The intersection between DEI, wellbeing and workplace productivity

Latin handicapped transgender woman with business people working on computer at office desk, in disability concept and disabled people

Our working life can make or break our health and, if we also experience challenges related to diversity, equity, or inclusion, it is likely that these extra layers will further burden – and worsen – our wellbeing. 

Dan Robertson, Managing Director of FAIRER Consulting, hosted a lunchtime session on this very subject at April’s The Watercooler & The Office event in London. He talked to guests about the findings of scientific studies, that highlight the additional load borne by people from diverse groups.

Certain professions are prone to overwork. For instance, shopkeepers and proprietors in retail work an average of 74 hours weekly, according to the TUC’s Annual Survey of Hours and Earning 2019 and construction workers averaging 64 hours per week. The World Health Organisation revealed that between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and deaths from stroke rose by 19%.

Dan, an authority on DE&I, shared startling statistics related to long working hours and the serious health conditions overwork causes. He also explained how this is compounded for those employees who are at the sharp end of microaggressions, discrimination and othering, who not only have to navigate the effects of overwork, but who are, all too often, lumbered with additional unspoken and unacknowledged obstacles.

The conversation covered the specific challenges experienced by the HR and business leaders in the room when addressing these issues, and attendees shared their suggested solutions and best practices in addressing this growing challenge.

Dan shared FAIRER Consulting’s framework, which covers Fairness, Accessibility, Inclusion, Respect, Equity and Representation, in depth and shared his wisdom as to how these conundrums can be tackled.

The strategic challenges

There are three strategic challenges to overcome when it comes to DEI, wellbeing and workplace productivity:

  1. Work is literally killing us
  2. The rise of identity politics together with exclusion and bias at work add an ‘emotional tax’ to diverse groups
  3. Organisations are focusing on the wrong measures and solutions

Dying to make a living

We can take steps to avert ill-health, early death and the low-level, enduring stress that strips us of motivation and contentment in all aspects of our lives.

Working an average of more than 55 hours a week raises your risk of heart disease by 17%, stroke by 35% and brings a raft of knock-on secondary effects because you stop doing the things that you used to – you have less time to go to the gym or for a walk and you might be more likely to grab a takeaway or convenience food instead of cooking a healthy meal. The latter have a compounding effect that can cause significant problems for individuals.

Dan observed: “The way that we operate, our culture, is actually profoundly unhealthy for human beings.”

In the context of DE&I, when you consider the factors mentioned above and couple them with, for instance, microaggressions, you layer yet more strain and stresses on individuals. It is therefore vital that DE&I and HR professionals take a holistic view of stressors to be able to counter them effectively.

“If you are the only female, or one of the few females in a room that is predominantly male, or the only person of colour, you go into that space not feeling psychologically safe. You have a sense of ‘othering’ going on,” explained Dan.

Psychological unsafety

A sense of othering in the workplace severely impacts our psychological safety. People who experience othering go to work unsure of whether they can be their authentic selves, and consequently devote mental energy to navigating or covering up their identity. This saps the energy they would otherwise spend doing their job.

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The notion of ‘covering’ was mooted in 1963 by psychologist Erving Goffman, who studied and wrote about stigma. He examined the way people acknowledge their differences – admitting that they exist – but downplaying their significance. Kenji Yoshino expanded upon Goffman’s work in 2006, describing covering as when a person downplays, minimises, and/or hides aspects of their identity to fit in with a dominant group.

“The reason we hide who we are is for fear of judgment,” explained Dan. “For example, people don’t talk about their sexual orientation for fear of judgement or women may not talk about how many children they have. People may not want to go to an LGBT networking event for fear of outing themselves.”

Deloitte’s research (see summary below) highlights the facets of covering:

What is covering?

Covering behaviour can be divided into four categories: 

Appearance-based covering. Altering self-presentation—such as grooming, attire, and mannerisms—to blend into the mainstream. For example, a worker who uses a cane to assist with their mobility might not use it in the office to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Advocacy-based covering. Not defending or promoting the interests of one’s group, such as when a biased or stereotypical comment is made. For example, an immigrant might refrain from challenging a xenophobic joke to avoid being seen as “difficult” or “humourless.”

Affiliation-based covering. Minimizing behaviours widely associated with one’s identity, often to negate common stereotypes. For example, a mother might avoid talking about her children in the office to signal commitment to work.

Association-based covering. Avoiding contact with other group members. For example, a gay individual might not bring their partner to a work function so as not to draw attention to their sexual orientation.

Source: Workplace worries create barriers to the authentic self (deloitte.com)

Emotional tax – a high price to pay

Dan also touched on the fact that when people feel different, they carry an emotional tax. “Women, people of colour, and so on, experience an emotional tax,” he explained. “That has profound consequences on psychological safety and belonging.

“Because of your differences, you start to experience higher levels of stress and that starts to create anxiety.”

The remedies frequently presented as solutions to those carrying a high emotional tax can often be well-meaning but often don’t address the root cause, which risks exacerbating the individual’s challenges. For example, a mindfulness app will be beneficial in the right context for someone well-placed to be receptive to it, but where there is an emotional tax, there needs to be recognition that the root causes of the extra burden will affect a person’s psychological safety and must be tackled suitably.

When people experience microaggressions or direct discrimination, they suffer additional trauma on top of a lack of psychological safety, exacerbating the risks to their mental and physical wellbeing.

“If you are in a room that is full of smoke – which is what toxicity is – organisational responses can often be to put on a metaphorical oxygen mask,” Dan said. “But that doesn’t work because you are getting more smoke around you all the time. The oxygen mask is keeping you alive but is not addressing the root cause. You need to open the windows, remove the cause of the smoke or just get out of the room.”

Of the many organisations in the room, the most common challenges around achieving psychological safety include dealing with recognising colleague groups, age differences, culture, anticipating needs and empowering groups to ask for what they need, the growing intersection between DEI and employee health and wellbeing, managing communications around DE&I, understanding that not one size fits all and questioning who should take ownership of wellbeing.

After much discussion and debate the consensus of the best approach to take centred around strategic and tactical initiatives that should be focused on bolstering psychological safety from the top-down, promoting curiosity and tolerance and understanding that people may not automatically have an insight into an issue, and building openness between leaders, employees and communities.

FAIRER Consulting’s recommendations

Global analytics firm Gallup found that when it comes to the integration of DE&I and wellbeing, leaders must be aware that employees have different access to health and wellbeing resources, different experiences with healthcare systems and, as drawn on above, they have different experiences that influence their health and wellbeing.

Gallup’s Center on Black Voices surveyed more than 9,500 US-based employees and found persistent racial and ethnic disparities in how they relate to wellbeing and healthcare resources. Clearly, it is essential to think beyond the obvious and consider what might impact your employees’ wellbeing to ensure you are treating them equitably.  

When it comes to wellbeing and DE&I, FAIRER Consulting recommends focusing on uncovering deeper root causes within the organisation’s culture, rather than looking only for quick-fix solutions, which are limited in their ability to tackle the fundamental problems within a culture.

For instance, leaders should challenge microaggressions at work such as being left out of team conversations and being passed over for promotion.  

Getting it right is important and goes beyond being ethically sound. Another study by Gallup found that US-based Black employees who are discriminated against in the workplace are six times less likely than their White colleagues to recommend their workplace as a great place to work. Given that around one in four Black workers say they have been discriminated against at work, this does not bode well for organisations who wish to attract top talent. There is much that organisations can do to boost DE&I and wellbeing. Contact FAIRER Consulting to learn how to support your employees’ health and wellbeing while putting DE&I at the heart of your strategy.

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