Burnout becoming more common among professionals in different industries, but diversity and inclusion practitioners in particular seem to experience it at higher rates. With so many factors at play within the role of a DEI professional, it’s not surprising that so many of us doing this work feel drained, overwhelmed or even helpless sometimes. But what people may not have a clear understanding of is why diversity and inclusion practitioners experience burnout so often and so severely.
On today’s episode of Inclusion in Progress, we dive into what is about DEI work that causes burnout; what obstacles stand in the way of practitioners in corporate environments that often lead to burnout; what needs to change in order for DEI to get the traction it truly requires to make lasting change; and what organizational leaders, DEI practitioners and allies alike can to do move in the direction of that vision.
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Hey, y'all! I don't know about you but… I'm pretty tired today. And most days, I genuinely tried to avoid the news because I know how important it is to safeguard my mental health while doing DEI work. But, of course, when you work in diversity, equity and inclusion alongside fellow humans who, like you, are trying to support often excluded groups at work, the news always finds a way to you somehow. Just from reading my feed this morning, at the time of this recording, it's… another day we’ve woken up to news about Black American lives and Asian American lives senselessly murdered in my birth country of the US. It's another day we're hearing about the heartbreaking war in Ukraine. Another day that we hear about the rollback of freedom for women in Afghanistan. And, as a daughter of Filipino immigrants who's been following the recent elections in my parents home country, it's another day that we witness how easy it is for our political institutions to backslide or be corrupted. That's not really news, is it?
And all this while you're trying to lead DEI work… you are listening to others who are also navigating different feelings: sadness, helplessness, grief, outrage - and you're often called to lead hard conversations between humans navigating feelings within the often limiting constructs of a workplace environment. You also know that you may not always succeed at finding a solution during the time that you're given. You're often called to hold space for hearts that are grieving, while speaking words that the audience that you have in front of you can hopefully identify with and understand, depending on lived experiences and cultural contexts. You also know that you may not always succeed in reaching everyone. You're also called to push aside your own feelings and your thoughts and maybe even your own opinions as you remain deliberately neutral in some circumstances, remembering that you're operating within the context of an organization that is looking for you to help and not to cause more harm. You also know that you may not always succeed.
Knowing how much is riding on your efforts and knowing that you might not help everyone is a huge responsibility that often falls on the shoulders of - maybe it's - one practitioner, or a small team in an organization. So it's little wonder that DEI practitioners have been experiencing burnout at high rates - kind of the irony that it's Mental Health Month. And it was because of the conversations we've been having over the years with others within this work, and especially over the course of this past week, both operating in their roles within and outside of companies that inspired today's episode, because we know the value and helping support those who are leading inclusion across different corporate and cultural contexts… alongside trying to keep their own mental health and well-being and sanity centered. And we want to continue to ensure that conversations like the one that we're having today reach the people who would most benefit. So we can ask you a favor in return … if you could please just take five quick minutes to leave us a review for the podcast on either iTunes or Spotify. It really helps to reach those who would gain value from these episodes, especially what we believe is a really very, very necessary conversation: an open conversation like this one around mental health within DEI. And so if you are inspired to leave a review, especially if you are a longtime listener, we will leave instructions for you to do so at the link in the show notes.
So at the time this episode is coming out, as I shared before, it is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, or just after Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. And if you've been listening to this podcast for a while now, you will have heard some version of my own mental health journey and why I am a fierce advocate for self-care and community care and having conversations like this one. If you wanted to go back through our archives, listen to an abbreviated version of my mental health story in Episode IIP 023, and a much longer, more detailed version back in Episode IIP065.
