“One of the most prominent trends in 2023 was a growing acknowledgment of the deep connection between workplace wellbeing and diversity. Employees can only thrive when they are allowed to be at their natural, authentic best, and not hampered by masking who they really are.”
So says Helen Moran, Head of Learning Solutions, AdviserPlus, who believes that the evolution of workplace wellbeing strategies over the last year reflects a broader commitment to creating inclusive, diverse environments which aim towards “true equity”.
Organisations will continue to work to equity
In 2024 experts, including Moran, agree that organisations will continue to work towards embracing the intersection between DEI and wellbeing and embedding both in their core business plans, rather than as periphery bolt-ons.
By now, there is much research showing this approach leads to competitive advantage on a myriad of fronts, such as recruitment, retention, engagement and reputation (see McKinsey’s report and this article).
Iain Smith, US Head of Solutions, MindGym, agrees with Moran, but puts his take on 2023 and the coming year more bluntly.
“2023 has been the year that the tensions and controversies surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have reached boiling point,” he says. “There is a growing sense of DEI ‘fatigue’, as, despite considerable effort and investment, progress towards diversity targets remains slow.”
This could be why several high profile DEI executives exited their jobs in 2023, he speculates (for more on this story, see here). It could also be why there’s been a “backlash against so-called ‘woke’ initiatives” and DEI budgets are being “scrutinised” as companies like these reassess their investment, he says, adding:
From initiatives to integration
“In 2024, I hope we’ll see a shift to a DEI 3.0 approach across most of the world’s largest and most successful companies: from initiatives to integration; from a single-minded focus on representation targets, to creating the climate for change; from hosting a series of ‘days’, ‘months’ and ‘weeks’ to honour diverse cultures; and to simply embedding inclusion and belonging into the fabric of workplace culture.”
End ‘yoga and bananas’ wellbeing strategies
But no doubt these words are music to many ears in the industry, especially those who have been campaigning against the initiative-driven ‘yoga and bananas’ approach to Wellbeing, which positions it as a ‘nice’, fluffy add-on. (Hannah Pearsall, Head of Wellbeing at recruiter Hays, is one such campaigner, see her profile piece here where she explains how frustrated she is with this misperception).
As we’ve written about at length in 2023, there is definitely a shift afoot to realising wellbeing is intrinsically linked to job design, such as workload, flexibility, pay and working environment, etc. If you don’t have fundamentals like these satisfactorily covered, you can’t hope to have much impact on employee wellbeing (no matter how much free yoga and fruit you offer up).
However, to successfully effect this kind of change, which affects the workings of a company, requires that the person leading the charge has the clout to do so. And, often, looking at these fundamentals throws up uncomfortable insights about how culture is affecting wellbeing, from large pay gaps to toxic cultures to unreasonable workloads; anything but ‘fluffy’.
Wellbeing needs influence to affect meaningful change
Unfortunately, another issue frequently cited by interviewees is that Wellbeing leads often don’t have the seniority and influence that they need to do this, hence why some corporate wellbeing strategies remain peripheral rather than core and embedded. Many, for example, don’t have board representation and are frustrated at their inability to lead meaningful change.
Ngozi Weller, Founder of Happi Workers, agrees that many DEI budgets have been cut recently, with “promises left unfulfilled”. Corporate investment was at its peak in 2020-2021 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, when companies grappled to show their commitment to the DEI agenda in high profile announcements which they largely haven’t lived up to.
Black History Month lacked lustre this year
“Many DEI experts felt Black History Month lacked lustre this year,” says Weller. But she doesn’t believe putting huge budgets back behind these awareness “diary date” initiatives is the answer:
“a commitment to racial equity and anti-racism must persist year-round, not just for a month.”
She touches on another sore point when she calls out “relying on free DEI labour” to work on campaigns like BHM as “inadequate”. Again, Weller advocates that the way forward in 2024 is professionalising this work and embedding it properly in business plans: “a substantial budget and planning are vital for racialised employees to feel companies authentically address inequities.”
Inclusive yet tailored messages
The tricky balance that many companies are trying to strike now is creating messages that are inclusive to all, yet also resonate deeply with specific segments of the workforce at which they are particularly aimed and relevant. As Weller says, in particular “the crucial intersection between DEI and mental health cannot be overlooked”.
For example, raising awareness of the effect of menopause at work is relevant to every employee, but the more granular content and support, for mental and physical health, is especially important to those actually going through it. And within this audience there are further segments that may benefit from further personalisation due to different lived experiences. For instance, it’s known that Black women generally experience more severe symptoms than their White counterparts.
“Support structures addressing cultural differences in lived experiences are essential for inclusive cultures where all can excel,” says Weller. “Workplace mental health solutions can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Intersectionality matters. Different ethnic, racial, religious, and gender groups experience mental health uniquely.”
Neurodiversity will take centre stage in 2024
Neurodiversity is one characteristic which Ruth Pott, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at BAM, believes will take centre stage, as understanding increases, in 2024:
“Just as everyone has mental health, everyone has neurodiversity but many of us think we are ‘normal’. But normal is different for everyone. Understanding the differences in the way we think, plan and deliver our work, the way we learn, the way we organise our life, approach problems, deal with stress is all different.”
Moran agrees, predicting that “in pursuit of inclusivity”, neurodiversity and improving support will emerge increasingly as focal points. Building on this momentum behind diversity and inclusion, we’ll also see more efforts to reduce “gender-diverse stigma”; she predicts companies in 2024 will turn attention to policies which support gender diverse and transitioning employees.
Efforts to reduce gender-diverse stigma
“Organisations will work towards eradicating gender biases and creating environments that empower individuals irrespective of their gender identity,” she says.
However, regardless of which ‘difference’, behaviour science, according to Smith, shows that we are most likely to see progress on DEI when we treat it as a “means to an end, rather than an end in itself”:
“Just as companies that focus on profit are less profitable than those that focus on customers, companies that treat DEI targets as the main story, rather than creating an environment where everyone can flourish and do their best work, may counterintuitively be less diverse.”