New Study Assesses the Relationship Between Workplace Racial Composition and Psychological Distress - Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

Summary of:

Stainback, K., Jason, K., & Walter, C. (2019). Organizational context and the well-being of black workers: Does racial composition affect psychological stress? Race, Identity and Work. 137-164.

Background & Theory:

Past research on workplace inequality has primarily focused on outcomes like segregation, wages, and access to authority. However, this research has largely ignored the relationship of race and social relationships with psychological distress. Based on a sample of black workers in the United States, the research presented here examines the factors of racial workplace composition and psychological distress, as well as potential mediators: discrimination and social support.


Research by Kevin Stainback, Kendra Jason, and Charles Walter was conducted to answer the following questions:

1. How does racial similarity or difference with one’s supervisor and coworkers affect psychological distress for black workers?
2. Does the experience of workplace discrimination lead to higher levels of psychological distress?
3. Does greater supervisor and coworker social support reduce psychological distress?
4. Does the effect of racial discrimination on psychological distress lessen when higher levels of management citizenship behavior/social support are available?


To conduct research, Stainback, Jason, and Walter used the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce and an unclustered random probability design of random-digit-dialing black civilian labor force workers. After using multiple imputation techniques to handle missing data, the resulting sample size was 238. Psychological Distress was measured via Likert-Scale questions that measured various conditions the respondents had experienced in the past month. Racial Composition was measured with categorical questions that were then synthesized into one model (0-24.99% (token), 25-49.99% (tilted other race), 50-74.99% (tilted same race), and 75-100% (dominants)) and used theories of tokenism to define each category. Categorical and Likert-Scale questions were also used to measure workplace racial discrimination, workplace social support, job and workplace characteristics, and background information.


After the research was concluded, it was found that psychological distress was expressed similarly for black workers who had coworkers of the same race that made up <25%, 25% – 49.99%, and 50% – 74.99% of all company employees. However, workers in black-dominated jobs experienced significantly less psychological distress. All respondents considered, 16.71% reported experiencing workplace racial discrimination. Additionally, this discrimination was more likely to be found with respondents who worked in an environment where less than 25% of their coworkers were of the same race.

In addressing how racial similarity of supervisors affects racial discrimination, the research found that only 6% of black workers with a black supervisor had experienced racial discrimination, whereas 21% of black workers working for a non-black supervisor experienced discrimination. In general, it was found that supervisor social support, but not coworker support, helped lessen psychological distress. The research further found that racial discrimination is linked to higher psychological distress but is mostly unaffected by social support. In fact, the results showed that if anything, more psychological distress is prevalent in racially discriminatory supportive environments than in racially discriminatory unsupportive environments. This suggests that racial discrimination may deteriorate the effectiveness of social support.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this study, we can take away a few key points:

• The research suggested that racial similarity provides a protective benefit that social support cannot touch. This may be helpful for groups and organizations to think about as they grow.
• In general, supervisor support lowers the effect of psychological distress among employees, regardless of race. This being said, supervisors could be key to promoting a healthy work environment. Especially considering the fact that racial discrimination is unaffected by social support, it may be crucial in some instances for supervisors to step in to stop discriminatory action.
• The likelihood of employees perceiving racial discrimination goes up depending on the race of the supervisor. According to this research, if a supervisor is of the same race, there is a 1 in 16 likelihood that racial discrimination is perceived. If a supervisor is not of the same race, this shoots up to a 1 in 5 likelihood that racial discrimination is perceived. This could be helpful to know for assessing risk and improving company culture.

Final Takeaways:

For Consultants: In the process of consulting companies, it may be helpful to keep in mind the impact that racial composition and racial discrimination have on employee psychological well-being. Recognizing that psychological distress can be higher for employees not in the company’s majority race, and that harmful conflict can occur from this, can amplify the need for preventative action.

For Everyone: It’s important to be aware of what causes you distress at work. Knowing that race can play into feelings of distress is important to be aware of. Especially if you are in a leadership role, knowing that you have the potential of lessening distress and preventing racial discrimination is vital to maintaining a healthy work atmosphere.

Noah Shaw

Noah is the Peace Operations Coordinator at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems and holds a Master's in Dispute Resolution from the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.

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