But if you are a newer listener… First, welcome! And here's the quick summary: So back in 2009, as a newly employed University graduate with student debt in the midst of a global recession, who at the time was completely unaware of her own family's history with mental illness as a daughter of Asian immigrants, I experienced burnout. It began a year-long battle with clinical depression, and I was 22 years old. So learning to live alongside mental illness - specifically, depression and anxiety - has been an ongoing journey ever since. And, you know how there's moments in your life where you look back and you start to unpack a different layer of an event that happened to you that significantly shaped who you are? Well, I've learned things like being in a toxic work environment, being raised in a performance-driven culture (actually cultures, as a Filipina-American daughter of immigrants), and inequities of opportunities for folks like me… all of those things, all of the different layers every year that I look back on that event just combined into this perfect storm. And the longer that I work in DEI, the more obvious those connections become. And I'm not just talking now about my own story, but in those of the people who I've worked with since, who have also been kind enough to share their own mental health journeys with me.
To this day, I'm always slightly - how do I put this - on edge, because you never really know when your mental illness will knock you out. It'll just come out of nowhere, it'll debilitate you for days, for weeks, sometimes months at a time. And it just sweeps in without warning. It means I've had to, in between those moments, have developed an incredible amount of discipline in maintaining my self-care practices: regular exercise and nutrition and meditation, going to therapy, being mindful of my relationship with technology, being mindful of relationships that I keep and choose to build. And even things like developing my cultural and emotional intelligence to be much more mindful of my triggers when they come up during my work to make sure that I'm able to identify them quickly and not transfer, or potentially transfer, my trauma on to others. It also means that, while I'm grateful I have a business that my team and I have co-created to support my mental health and hopefully theirs as well, it's really hard to imagine a workplace today… even with the client partners that we do have - to really think about a workplace that is fully, fully-equipped to deal with the type of, you know, call it mental health challenges, call it neurodivergence… but someone like me would bring to the table if I came into their organization. I'm also very mindful of how incredibly fortunate I am now to have access to tools, to a support system that has really helped me build Inclusion in Progress. And I also know from our engagements with other practitioners, especially those who were placed on that glass cliff in the wake of the 2020 anti-racism movement, that this type of support system, this type of access to tools, isn't always available. And because of how much continues to fall on their shoulders, we're hoping that this episode reinforces the importance of the psychological safety of those who lead inclusion work as well.
Now again, as always, we can only speak on these episodes from what we have witnessed directly with our team at Inclusion in Progress, as well as what we have tried to aggregate and anonymize from working with client partners to share in episodes like this with you. And we also want to put a disclaimer on this episode as we will, of course, dive deeper into potential circumstances or triggering mental health challenges that practitioners might face. And we want to, again, share that we are not mental health experts, but we do invite you to be on the lookout, especially if you're somebody who's in a situation like this one, for any triggers that this conversation might have for you. If you need to pause and come back to it, we encourage you to do so. And if you're someone listening to this who is not a practitioner but is keenly interested in contributing to inclusion and equity at work, we hope that this serves as a reference for you for how you can help ease the burden that DEI leaders might face and empower you to know how you can support them.
So, all that aside… Done my housekeeping! Without further ado, let's dive right in.
