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13 min read

Protecting the wellbeing of DE&I professionals

Protecting the wellbeing of DE&I professionals  

People from various backgrounds are becoming increasingly concerned about mental health issues in the workplace due to the fast-paced nature of today's professional environment. Modern workplaces are demanding, and this, along with increased demands and pressures, frequently causes stress, anxiety, and other mental health problems in workers. This in turn has a significant impact on business productivity. According to REBA (Reward & Employee Benefits Association), poor employee wellbeing is a direct risk to business growth. For example, untreated depression may result in a 35% reduction in productivity. Not only can identifying and resolving these issues improve the health of individual employees, but employers and organisations also reap advantages.  

Approximately 80% of workers in Britain claim to work through illness. Due to disease, chronic ailments, and/or mental health issues, employees may find it difficult to function at their best but may still be pressured to come to work due to unempathetic management, which might result in a higher presenteeism rate. This may have a major effect on performance and overall productivity. Due to the delicate and often sensitive nature of DE&I work, we as DE&I practitioners are arguably at higher risk when it comes to experiencing wellbeing and mental health issues. In this report, we explore these challenges through the lens of practitioners working in this space and discuss common causes of poor wellbeing and potential coping strategies. 

Whilst we primarily explore these wellbeing challenges in the context of DE&I professionals, these challenges are also relevant for anyone who interacts with DE&I-related topics in the workplace – for example HR professionals or members of ERGs. Understanding these challenges will enable your organisation to appropriately support those colleagues in DE&I and HR engaging in sensitive activities, as well as develop a culture strategy that encompasses everyone in the workforce.  

What causes wellbeing issues in the workplace?  

Constant connectivity, rigorous schedules, and ever-rising performance standards are the hallmarks of modern employment. While technology has increased productivity and efficiency, it has also blurred the lines between work and personal life, increasing stress and contributing to burnout. Furthermore, it can be difficult for people to ask for help or be honest about their issues because of cultural norms and workplace environments that stigmatise talking about mental health. 

The effect of overwork on employees' physical and mental wellbeing is profound. Studies show that working extensive hours can cause physical health issues including poor sleep, a higher risk of stroke, and ‘syndrome x’, also known as metabolic syndrome. People with the latter condition are more likely to develop diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. More recent research, “The Effect of Long Working Hours and Overtime on Occupational Health: A Meta-Analysis of Evidence from 1998 to 2018” showed that workers with lengthy hours were more likely to experience a variety of occupational health issues such as poor mental health and sleep deprivation. According to several other studies, overwork also brings with it a higher risk of sadness, anxiety, and even a heightened risk of suicidality. 

So, how do you achieve a balance? The term ‘work-life integration’ describes the combination of your personal and professional lives so that there is flexibility and fluidity between the two. Although this strategy can have advantages, such as greater flexibility and autonomy, if it is not handled well, it can also result in mental health problems. Stress levels might rise when your job and personal life are constantly entwined without limits. The inability to put work obligations on hold during downtime can result in chronic stress, which is known to have a negative impact on mental health. Without distinct boundaries separating work from personal life, people may find it difficult to put work-related thoughts or chores away, even during their allotted leisure time. This blurring of boundaries can prevent relaxation and rejuvenation, which are essential for maintaining good mental health.  

It is important to note that those from underrepresented groups are most likely to experience a wellbeing issue at the workplace. The 2021 Mental Health at Work study from US non-profit organisation Mind Share Partners discovered that employees from historically underrepresented groups were most likely to experience mental health issues. Respondents who were Black, and Latinx had a markedly higher likelihood of exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. Furthermore, 54% of all respondents said they believed diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) issues related to mental health. For instance, according to data from a 2016 study entitled “Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014,” LGBTQIA+ people in England are between two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to report having a mental health problem. We, as DE&I professionals, are not immune to these factors and in fact in some cases are even more susceptible to some of these challenges.

5 key wellbeing challenges for DE&I professionals

  • Compassion fatigue  

The term ‘compassion fatigue’, sometimes known as ‘compassion tax’, refers to the psychological, emotional, and physical effects of helping others who have experienced stressful or traumatic events. It is also used to describe the secondary traumatic stress that people in caregiving professions, who frequently deal with stressful situations or trauma, experience, and it bears similarities to burnout. The term was first identified by Joinson (1992) among nurses who “exhibited feelings of anger and helplessness or turned off their own emotions in response to watching their patients suffering from major illnesses or trauma”. It is typified by an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and desperation.  

