Mental Health Effects of Racism and Emotional Tax in the Age of COVID-19

Mental Health Effects of Racism and Emotional Tax in the Age of COVID-19

By Karen Kuzmowich
Ascend Canada Chief Inclusion Officer Forum member

Ten months into a pandemic, it seems we are facing a great test as a society. Not only are many areas across Canada facing second waves just as winter is beginning, but we are also taking a sharper focus on systemic racism this year.

Now, more than ever, we must pay attention to our mental health.

Many Canadians are grappling with the uncertainty, fear and anxiety COVID-19 is creating, about whether our families will get sick, how long the pandemic will last, how it will impact the economy, how it will impact our children, what will return to office look like – the list doesn’t end.

On top of this list of everyday fears and concerns that have become our new normal, Black, Asian, Indigenous and other racialized communities are facing very serious, deep cumulative impacts of COVID-19 and racism at the same time.

There is overwhelming data to show that Black, Asian and Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.  Infection, mortality and job loss rates are higher in Black, Indigenous and some Asian communities, highlighting the effects of structural racism and social determinants of health.[i]

The cumulative toll of COVID-19 and racism at the same time is also uniquely affecting Chinese and Asian Canadians, who have been the targets of suspicion, discrimination, harassment and hate speech during COVID-19. As if it wasn’t enough to worry about their communities facing disparate infection and job loss rates, rhetoric about the “Chinese virus” has resulted in Chinese and Asian communities being stigmatized, seen as perceived threats to public health, scapegoated and blamed for a global pandemic.

The impact of adding very serious layers of racial anxiety to what is already a very significant public health crisis affecting people’s day-to-day mental health, is hard to fathom. My friends and colleagues who are experiencing this reality are strong and resilient, but there is already an “Emotional Tax” that People of Colour experience, before adding COVID-19 and intensified racism to the mix.

Emotional Tax is the heightened sense of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race or ethnicity, being constantly on guard against experiences of bias, and the associated effects on health, well-being and the ability to thrive at work.  A Catalyst study conducted with the support of Ascend Canada, Empowering Workplaces Combat Emotional Tax for People of Colour in Canada, found that 33%-50% of Black, East Asian, and South Asian professionals reported feeling highly on guard against bias, which emerges from enduring acts of bias and discrimination in workplaces and society. The report found that these high levels of Emotional Tax pose concerning risks to employee wellbeing, health and productivity. For example, 22%-42% of people highly on guard against bias report high rates of sleep problems, and many people consider leaving their jobs or report hiding their true identities and unique selves to self-protect against Emotional Tax.

What does this mean for the future of mental health?

A recent Deloitte study found that COVID-19 is creating a mental health crisis that may not be fully appreciated yet. Deloitte stated that the prolonged period of stress from financial, economic and social impacts is the hidden iceberg that could create a “third order” crisis to come.  Other emerging studies are beginning to confirm that mental health impacts are currently heightened for Black, Asian, Indigenous and other ethnic communities.[ii] It is not surprising that heightened COVID-19 rates of infection, mortality and job loss in Black, Indigenous and some Asian communities might amplify the mental health repercussions related to loss, grief, financial worry, and fear of becoming infected – not to mention these mental health impacts being further confounded by the effects of racism. Black, Asian, Indigenous and other ethnic communities are not alone in experiencing disproportionate mental health impacts during COVID-19.  According to an Egale, ACCEC and Innovative Research Group national report, the same is true for LGBTQ12S people (and in particular Black, Indigenous and Person of Colour LGBTQ12S people, who face compounding impacts due to intersectionality). According to a recent CAMH and Delvinia study, the pandemic is also adversely affecting the mental health of women, parents and young adults.

The need to prioritize mental health has never been clearer. We’ve seen some positive changes emerge this year. Employers and governments have increased their support and programming for mental health during COVID-19. I have personally noticed people speaking more openly about mental health challenges during COVID-19, perhaps because some of our shared experiences have helped reduce stigmatization. But more work is needed. People still seem much more willing to admit they’re afraid of getting other people sick, than they are to say they’re afraid of getting sick themselves.  So often we hear, “I’m not worried about myself, I’m wearing a mask so I don’t get other people sick”? Experts say mental health stigma is likely playing a role in this.

As we head into winter and the holiday season, new challenges will emerge. The colder, darker winter months and shorter winter days will make it harder to socialize outdoors. The holiday season can amplify feelings of stress, pressure, anxiety, loss and isolation for many people. Fluctuating lockdown measures and tightened restrictions can cause uncertainty and discomfort, not to mention questions around vaccine distribution, what return to office will look like, and what our new normal will be. It’s important to keep these mental health stressors in mind and apply a diversity and inclusion lens when planning the next stage, to build an inclusive recovery.

What can workplaces do to address mental wellbeing now and to come?

Some steps employers, leaders, allies and employees can take include:

  • Employers: check your workplace data. Are more employees accessing your employee assistance plans? What is your aggregate data telling you? Are these rates consistent across different racial and ethnic groups, genders, and other diversity dimensions? Do you need to increase awareness of the availability of mental health and wellness resources? Create more proactive mental health and wellness programming for employees? While you’re at it, check your workforce data to confirm if equity-seeking communities are facing higher terminations, reduced promotions, or greater attrition in your organization during COVID-19.
  • Employers: provide more flexibility and support to employees. A one size fits all approach will not work for supporting employees. As Deloitte noted[iii], employees will require more flexibility and support during COVID-19 and considering hybrid labour participation models could be beneficial. Hybrid options for return to office and the future of work may reduce individualized accommodations, and it will help you attract and retain a more diverse workforce.
  • Leaders and Allies: do the work. Educate yourselves on racism and mental health. There is already an Emotional Tax that comes with feeling different at work because of gender, race and ethnicity, combined with diversity fatigue stemming from these same individuals frequently being tapped to represent their demographic group and champion diversity and inclusion change on top of their day jobs. Expecting these same colleagues to educate you adds to this burden. Take the initiative to educate yourselves, change what’s within your immediate control, and work to influence what’s not.
  • Everyone: host real conversations. From employers, to leaders, to employees and employee resource groups, we all play a critical role in creating inclusion. Whether it’s within your immediate teams or in larger groups, host real conversations about racism, mental health, and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on equity seeking groups. Do more conscious check-ins to open the door for honest conversations, otherwise you may be relying on individuals to raise their struggles who might not feel comfortable doing so.  Yes, hosting conversations will take courage. Yes, it may feel uncomfortable. Yes, you may make mistakes. The good news is there are excellent resources and conversation guides to get you started, including these Catalyst resources here and here. Dig in. Change starts with all of us.

About the author:  Karen Kuzmowich is a member of the Chief Inclusion Officer Forum for Ascend Canada. The Chief Inclusion Officer Forum is a multi-industry group of volunteers, many of whom lead inclusion initiatives for their respective companies.



[iii], page 20.