So the first thing we want to look at is why DEI practitioners are more prone to burnout. Now, there's a bunch of different reasons around this, but let's start with a chief article that was published in August 2020. Maja Hazell accurately summarized the experience of DEI leaders… I'll read the quote directly: “Many companies don't understand what's required to make diversity and inclusion initiatives successful because they don't properly view them as strategic change management initiatives that impact every area of the business and the bottom line. They are viewed as siloed, human resources concerns and treated accordingly. Many DEI leaders are set up for failure due to a fundamental misunderstanding of their necessary role." Now, one US-based study found that 76% of organizations still hadn't set diversity goals in 2021, leaving many DEI leaders and their colleagues without a shared sense of how to gauge success in their roles. This has, of course, led to many differing views. When you have to invent the role, of course, you're going to have a different idea of the purpose of the role, and whether leaders in those positions are making an impact on the areas that require change. And while it's true, there aren't necessarily any KPIs to numerically document how much an employee's sense of inclusion affects their work performance, try as we might, the effect will be clear as day when they leave. And when they cite that they haven't felt valued, they haven't felt heard, that they haven't felt seen. And that will directly damage both a company's bottom line and reputation. So, as the DEI industry continues to mature, now is the time that we should start thinking critically about how we can create more robust systems that measure inclusion before that person is at the exit interview. And doing so in a way that removes the burden of success from one person or one DEI consulting firm’s one-off workshop or workshop series, and actually thinking how to provide metrics that help those systems adjust course as necessary. And I know there's an ongoing conversation right now amongst those in the DEI community about the need to either put these metrics in place and those who are afraid of putting them in place because it might be an extension of the same exclusionary work and systems that we are trying to challenge in our work. But I firmly believe that the more that leaders like us have alignment and clarity around the organizational diversity, equity and inclusion goals, when they have clear metrics for success, the more that leaders who are tasked with implementing these initiatives will have clarity, will be able to focus and will have the means to gauge the impact of their efforts and adjust accordingly. And this is one of the reasons that we published our last episode, IIP089 on DEI metrics, because many companies, even pre-pandemic, often left inclusion initiatives under-resourced and understaffed. Because we hope that, by starting and seeding this conversation for all of us, that it serves as a guide for what companies should expect when they're rolling out a larger DEI strategy across the organization. Having clearer expectations about what is and isn't part of a DEI officer’s remit is also a huge part of mitigating burnout for practitioners leading this work, because you're reducing decision fatigue. when you have to switch gears in facilitating an allyship training for your ELT one day, and reporting on succession planning for diverse talent the next, and so on and so forth. When everything feels urgent, a DEI leader’s ability to implement anything effectively suffers and often leads to burnout.
Another thing to keep in mind when we're talking about why practitioners might burnout is this: For many people who find their way into DEI work, there is often - not always, but often - a very personal connection. Obviously, this includes Yours Truly and the members of our team here. But the folks that we've interviewed on this very podcast from places like Amazon to Adobe to Airtable and more, have also shared how they got into this work because they were either from or intimately close to a historically excluded background. That lived experience, that personal connection to the work is often very rewarding for Chief Diversity Officers or DEI Leaders. But equally, it can also take a toll when something happens in the wider world that affects people who live or look or love like them. Just look at what happened this week. Leaders are intimately connected to communities who feel the pain of a public incident of racism, of homophobia, or outright discrimination. And they're often asked to put their own feelings aside to support fellow employees who are suffering and those who are looking for guidance on how to support their colleagues without causing harm. And often these leaders don't have space to let their guard down and process their own pain, because most of the time, they're the only person tasked with guiding others… which is why it's unsurprising that every single practitioner we've had the opportunity to work with has told me they have a therapist! Because they need somewhere to offload emotionally when the work gets too overwhelming so that they can keep going. Now, this requires leaders to not only be the only person representing the DEI function, but sometimes, in many cases, they're the only voice in the room representing all underrepresented communities. The role is also often removed from senior leadership within organizations. And their role is often not given the proper budget. They're not given the proper team capacity, and not even the buy-in from leadership to make progress, which leaves a lot of DEI leaders that we've spoken to feeling stuck and frustrated. It also can lead to situations where DEI leaders feel they're being tokenized. They might feel, in some cases, we've heard isolated… some have even shared with us that they feel unsafe in their role, which hinders their ability to actually drive the results and the strategies they're trying to roll out to the organization. Or some have shared with us that their personal connection to this work means that they're taking on more emotional labor, despite their own feelings of lack of psychological safety, because they're worried that the work won't happen or move forward if they're not there. So it's usually a combination of lack of resources, lived experiences, and, not just a personal connection, but a personal sense of responsibility for the work to continue that leads to DEI leaders burning out.
