to talk to. Bradberry called this one, “they have deep conversations.” He wrote about avoiding gossip, small talk and making judgments because “happy people know that happiness and substance go hand-in-hand.” Happy people not only need to avoid all that’s petty, they need to have someone trustworthy to confide in. Accepting smilingly delivered micro-aggressions at work, enduring unfair, excessively punitive actions, while others get slaps on the wrist for worse, absorbing consistently biased behavior you’re expected to take on the chin as though it’s normal and doesn’t make you mad and frustrated as hell — basically work-life as a woman or a minority — without that sympathetic friend, relative, therapist, or even a colleague who will be on your side and listen, you can feel isolated.

Problems grow out of proportion and fester when given too much insular attention. Then they erupt. Having someone to listen and give you that metaphoric slap on the back when you need it can mean the difference between maintaining your dignity and moving forward and allowing emotion to have its way and create actions that make a dodgy situation far, far worse. Cultivating a supportive, positive, motivated network of friends and family who root for you, give you great advice, encourage you to advance and evolve and generally act as the wind beneath your wings can be so very soothing for the spirit when work issues grow tiresome.

I know very well the double standards that women and minorities suffer on the job. It’s like you’re supposed to be superhuman even though you may be treated as sub-human. The expectations for your behavior can be significantly higher than for your white, male peers. Not because you shouldn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else, but because when you break those rules, your punishment is worse. You’re not given the same latitude to learn from your mistakes, and once you make one, no one ever lets you forget it. It’s held over your head forever, trotted out at every opportunity as though you need reminding that your supposed leaders still think you’re a complete failure for something stupid you did — once.

I remember I asked a direct report to come to my office and shut the door. After I said what I had to say — nothing at all serious, just deserving of privacy — she confessed, “I thought you were about to fire me.” I was shocked. I had no idea she felt her position was so tenuous that a closed door would prompt such an extreme reaction. I assured her as best I could — given no employee can be assured of a job, no matter how good they are — but I understand why she felt that way.

I’ve felt that nagging uncertainty myself. Fortunately, I’m over it. If the day comes when my employer no longer requires my services, I’m confident I can pull out the box under my desk and calmly and quickly pack it. Then, I’ll politely thank them for the lessons on my way out the door with my shoulders back, and an eager-for-the-next-phase-of-life type smile on my face. 

  1. Help others. When you’re not happy, giving someone else a hand is often the last thing on your mind. But being unhappy is no excuse to be self-absorbed. Helping someone else can actually make you feel better. “Helping other people gives you a surge of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which create good feelings. In a Harvard study, employees who helped others were 10 times more likely to be focused at work and 40% more likely to get a promotion. The same study showed that people who consistently provided social support were the most likely to be happy during times of high stress,” Bradberry wrote. Just don’t get so caught up in the feel good sensations you get from helping others that you neglect to take care of yourself. Put your mask on first.
  1. Choose to be happy. Maturity has taught me to value people who appear happy and are consistently nice and well mannered, because I know firsthand that’s not always easy to do. But making that effort is a far more effective use of your time and energy than whining, complaining, holding grudges and blaming someone else for your decision or inability to do what it takes to change whatever is making you unhappy.

Now, there are some things you just have to get through, like deaths or unexpected economic hardships, grinning and bearing with a sexist boss’ comments while you work your way through school to get credentials that will aid your career improvement efforts. These are often things brought on by the vagaries of life and not the result of any decision you made. Give yourself time to go through whatever it is, and invoke Nos. 1 and 3 as needed.

  1. Have a growth mindset. If you’re not happy at work, you have the power to change your situation. You can talk to your supervisor. You can express your concerns to HR. You can look for a new job. You can start your own business. You can simply say no to whatever situation has you shook, and let the chips fall where they may.

 If you’re willing to work hard, make sacrifices, learn, and employ a little discipline, your options need not be limited. You are only as stuck as you feel. “People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve with effort. This makes them happier because they are better at handling difficulties,” Bradberry wrote. Preach, sir.

Choice is a funny thing. Choosing to be happy can be deceptively simple or unbelievably hard. Which one often depends on your perspective. But happiness is not an event. It’s a series of decisions and habits, and it’s not logically possible to achieve this state all the time. But with a little effort, you can be happy more than you’re unhappy.

Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email editor@workforce.com.

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