This article was based on the TED@BCG Talk, “How Do We Bridge the Anxiety Gap at Work,” by Erica Joy Baker:
It Started with a Poker Game
Erica Joy Baker begins her talk by sharing a story about how much she loves to play poker. She was very excited to find out that her coworkers hosted a poker game at her job. When poker day rolled around, she headed to the conference room for the game and could hear the sounds of laughter and conversation as she approached. However, when she walked into the conference room, the conversation ceased and never recovered. Neither did she.
We've all had those kinds of moments where we are trying to figure out what just happened. She wondered, were they not expecting her? Did they not want her there? Did they think she wasn't good enough to be there? Having questions like that swirling around in your head can be an instant stressor. Baker explains that she went from being very excited about playing the game she loves with her coworkers to having anxiety that was so high, she couldn’t focus on the game.
The Gulf of Anxiety
Baker knew that she wouldn’t be able to play her best game in that situation. Having to overcome the gulf of anxiety that separated her and the rest of the room would have made it impossible for her to get to her peak performance. That was just a low stakes poker game, now, imagine that feeling like that every day at work.
This is something that people from underrepresented groups feel every single day. Most of us come to work with a general set of questions and concerns. We want to know how we’ll make an impact and how we’ll achieve our goals. However, people from underrepresented groups have a different set of questions. They are concerned with being paid fairly, avoiding sexual harassment, and falling into stereotypes. Carrying all of these concerns forces people to survive instead of making it possible for them to thrive.
A Shared Experience
Baker has survived in the tech industry for nearly two decades. She started her career just like everyone else. She was excited to do her job, but over time, worries built up about being the only black woman, the only black person, in an office building full of hundreds. She was inappropriately touched and constantly underestimated. As her list of concerns grew, so did her anxiety. She couldn’t reach peak performance at work because her anxiety levels were so high.
Her story is not unique, and Baker shared it in 2014 when she had enough. People related to her story, and she heard from various underrepresented groups who shared similar experiences. Baker was relieved to find that she wasn’t alone in her experiences, but she was also horrified to know how widespread the issues were.
Creating a Safe Environment
Now that Baker is a manager, she knows that it's important to create an environment where her team can succeed. She wants them to feel psychologically safe so they can achieve their goals. Without a safe environment, people won't meet their expectations.
Together we can make this change. Often, we are told that there is no room for emotions in the workplace, that feelings are not meant for business. That isn't always the case, and it doesn't serve us well. Baker wants us to sympathise with how our coworkers feel if they are coming to work with anxiety. We can change and build environments that don’t create anxiety. All it takes is a little understanding and some action to remove the worries and fears people face at work.
The Result Is Happiness and Productivity
We can build companies and environments that are safe for everyone. Anyone at any level can make people feel safe. You don't have to be a manager to do this. Underrepresented people often feel like they’re the ones who have to solve the problems that are causing their pain. You can take away these issues by speaking up when you see something happening. You can prove in those moments that you are not only an ally, but you are also an advocate when you show empathy and understanding of the anxiety gap that underrepresented minorities face in the workplace. This is how we can build a safe space where our coworkers and teammates can come in every day and be happy and be productive and thrive.