Next, let's look at how workplaces are structured. Specifically, how the systems that DEI leaders are looking to support often hinder them from achieving their objectives, which also leads to burnout. The continued racial inequity that we've witnessed in the past 3 years, alongside the great resignation, or the turnover tsunami if you prefer that, those things lead to an increased pressure for business leaders to make progress on DEI initiatives. Companies were called upon to take up the mantle around issues related to social justice, some of them for the first time. So, of course, we saw all of those public commitments to equity and inclusion. And we saw many leaders at organizations feeling very personally responsible to fulfill those commitments by putting in place a Chief Diversity Officer or placing a greater emphasis on people and culture initiatives overall. So privately client partner shared with us that, without George Floyd, they would never have been able to use words like anti-blackness or anti-racism in a work environment, or that they've never been able to discuss mental health openly at work until the COVID-19 crisis brought things like anxiety and depression and workplace wellness, caregiving responsibilities, neurodivergent, accessibility… and all of the things that we could easily hide when are outside of the workplace, but couldn't hide in our own homes. And it brought all of that, especially the larger conversation around mental health, front and center. Now, this is encouraging for our team to hear because it means that the conversation has evolved light years from where it was. But we've also heard the grumblings and misgivings and even just resignation from some who have been leading inclusion work in some form for years. That it almost feels like a bitter pill to swallow knowing the circumstances, the tragic circumstances, that prompted companies’ renewed interest in DEI in the first place.
But, like many initiatives in organizations, DEI work is prompted by the pressure of people, both within and outside the teams of DEI leaders and beyond. And it's that pressure to meet every DEI initiative urgently that also promotes burnout in practitioners. We see the pressure come from leaders who are often looking to the practitioner to lead conversations when they're unsure or afraid of saying the wrong thing. We've seen the pressure come from employees who are more likely to not just voice their concerns productively, but are also just as likely to criticize the DEI lead when their expectations aren't met as fast as they would like. And, ironically, the most pressure we've seen often comes from the communities that the DEI leader tends to identify with, who in our experience, can be some of the biggest supporters when they feel that their group is centered in the conversation, and some of the harshest critics when they feel that their DEI leader is not moving fast enough for their groups as they would like.
On top of all that pressure, the capacity on diversity and culture and talent teams is at an all time low, as many of the teams have left positions for new opportunities, or are taking a very well-deserved career break. Turnover also tends to be highest for these types of positions in DEI because companies rolling out strategies for the first time are often poorly informed about the type of energy and resources and people actually needed. And even for some of the companies we've worked with that already had DEI strategies in place, it's easy for progress to go south when an unskilled leader or a team member who's ill-equipped is put in place. Practitioners are in a unique position in organizations to affect change. But another reason they face burnout is because they're also tasked with being the figurehead and the spokesperson within the organization. Ask any practitioner and they'll tell you, it feels like a constant balancing act between trying to determine when to push initiatives versus allowing individuals to figure things out on their own journey. Or it's a balancing act on when to highlight progress made, while also acknowledging that the work doesn't and will not advance equally at all levels of the organization, because DEI practitioners know that it's a combination of cultural, of organizational, and behavioral change. And you have to somehow be seen to be making progress on all of those things, while knowing that all of those things will take time to materialize and will, in some cases, let people down. There's a pressure to show that you're making progress while designing a strategy in real time, while operating within a corporate framework, with pressure from people on all sides of the organization, including supposed allies, which often leads to burnout and high turnover for DEI practitioners too. Which means that many of the multi-year initiatives that DEI leaders began to put in place before they burnt out and left don't come to fruition, which doesn't relieve the urgency or set up their replacement for success either.