In a similar way, DE&I practitioners run the risk of developing compassion fatigue because of the delicate nature of our work. We frequently relate to the disadvantaged groups facing discrimination in our daily lives, and some of us may even take matters personally. Since dealing with the subject matter is inherent to what we do, it can be challenging to take time out to refuel and may lead to a lack of compassion in other spheres of our lives. Mood swings, disengagement from social interactions, signs of worry or sadness, reduced productivity, and physical symptoms like headaches, stomach problems, and sleeplessness are just a few ways that compassion fatigue can show itself. It can also cause emotional weariness, cynicism, agitation, and difficulties retaining compassion and understanding for other people. 

  • Burden of representation 

The pressure placed on individual members of marginalised groups to represent or speak for their entire group because of the restricted and frequently stereotyped media portrayals of them, is known as the ‘burden of representation’. Kobena Mercer discussed the burden of representation that Black artists had to bear in a significant 1990 piece. This expectation placed them in the position of representing a whole culture. Because there are fewer positive portrayals of marginalised or oppressed groups, there is a greater danger that an individual's actions will be interpreted as representing an entire group. The idea draws attention to how it can be difficult for members of marginalised groups to avoid stereotypes since there aren't enough diverse and truthful depictions of them in popular culture. 

DE&I professionals often have personal experiences that draw us towards DE&I work. This in turn, often makes us ambassadors or champions for those underrepresented group, resulting in a lot of additional pressure on our own wellbeing and mental health. Whenever we work with underrepresented groups it may be difficult to avoid becoming emotionally connected to the situation if it resonates with us on a personal level. Hence, it is always important to remember to be kind to ourselves and give ourselves a break. We need to be aware of our own stress levels, triggers, and vulnerabilities, as well as the symptoms that others may exhibit. We also need to be particularly skilled at identifying the signs of group stress and resolving conflicts that emerge when people discuss personal experiences or traumatic events. 

  • DE&I resistance and pushback 

The term ‘DE&I resistance’ describes the opposition that organisations are met with when putting diversity, equality, and inclusion policies into practice. Employees, managers, and even external stakeholders who may be averse to change or uneasy with the move towards a more inclusive workplace culture, may be the drivers of such opposition.  

For example, workers may object to DE&I training if they don't see its value and applicability to the job or if the training is viewed as a punishment. Should the importance of DE&I initiatives be poorly conveyed, staff members may view these training sessions as superfluous or disruptive. People who worry that DE&I projects will jeopardise their own privileges or status within an organisation may become resistant and may be protest due to worry about possible effects on power dynamics or career advancement. Because DE&I training necessitates questioning ingrained conventions and ideas, some employees may find it objectionable. A person's apprehension about change and their lack of knowledge about embracing diversity and inclusion may prevent them from actively participating in these programmes.  

There is a trend, according to reports in the media, of businesses scaling back on comprehensive DE&I programmes in response to DE&I becoming highly politicised against a backdrop of economic difficulties. This retreat may detrimentally influence the advancements achieved in creating inclusive and diverse work environments and also have a serious negative impact on the health of DE&I workers, who may experience heightened stress, worry, and feelings of loneliness as a result of the backlash and criticism. DE&I specialists frequently find themselves in demanding roles where they must handle opposing opinions within their organisations, handle tough talks, and deal with resistance to change. 

  • Balancing advocacy with self-care 

Several major publications, including Harvard Business Review, have discussed the emotional labour that comes alongside DE&I work. For professionals in our sector, striking a balance between self-care and DE&I work presents formidable hurdles. The heavy focus on eliminating systemic injustices and advocating for marginalised people makes DE&I work emotionally charged, difficult, and can make practitioners prone to burnout and compassion fatigue. Self-care is crucial to preserve emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It includes behaviours that assist in the treatment and recovery of mental health disorders and extends beyond the absence of mental illness. Self-care for mental health includes things like consistent exercise, a balanced diet, making sleep a priority, relaxing activities, goal setting, practicing gratitude, keeping a positive outlook, maintaining supportive relationships, and getting professional help when necessary.  

