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  • Pooja Sachdev

Well-being & DEI Professionals

The events of the last two years have thrown diversity, inclusion and wellbeing into sharp focus and in many ways, these areas are intrinsically connected.

droplet hitting a pool of water, with rainbow colours reflcted

From an organisational point of view, the overlap is clear to see: the cultural factors and actions managers and organisations can take to promote more inclusive environments are pretty much the same as the ones that support employee wellbeing (as well as, in fact, higher employee engagement and stronger teams) – like psychological safety, fairness, respect, care, trust, empowerment and authenticity[1].


And as individuals: we know instinctively that feeling included (being able to be yourself and being valued for who you are) has a positive impact on our self-esteem, sense of self-worth, belonging, positive affect and social connectedness – all of which improves our wellbeing.


A growing body of research also shows, conversely, that being excluded can have detrimental effects on our physical and emotional health. In fact, when we feel excluded, the same part of the brain is impacted, as when we are in physical pain[2]. In corporate work environments, members of socially marginalised groups are more at risk of exclusion and consequently, lower wellbeing[3].


But DEI intersects with Wellbeing in another way that is sometimes overlooked: and that is, the way in which doing DEI work can affect the wellbeing of the individuals doing it.


There are many reasons for this.


DEI professionals usually come into this work because they care about social justice and equity. They often have personal experience of being marginalised or deep empathy with marginalised groups and are driven by their desire and passion to make things “right”.


However, constantly talking about the ways in which systems are unfair (because it’s your job to do so) and repeatedly trying to convince those with power to care about others can be emotionally and physically draining.


Close-up of a sign being held up at a protest. Sign reads, "it's a privilege to educate yourself about racism instead of experiencing it".

A phrase I’ve personally used to describe how this sometimes feels is “like pushing a heavy rock uphill”. It can feel like you ‘carry the burden’ for your organisation or your client. The work is, by definition, counter-cultural, so it is your job to challenge norms and that is like constantly swimming against the tide.


I contributed to an FT article by Emma Jacobs[4] recently which talked about ‘The evolution of the Chief Diversity Officer’. I shared what I see as the unique challenges of any ‘Head of Diversity’ type of role - how it can be a ‘double edged sword’ particularly where organisations are not truly aware of (or ready for) what the work entails, where the appointments are reactive or tokenistic, where resources and commitment are lacking and where there are insufficient structures in place to support the person being appointed.

For a lot of us in this “industry” (as it’s now become), this isn’t just a “job”, it is our life’s work. So it carries greater meaning, evokes stronger passion, has deeper personal connection … and has a higher risk of stress and burnout. Because when the work is about who you are, it can feel impossible to switch off from it. It’s almost as if the less you care (or allow it to affect you), the more likely you are to survive and succeed in the work. And that’s the wrong way round.


Job advertisements for 'diversity' roles have been on the rise, but the tenure for chief diversity officers remains lower than other senior roles like chief executives[5] and the position carries a high risk of burnout[6] if not managed well.[7] The term “diversity fatigue” (a bit like “compassion fatigue” in caring professions) is sometimes used to describe the frustration and exhaustion associated with the work [8].


So: if we are genuinely committed to embedding DEI in our workplaces, we must confront and tackle this risk. We need to seriously consider how we support our DEI colleagues to manage the inevitable emotional toll and ensure that they have the physical, psychological, and organisational support needed to keep doing the work in a healthy and sustainable way.

Group of colleagues having a meeting in a modern office, siting on chairs placed in a circle.

Here are a few things for organisations to consider:

  • Before making these appointments, think about what your vision is. D&I goals are often articulated in terms of metrics - but we need to dig deeper and be clear about WHY those numbers matter. How does inclusion serve the organisation’s mission and purpose? Does everyone understand that?

  • This can't be one person's job, it needs to be 'on everyone'. The aim of the role is to weave equity and inclusion through everything the company does, so that ultimately the role is redundant. Everyone needs to see it as part of their job.

  • Reactive or tokentistic appointments are not going to solve the problem: make sure there is clear and visible organisational commitment, readiness for change and ensure that adequate resources and remit are given to the role.

  • Don't underestimate the emotional toll this role can take on the individual; make sure wellbeing support is in place as well as consistent allyship, sponsorship and vocal support from leadership across the business.


And a few tips for DEI professionals:

  • Set clear and realistic expectations for yourself – you cannot change the whole world, what is achievable here, for now?

  • Ask for the resources and support you need – this is not (and should not be) a one-person job

  • Seek and nurture relationships and communities that understand and support you – spaces where you can be yourself, learn and grow

  • Practice self-care, take breaks, cultivate hobbies and interests outside work – this work is part (not all) of who you are


In order to sustain healthy organisations, societies and people through these challenging times, we must make intentional efforts to ensure our workplaces are compassionate, inclusive and human-centred – starting with the people at the front line of this endeavour.

[1] Get in touch if you’d like to know more about how we define and measure inclusive cultures and inclusive leadership

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2019/03/16/what-being-excluded-does-to-your-brain/?sh=506f43b76d67


[3] Here are some examples:

[4] The Evolution of the Chief Diversity Officer by Emma Jacobs: https://www.ft.com/content/6eac296d-acf6-4b41-9349-dc9723212914

[5] “Job postings for diversity and inclusion (D&I) roles jumped 100 per cent in the 45 days after the [BLM] protests began, with leadership jobs, such as chief diversity officer, prime among them. But the median tenure for a chief diversity officer is three years, compared with six years for chief executives.” https://www.raconteur.net/c-suite/cdo-role-diversity-efforts/ [6] “DEI execs are burning out amid the billion-dollar push to diversify corporate America: 'It's hard to be both the advocate and the abused'” https://www.businessinsider.com/dei-leaders-risk-burnout-diversity-equity-inclusion-addressing-systemic-racism-2021-4 [7] “Being honest with ourselves about what we can realistically and effectively manage is critical - which means knowing when to say ‘no’ so we can build in time to recharge and refocus.” https://ideas.bkconnection.com/how-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-changemakers-can-find-balance-without-burnout [8] “Diversity fatigue describes the feelings of exhaustion, isolation—and sometimes, skepticism—associated with a desire to understand and solve the complex issues surrounding racial justice. Ironically, this may be most challenging for the diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals on the front lines of corporate efforts to implement anti-racist strategies.” https://www.fastcompany.com/90644286/now-is-not-the-time-to-fall-prey-to-diversity-fatigue-heres-what-to-do-to-keep-improving

.. and.. “Diversity fatigue shows up in a variety of ways. It can trigger distress in those that are committed to the work but see inadequate results. It can cause irritation for those that see diversity work as being merely for the sake of political correctness. For those that see it as a strategy used by organizations solely to enhance and further their brand, it can cause frustration.” https://www.employerscouncil.org/resources/diversity-fatigue-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters/