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Tech Life

Tech Works: Why Burnout and Layoffs Hit Some People Harder

Many tech companies are eliminating jobs and rolling back their diversity efforts — and that’s bad news for any member of a marginalized group who’s already working in tech.
May 19th, 2023 9:00am by
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Editor’s note: Tech Works is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Jennifer Riggins that explores workplace conditions, management ideas, career development and the tech job market as it affects the people who build and run the software the world relies on. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

Nearly three years ago, after the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests against police violence and structural racism, more than 200 tech companies pledged to confront racial inequity within their own organizations.

Now, many of those same companies are rolling back their diversity efforts — and that’s bad news for any member of a marginalized group who’s already working in tech.

“The so-called racial reckoning in the tech industry has taken a backseat to newer trends. Slow revenue growth, stock market falls, and rising interest rates have burst the tech bubble. And early pandemic over-hiring has resulted in mass job cuts in the sector,” Ebony Flake wrote for Essence in December.

Granted, the “racial reckoning” of the tech industry was mostly performative; a January report by the Business of Tech podcast continued to show that white men make up 89% of IT leadership.

But where does this leave people who are in the minority and/or marginalized in the tech industry, people who are women, people of color, immigrants, over 40, LGBTQ+, disabled or neurodivergent?

In short, in makes them more likely to burn out — and much more likely to leave the industry they fought harder to join.

So, as circumstances are unfortunately not likely to improve in 2023, how can those most minoritized by the tech industry fight what I’m calling “intersectional burnout”? How do layoffs affect marginalized people differently? Read on to learn how to help yourself and your colleagues in tech.

What Is ‘Intersectional Burnout’?

“Intersectional” means the ways in which social categorizations — including race, gender, class, age, disability, neurodivergence, and sexual identities — interconnect and influence each other.  Intersectional burnout, then, is the particular vulnerability to exhaustion, detachment and imposter syndrome experienced by those who are not in the majority in an organization.

This experience has people “trying to outrun the stress response. So they’re working harder, but that’s not enough,” Monica Rose, a burnout prevention coach specializing in women in the workplace, told The New Stack. “You’re burning out as you try to outrun your emotions.”

The long-standing effects of intersectional burnout on those marginalized in any organization, Rose said, comes down to psychological safety and company culture. Really, she said, it centers on answering one question: “Am I safe to turn up to work as me?”

When the answer is “no,” it often comes down to every-day microaggressions made by the majority:

  • “Where are you from?”
  • “That’s interesting.” (When looking at people’s lunches).
  • Comments on hairstyles
  • Talking to a colleague about  “your people.”
  • “Don’t get too emotional.”
  • Misgendering
  • Mispronouncing and misspelling names. (Nobody messes up “Arnold Schwarzenegger” or “Timothée Chalamet.”)
  • “Who’s the decision maker?” “You can’t be an engineer!” “You’re in marketing or DevRel, right?” “Can I talk to someone more technical/senior?” (All are commonly heard by women working booths at tech events.)

This overall “othering” forces teammates to code-switch or mask to fit within colleagues’ “norms.” This isn’t often out of malicious intent, Rose said, but rather a malicious habit built on unconscious bias.

Add to this the burden of playing the “official representative” of your particular underrepresented demographics. Over the years, dozens of women and especially women of color I’ve interviewed have referenced this isolating experience of being the only person in the room or often in the whole engineering department.

While tech’s majority is dealing with burnout by quiet quitting, those in marginalized groups tend to actually work harder. And in the current time of short staffing, Rose said, that translates to working past capacity and going on call more, in order to “keep up and go beyond,” lest you are assumed lazy.

Basically, tech is moving fast and breaking people.

“High levels of burnout across intersectional identities within the organization is a sure indication of of the prevalence of a toxic workplace environment,” Rose continued, which “is defined by behaviors such as bullying, harassment and discrimination that goes unaddressed or is absorbed into the company culture as ‘the norm’.”

Recognizing and Overcoming Intersectional Burnout

Just like the stages of grief, addressing intersectional burnout begins with recognition. Rose draws on the burnout research of Christina Maslach in order to flag some signs of workplace burnout, including:

  • Withdrawal, not engaging in meetings
  • Chronic stress.
  • Overworking, presenteeism and not setting boundaries.
  • Needing to take more time off, and not for fun.
  • Negative self-appraisal.
  • Feeling unsafe at work or forced to change your behavior.
  • Cynicism, including the judgment of other people or the organization, complaining about the level, quality or conditions of work.
  • Physical reactions, including fatigue and headaches.

“Most often people don’t realize that it’s happening,” Rose said. “If you come over with a feeling like ‘These dudes don’t get me. I don’t belong,’ you start to buy into that narrative and start to look for more of those signs. You’re almost looking for reasons to be stressed, and you will find them.”

In reaction to burnout, she said, you often stop looking for allies and support networks to help. “Don’t discount that what you’re feeling might be true,” Rose said. “But, if that is true, what are you going to do about it for your own sake?”

This is especially of concern during times of layoffs. Whether your role is steady or not, she said, you have to make sure, if considering a move, that you won’t just jump into the same organization with a different name: “You know the questions you should be asking when you interview for a new job.”

Take time off to rest, she advised, and then reflect on whether you should stay or go. Specifically, Rose recommended physical activity so that you can break the stress cycle that has your mind and body in fight-or-flight mode.