DE&I leaders are more likely to experience burnout because of the emotionally taxing nature of their profession, according to a Forbes article by Cecilia Bianco titled Self-care and Mental Health: A Personal Journey as a DEI Practitioner. Bianco talks about her own experience with burnout and stresses the significance of identifying the symptoms, which include chronic fatigue, cynicism, impatience, and trouble digesting information or coming to choices. She stresses that taking care of oneself is a way to rejuvenate and improve one's ability to serve communities, not an indulgence. 

  • Isolation and lack of support 

Whilst it is apparent that CEOs continue to prioritise DE&I, according to a Deloitte poll from 2023, the pace of these initiatives has slowed considerably. According to the 2023 McKinsey Report, women who face microaggressions are 4.2x more likely to suffer from burnout and 3.3x more likely to leave a company. Cutting back on DE&I funding puts more people at risk of attrition and impedes the advancement of gender equality. DE&I professionals who are aware of these trends may find it difficult to pioneer change when there is a continued lack of support from the wider organisation.  

In turn, these cuts to funding and support may impact our wellbeing as DE&I experts. Within their organisations, it has been suggested that professionals working in the field of DE&I frequently. This may be from working alone in their position or from running into opposition from coworkers who don't understand the significance of the projects underway. Working alone can impede the efficacy of DE&I initiatives and result in loneliness and burnout, which may be exacerbated by the burden of duty they bear and the difficulties they have in persuading people of the significance of the work they do. 

How to practice personal wellbeing as DE&I professional  

Practicing personal wellbeing in the workplace is a challenging task for DE&I professionals and often we prioritise others’ needs over our own. In order to achieve that, we should practice self-compassion and setting up boundaries. Below, are a few tips that help me to take care of one’s wellbeing whenever feeling overwhelmed.  

How to practice self-compassion 

This involves various techniques and exercises to help individuals cultivate a kinder and more understanding relationship with themselves. Here are steps you can take: 

  • Mindfulness meditation: practicing mindfulness meditation can assist you to become more impartially aware of your thoughts and feelings. You can observe your inner experiences with acceptance and compassion as you engage in this exercise. 
  • Self-compassion affirmations: affirmations that focus on self-kindness, mindfulness, and shared humanity can help combat negative self-talk and encourage a more compassionate internal dialogue. These are known as self-compassion affirmations. 
  • Mindfulness scripts: practicing self-compassion can be enabled by adhering to mindfulness scripts that lead you through exercises relating to accepting your shortcomings or treating yourself as you would a friend. 
  • Journaling: maintaining a daily notebook in which you examine your experiences with self-compassion helps improve your mental and emotional health. You can treat yourself with kindness when you process challenging circumstances by engaging in this exercise. 

How to set boundaries 

This is essential for maintaining long-term wellbeing at work and career success. When you ignore your limits, you give away your power and you may experience anxiety, stress, and even burnout. To establish healthy boundaries, follow these steps: 

  • Shift your mindset: establishing limits isn't self-centred but is essential for safeguarding your welfare and encouraging wholesome bonds with others. 
  • Define your priorities: establish what matters most to you in both your personal and professional life by defining your values and priorities. 
  • Determine your limits: identify your boundaries and classify them as hard or soft according to their significance and adaptability. Make these boundaries known to your manager and coworkers. 
  • Communicate and be consistent: make sure everyone understands your point of view by being transparent in your communication and defining the parameters of each boundary. Resolve any transgressions right away to reaffirm your boundaries.  

Closing remarks  

DE&I professionals are vulnerable to several wellbeing challenges in the workplace. However, these challenges are also a reflection of the challenges your employees face, whether they work in DE&I, are part of an ERG or simply come from an underrepresented group. There is a strong business case for organisations to invest in the wellbeing of their workforce to boost productivity and innovation – one of the ways to achieve that is to understand your current organisational culture.  

At FAIRER Consulting consultants work with multiple clients on culture change programmes by analysing the current ‘as-is’ and suggesting recommendations to create more inclusive and psychologically safe environments for all employees. Please reach out for a conversation to find out how we can help you address these challenges.  

To find out more, please contact a member of the FAIRER Consulting team.


Berman Zhigalko

Berman is a consultant at FAIRER Consulting, a part of DE&I Advisory Services at Hays International. He is an experienced professional in diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as talent advisory. Currently, Berman supports various clients across the private sector and is exploring new ways to embed DE&I into various processes within organisations.