One good thing that we keep hearing about is the willingness of DEI practitioners to engage with others in this work, through having more open conversations with other in-house leads about what they're seeing, and seeking external support with partners like our consultancy. We've seen some DEI leaders strengthen their facilitation skills through something like an in-house personal development program at their organization, or picking and choosing their battles and vetting and partnering with external suppliers to facilitate some of the more emotion-heavy conversations so they can focus on implementing other strategies they've outlined for the organization. Some leaders we've spoken to are seeking out leadership coaching for themselves to help them be better practitioners and leaders within the organization, or they're seeking out specialists to partner with specific teams that need coaching such as allyship for their C-Suite leaders or supporting Middle Managers with how to hold difficult conversations around racial trauma. Other DEI leaders we've spoken to are simply networking with other practitioners across their industry, both in-house and external consultants, and learning from one another in formalized memberships, or these informal networks that they're building where they lean on one another for emotional support and understanding.
So what we've learned from working with DEI, with People, and Company Culture Leaders for the past 8 years is this: psychological safety is not just for the people who are going to benefit from it from these initiatives. It's just as imperative for people who, like you, are looking after our employees to feel that psychological safety yourselves, the psychological safety and the knowledge that you have what you need to do your job effectively, and a way to acknowledge that you need help so that you can cover your own blind spots by seeking other perspectives to support your ability to do your work well, and continue to support the organization. Many of the DEI leaders we've worked with have shared that they also crave psychological safety. Because you want to know that your organization will support your desire to lead your work intentionally, with access to the resources and the rooms necessary to actually deliver the change you've been asked to deliver, in the time that you need to implement it. So you're also sharply aware that you can't do it alone.
So if you are a DEI leader listening, we know you're somebody who's already doing your best to take care of people. And sometimes it's just helpful to have an outside perspective, from someone who's already tapped into the wider market and can give you either insights from that, or give you access to a specific framework that simplifies your ability to create equity and inclusion in a strategic and demonstrable way. Because now more than ever, organizations need leaders like you with the integrity to tell the truth, with the vulnerability to say I don't know, the courage to ask for and accept help when you need it, and the guts to act in the interest of others. Now, achieving psychological safety for remote teams will continue to be a core component of your DEI strategy. And we realize that's become even more challenging as teams continue to diversify, to spread out across the globe, opt for fulltime flexible work, and change in their expectations of what they want to see in the workplace. Which is why Inclusion in Progress, with our experience, is here to help! Our 100% remote team spans APAC, EMEA and the Americas, and we've worked with the likes of Red Hat, Instagram, the IMF and Philips to support remote teams with equity and inclusion since well before the pandemic. So having the perspective of a trusted partner to help you foster inclusion for your virtual or hybrid workforce means you have one less thing to worry about while you're implementing the rest of your DEI strategy across the company. So, if you would like to learn more about how you could work with us as a client partner to boost morale and engagement at a time people need it most, head to the link in the show notes to get in touch with our team or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We've opened up slots for consulting and training for client partners for Q4 and Q1 in 2023. So before we close our calendar for the rest of the year, we would love to share how we could partner with you this year to foster inclusion for your remote teams.
Finally, let's take a look at the last reason why DEI practitioners hit burnout: The Expertise Trap. Now, as we've shared on this podcast before, the DEI conversation began in the 1960s, in my birth country of the US. It was Title Seven of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal for employees to be treated differently based on specified characteristics; including race, color, national origin, sex and gender, and religion. This established what we call Legally Protected Classes, which is the basis of many of the DEI strategies that we see today around recruitment and representation and retention. We've also shared on this podcast the limitations to continuing to frame our strategies today around those categories, as our workforce diversifies. But coming back to the topic at hand, for DEI practitioners today who are often themselves under-resourced and overspent, they're also somehow expected to be the experts on all the things related to inclusion for all groups, which is ridiculous because, whether it's different racial or ethnic groups, or how their experiences vary by division, or department or geography, or how the trans experience at work differs from those of their cisgender colleagues, or how neurodivergence or immigrant status or accessibility or cultural norms can influence how an employee is able to perform at work, whether they're working remotely or in the office… They have to know all of these things! They have to be an expert in all of these things! Which means that, on top of the pressure they're facing and the resources that they have access to, or lack thereof, despite their continued desire to learn the latest updates on inclusive language or unpack their own biases to support employees outside of their own lived experiences, DEI leaders are often tasked with needing to know everything about every group. And that pressure to perform, to become the go-to educator for others on all things DEI, including being a representative for employees whose experiences do not mirror their own, can actually do more harm than good, which many DEI practitioners are acutely aware of. And that pressure can also lead to burnout.
