Why Black Employees Are Less Inclined to Return to Office


Originally published September 13, 2023, in Twin Cities Business magazine.

'Crisis fatigue' is hitting all of us. It's hitting people of color even harder.

The world is a shit show. We are collectively, and individually, experiencing many emotions right now—unparalleled overwhelm, ongoing burnout, high anxiety, and unrelenting exhaustion. Much of this stems from the number of catastrophic events happening around us. I don’t need to run through all of them, but here are a few:

  • •The economy and the constant talk about a recession and inflation
  • •Effects of climate change and worsening weather incidents
  • •War across the globe
  • •The rise of AI and the potential implications for jobs and livelihoods
  • •Mass shootings
  • •Political division
  • •Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people (which disproportionately hurt LGBTQ+ people of color)
  • •The diminishing of democratic rights (like the Tennessee Legislature banning signs or multiple states banning books in libraries and limiting curricula).

Amid this backdrop of agonizing events, we also have to continue to live our daily lives, which in themselves can be filled with all the deadlines, pressures, and stress that come with them.

Let’s name what’s going on here. We are all suffering from what’s called crisis fatigue: a response to the prolonged stress that develops from unexpected or difficult events. i.e., what we’re managing right now.


If you are in a leadership or management role right now, you are tired. I know. And I empathize. I’m tired, too. As leaders and managers, we experience fatigue. We deal with these global issues all while also being responsible for crafting and orchestrating solutions that ensure the overall health, well-being, and existence of our companies. It’s a lot!

And while we experience this fatigue, you may think that the multiple crises supersede your DEI efforts, but that is not the case.

See, your employees of color are tired, too. They have some of the same concerns as you, but their issues are compounded with their racial identity. Imagine being in the midst of crisis fatigue many of us are feeling and being afraid to leave your house because you might get shot while grocery shopping or ringing a doorbell, or stabbed for dancing to Beyonce at a gas station.

All that and some of your Black employees’ fatigue might be coming from work itself. I have observed two issues very recently.

First, a recent article in the Los Angeles Timespointed to the fact that employees of color want to work remotely because they don’t want to face the causal (and sometimes blatant) racism that is being served up at their jobs. The article cites a 2021 study by Future Forum that found as few as 3% of Black employees wanted to return to office (compared to 21% of white employees) because their mental health is better in remote working situations.

The second issue is that many companies are failing to follow through on DEI promises made after George Floyd was murdered. Leaders started talking about DEI but are taking little or no action and, in some cases, even cutting ties with their DEI executives and consultants. All of this compromises Black employees’ ability to be present and fully contributing members of their teams: they can’t even trust their own leaders to walk the talk.

In many circumstances, Black employees are experiencing crisis fatigue from current events and work and the repercussions of their racial identity within those current events and at work. It’s layered. So yes, we’re all tired…and Black people are extra tired.

If we stare truthfully into the centers of our current crises, we might see why committing to DEI work is more important than ever: Perhaps we have crisis fatigue because we haven’t done the work to make our conditions better and that failure to do the work perpetuates or worsens these very crises. In effect, we are in a vicious cycle that can only be broken by taking action.

Which is why continuing to make progress on DEI is critical. The idea that other crises might be more important or more urgent is an off-ramp that, if you take now, every employee will notice. You will not be able to hide that inaction in plain sight. In fact, it will embolden those who want to dismiss the very real changes that need to happen in every workplace and you will lose the commitment from Black people who want to be a part of the change.

So how do you, leader, stay committed and keep making traction on your DEI work in the face of all of this?

  • Create a more open and intentional conversation with your employees of color where you’re truthful about your fears and shortcomings, and what you hope to achieve. Ask employees how you can support them.
  • Create a manageable plan for your DEI related work. Be reasonable with what you promise—consistently accomplishing a few things is better than doing nothing. Communicate your plan widely and move to action. Talk about your successes, failures, and everything in between.
  • Recognize that your employees depend on your transparency around DEI work and they will be evaluating your action and making career decisions based on your outcomes. People will stop believing you even want to make change if you don’t show you’re working on it.
  • Name the truth of our circumstance and ask yourself the difficult questions: Are we in crisis fatigue? What are the indicators? What are we seeing and hearing from employees?
  • Reexamine your mental health policies. Consider mandatory PTO, access to remote work, or access to therapy or therapists (and time off to attend sessions) to help employees of color cope with being tired and stressed.

As we enter the fourth quarter of 2023, now is a perfect time to engage in these strategies and show your employees that you are still invested. The reality is that action can be an antidote to feeling overwhelmed by the mess of this world. Taking steps to make change, even if it feels like just another task on your to-do list, can have an impact on your own well-being as well as others’.

As leaders it is our responsibility to create safe workspaces. Don’t let crisis fatigue result in poor DEI outcomes. Your employees are watching.

P.S. I’ll see you here next month! Have questions? Want to see a specific topic covered? Message me on LinkedIn.