Does working as a D&I professional carry a hidden cost?
By Jo Faragher on 30 September 2021
A recent LinkedIn post by a diversity, equity and inclusion leader at a well-known brand told a story that will resonate with many in the profession. “I need to rethink my career in DEI,” it said. “I care way too much about this work and it impacts my mental health.” The person described trying to get senior leaders to care about inclusion as exhausting, and their story was shared and liked by thousands in the network.
Feelings of exhaustion and frustration were raised by practitioners earlier this year in d&i Leaders’ own global survey. Around one in 10 said their wellbeing was below par, with almost all of those respondents reporting it had got worse in the past year. Even among those reporting stable or good mental health, more than a quarter (28%) felt it had deteriorated over the year. The pressures of 2020 and 2021 were, of course, more intense than usual – a global pandemic coupled with the reaction to George Floyd’s murder in May last year placed D&I professionals front and centre of the people response, so it’s not surprising it is taking its toll.
But it’s not just about recent events. The job of the D&I professional is not transactional and there’s never a point at which it’s complete. People often enter the profession due to a personal connection to an area of diversity or out of a passion to help their organisation make the world a better place, which means it can be hard to know when to stop. D&I consultant Hayley Bennett has recently started getting therapy and supervision for her work and it’s something she recommends to other professionals. Last summer, she co-ran a discussion space for Black EDI professionals which was quickly oversubscribed. “We were experiencing our own trauma and the pandemic was exacerbating issues, so I suggested to [Music.Football.Fatherhood’s] Elliott Rae that we hold a space for people who felt the same. Within a day we’d hit the limit for registrations so it was clearly something that was needed,” she explains.
Power of networks
Bennett sums up some of the challenges faced by D&I role-holders. “Often we’re supposed to be the people doing the fixing so we don’t want to show weakness,” she adds. “You’ll often be the person who cares the most, while people are being dismissive of your methods or questioning your expertise and experience. This can be quite triggering, so it’s really important to have a good support network.” Employee resource groups and networks within the organisation can be a source of support because their involvement can start a ripple effect. Speaking at d&i Leaders’ recent Race at Work summit, Mudassar Chaudhry, assistant manager, and co-chair of EY’s Muslim Community, believes resource groups can amplify messages using social media and via their own professional networks, easing the burden on individuals. This happened with a Ramadan video this year that received 2 million hits on LinkedIn, according to Chaudhry, and led to a number of clients wishing employees Ramadan Mubarak for the first time. “Even if we empower one person, this starts a chain reaction that gets bigger,” he said.
Elaine dela Cruz, founder of Project 23, is among many who can find D&I work frustrating. “It’s not just ironic that the people working the hardest, doing the best work to make change are those from the marginalised groups we are trying to serve – actually it’s exhausting,” she says. “I believe this work is driven by connections, human connections that can drive real, sustainable and transformational change. As passionate DEI practitioners doing the work, we’re already extremely connected to the work. We live it and breathe it and by simply being in the room surfacing the issues, we put ourselves in vulnerable positions.” At the same time, she adds, D&I professionals are often working with privileged individuals or groups that naturally fight against that connection, because it’s uncomfortable for them. “I think they think that we are immune to the discomfort or the bias that shows itself in those spaces. We are not,” she adds. Her company offers a safe group coaching space known as “Pause” where practitioners can share experiences and hopefully creative solutions.
Invest in yourself
Investing in your own development can be a valuable coping strategy, advises Bennett. “I invest in coaching and mentoring, and am also part of a group therapy network which focuses on race,” she says. “But it’s equally important to have clear boundaries, particularly if you do D&I at the side of your desk (such as an employee network leader). How much time are you prepared to put in? Check in with yourself and how much you are willing to put up with.” Other practical tips include keeping a journal where you can record challenges and wins, as this is something you can refer to in future in a similar situation. Finally, Bennett advocates developing a good relationship with your manager or someone else in a leadership position that can advocate on your behalf.
Dela Cruz admits it can be a rollercoaster, however. “I very rarely feel overwhelmed doing this job, but what I do sometimes feel is a sense of hopelessness. You can feel like you’re joyous and shining one day, really seeing the ripple effects of good work and then the next day it feels dark, like nothing has changed and that discrimination is always going to win,” she says. “When that happens it’s so important to surround yourself with people who recognise the work you do, champion you, give you energy and remind you of your own words – real change takes time and this is a process. If I’m out there doing the work, putting a piece of myself out in the world as best I can, that’s all I can do and personally, I’m happy with that.”
Wellbeing and self-care of the DEI professional
December 7 – 11:05am to 11:55am GMT
Making impactful, lasting change in our workplaces is rarely easy. Those of us who care deeply about advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion frequently come up against many occupational hazards, which can be emotionally and physically draining.
As we look ahead to 2022, this timely conversation will explore:
- Naming and navigating the occupational hazards of DEI related work
- Creating healthy psychological boundaries for passionate DEI leaders with lived experience
- Self-care tips to commit to in 2022
- Hayley Bennett, Multi-award-winning EDI Consultant and equality campaigner
- Patrice Gordon, Reverse Mentoring Specialist and Head of Joint Ventures & Commercial Planning, Virgin Atlantic
- Carly Binger, Wellbeing Consultant & Registered Drama Psychotherapist, Business in the Community
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.