Until DEI receives the full buy-in of leaders… until it becomes embedded in every core aspect of the business in a data driven and measurable way, the same way we have sales strategies and marketing strategies… until DEI turns into the standard for behaviors supported by a company culture where everyone contributes and holds each other accountable, DEI practitioners will unfortunately continue to be seen as the be-all and end-all for all marginalized experiences in the workplace.
But as we said before, luckily, we are witnessing that conversation shift amongst practitioners who are genuinely some of the most growth-mindset, empathy-oriented people that we've ever had the privilege to meet. We're watching them continue to reach out to one another, including us for support. In-house DEI practitioners with the funding and buy-in are able to find subject matter experts to support their diverse employees’ experiences, ranging from accessibility to anti-racism to mental health to menopause support. Consultancies like ours are also incredibly happy to refer client partners to other subject matter experts from our network, for whatever their specific needs around DEI are. So, for example, if someone wants to work with us for a strategy focused on recruitment rather than retention, we forward them along to folks in our network, and others who know that a company needs support in supporting psychological safety on remote teams will send folks our way as well.
It's this type of spirit of collaboration across practitioners complementing each other in different capacities, this type of community care amongst us, that will keep this momentum going on DEI. It spreads the collective burden of needing to be educated on all things in this ever-changing, ever-growing field by centering the right voices where appropriate. And it allows DEI leaders to model the shared responsibility of this work for our companies, for our leaders, to support equity and inclusion for all.
So there you have it! There are three reasons here why burnout is so common amongst DEI leaders… and sharing some of our reflections, our observations, common things that we've heard from speaking to others, as well as some of our recommendations for how you can mitigate burnout in the people that we need most at this time.
Psychological safety is a term that's often thrown around interchangeably with DEI. But it's important to remember that it's not just for the people who are on the receiving end of it, i.e. the employees in your organization. It's also really important for you, as a People Leader, to be able to benefit from that psychological safety too, to know that you have everything that you need to do your job, to ask for help, to lead your work with intention, to have access to the resources, the rooms, and the time that you need to implement what you've been tasked to deliver. We know from speaking to many of you that DEI leaders really have to have each other's backs. And sometimes it's helpful to just have somebody in your corner that you know you can call on for a specific piece of work or consultation or perspective that you are able to gain from having an external practitioner tapped into the wider market. Because, for this work to continue, we need leaders like you who know that they need to tell the truth, say when they need help, to raise the issues that require expertise and partnerships and collaboration and the courage to act in the interest of others who will benefit across the board from having access to greater psychological safety. We also know that a core part of achieving that psychological safety is knowing how to create it in our remote-first environment. We also know from having done this for 8 years that it's even more challenging as our teams continue to work in a distributed way, as they're all navigating different levels of mental health, time zones, or different flexible work arrangements and expectations… which is why Inclusion in Progress is here to help! Using our psychological safety framework to support remote teams, we work with DEI leaders like you to help you design your DEI strategy for a virtual workplace. So you have the perspective of a trusted partner and, hopefully, one less thing to worry about when you're implementing the rest of your DEI strategy for the people who need you most. So if you'd like to learn more about how to work with us as a client partner before 2022 ends, head to the link in the show notes, or email us at email@example.com.
Thank you so much for listening! Again, we really appreciate you continuing to have this conversation, not just about diversity and inclusion, but specifically how to support the leaders that help our people. And if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with us at the link in the show notes. And, as always, please share this with as many people who would most benefit from having access to these types of conversations. We'll see you in the next episode. Until then, please take care of yourself and be well!