If this sounds very similar to autistic burnout and other challenges facing neurodivergent people, that makes sense, as both forms of burnout are exacerbated by the strain of masking or code-switching and feeling gaslit when efforts to ameliorate circumstances are ignored.

Are Tech’s DEI Efforts over?

Not to be a pessimist, but this level of isolation and burnout in tech is likely to get worse, especially for those who are marginalized by the industry.

Indeed women are already among the hardest hit, making up 47% of tech layoffs, while making up less than a quarter of the industry. This is in part because women are disproportionately in the customer-facing and employee-facing roles — like marketing, sales, and human resources — which are first on the chopping block.

And this is after the tech careers of women and especially women of color were far more negatively impacted by the pandemic than those of men.

While it’s always easier to track demographics on the binary, there’s no reason to believe this trend won’t extend to all under-represented groups in tech. Those most at risk for intersectional burnout will likely feel the most pressure over the upcoming months.

Making things worse, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) advocacy roles, which champion diverse hiring and retention practices, have suffered a  disproportionate impact from the tech layoffs, as found by research released in February by Revelio Labs.

“Companies were ‘into’ diversity as a trend,” all the way through 2021, Veni Kunche, founder of Diversify Tech, a job board and talent directory, told The New Stack.

But at the start of 2022, about six months before most signs of economic downturn emerged, she noticed a drop in demand for the services of her company, which focuses on talent underrepresented in the industry.

“Diversity is not a trend anymore,” Kunche said. “I expected it to go low, but I didn’t expect it to be a full 180 so fast.”

In my own network, I’ve noticed cuts in DEI and accessibility roles; such cuts have been boldly broadcast by companies like Basecamp, Coinbase and Twitter, with seemingly little concern about looking bad about it. “White men are really publicly declaring, ‘we’re not going to talk about politics’,” Kunche said.

Over the last six months, Amazon and Nike — with more than 800,000 and 80,000 employees globally, respectively — have also dramatically shaved down their DEI teams to the single digits, without the same fanfare. Kunche has also seen more companies quietly taking down their diversity pledges from their websites.

“We were making some progress. And then, all of a sudden, it felt like these high-profile CEOs were saying it doesn’t matter. And while some don’t publicly say it, they are absorbing it,” she said, reflecting not only on what she’s witnessed publicly but in private communities, like Slack groups for startup founders.

Now, she added, “People are saying, ‘We focused too much on this’ even though they didn’t really. It’s back to square one: ‘We are just going to hire who we get along with.’  The focus is not on DEI anymore, they’re not even trying to be cautious of it.”

This will have a harrowing impact on diversity in tech because the Revelio report found that, since 2020, companies with DEI teams have seen a measurable increase in non-white applicants, and that the presence of DEI teams has had a direct correlation to boosted company morale — which at time of layoffs, anything to boost worker morale should be prioritized.

The Revelio report also noted that DEI teams typically have a higher representation of Black, Hispanic and Asian employees than companies as a whole, which means further slicing off of marginalized employees.

“As usual, we will be forgotten,” Kunche said. But she’s not giving up so easily. She has recently added a no-charge, public list of underrepresented talent that have recently been laid off.

How Layoffs Hit Differently

The trauma that causes intersectional burnout also harms your ability to respond to change, meaning tech layoffs are not hitting everyone the same way.

“The one big thing is that layoffs happen, but to be rehired, that is what hits marginalized folks the most. We are not let into those networks to have referrals,” Kunche said.

Since marginalized people in tech have had to work harder to get where they are, they are more likely to remain at companies longer, she said, rather than having to deal with new aggressions at a new workplace. This in turn means, “you didn’t build that network or weren’t even allowed to.”

Whether you’re laid off or not, she recommended starting networking now. LinkedIn is not optional, so keep that profile updated, connecting with recruiters and hiring managers — not just following them — so you show up higher in their results.

From there, Kunche suggests looking for safe spaces developed for these marginalized groups, including:

Introduce yourself and keep an eye on the job channels in these communities.

Strategies for Surviving a Layoff

If you are laid off, Kunche echoed Rose’s advice: take a break. Also, reevaluate if your career is really headed where you want it to go, if you are happy, and if you need to take a different path.

She also warned against jumping at the first opportunity. Instead, be intentional. Google any potential employer, look for signs of layoffs, signals for funding, and any pending court cases. LinkedIn is also a great tool, she says, for getting a general idea of who works there — are all engineers white men?

Check out Glassdoor, as well as InHerSight, which features company reviews and career advice especially by and for women. The previous Slack communities are also great to ask for more honest opinions of a potential employer.

Kunche has gotten valuable intel that way. She told of one sponsor she rejected for Diversify Tech because she learned that there was a whole alumni Slack community to support women and queer people who were mistreated at that company. A few months later, news came out that the company was getting sued for persistent harassment.

“The worst thing a lot of people are doing is they aren’t mentioning that they are laid off or they are looking for an opportunity,” she said, because you can’t offer help to people if you don’t know they need it.

“People think if they are laid off it will give the impression they aren’t good at a job,” but she added that we are way past that blame game as an industry. Once you let people know your situation, she said, “your network can keep you in mind.”

Check out this episode of The New Stack Makers for more on recognizing, recovering from and preventing burnout:

Are you in a minoritized group in the tech world, but work for a great organization? Share your positive experience with @TheNewStack and @JKRiggins so folks know where they should be applying.

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