Many business leaders have made it clear that employee health is a top priority as they seek to attract and retain employees during the Great Resignation. They know that company success is inextricably tied to employee presence, engagement, and productivity, and they have made great strides toward supporting their employees’ well-being. For example, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employee Health Benefits Survey found that 83% of large companies offer their employees health and wellness programs. Programs like these can play a vital role in keeping people well, and efforts to support them are to be lauded.
However, these programs alone fail to address an important link between well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Bountiful research has documented the importance of DEI for business. We know that organizations with diverse workforces enjoy increased financial performance, innovation, and creativity, and decreased attrition and related costs. But efforts to address DEI in the workplace are typically disconnected from those aimed at supporting employee health and wellness.
To enact meaningful change in the lives of employees, it’s critical for business leaders to address employees’ total well-being, including their physical, mental, emotional, and financial health; work-life balance; and social equity. Simply put, well-being is a central strategy to ensure that employees are able to contribute their best while navigating the myriad challenges that impact how they live, work, and relate to others. Failing to address the intersectionality of DEI and well-being does a substantial disservice to employees.
The Unique Challenges Underrepresented Employees Face
Consider Nichelle,* a Black woman and health coach. On a phone call with a member during the George Floyd protests, the member commented: “Those people can’t afford to take care of their children. They don’t even know George Floyd personally. They have no reason to vandalize buildings and streets. They should just get over it.”
Nichelle respectfully thanked the member for sharing how they felt and encouraged them to observe different perspectives, saying, “It’s easy to express frustration and disappointment when we don’t know the full story and can’t fully empathize with the community being impacted.” She then gently redirected the conversation to the member’s health. But the end of the call left Nichelle shaken up: “I wasn’t talking about you earlier; it was other Black people,” the member said.
Nichelle needed time to process the member’s words. She escalated the conversation to her peers and superiors, and while she received some support, there were no policies in place to support coaches’ mental health because “the customer is always right.”
Unfortunately, this type of experience is a daily reality for many, and the lessons from Nichelle’s are critical for employers. We need to be proactive in creating a culture centered on employee well-being and we need to weave DEI and wellness into the very fabric of our organizations.
DEI and well-being are inextricably linked. For example, research shows police killings contribute to 1.7 additional poor mental health days for Black Americans. Compared to their white counterparts, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) people are more than twice as likely to be uninsured, leaving many without access to health care. Consequently, AIAN people have a higher prevalence of many chronic health conditions than those from any other racial or ethnic group. LGBTQ folks are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance misuse than non-LGBTQ individuals, yet they face significant discrimination in health care that leads them to avoid care, putting their health at risk.
In order to support employees’ total well-being, leaders must understand and address the unique challenges their underrepresented employees face:
Underrepresented populations are more likely to face physical and mental challenges. The pandemic has exacerbated many existing health disparities in the U.S., with substantially higher rates of Covid-19 infection, hospitalization, and death among Black, Hispanic, and Asian people compared with white people. These contemporary realities can be traced to the historical legacies of systemic inequalities, such as redlining and environmental racism. These additional health burdens often impact presenteeism and performance at work.
Underrepresented populations, particularly those in lower-income geographies, face more difficulty in finding good health care and healthy lifestyle options. People from underrepresented populations face a lack of widely available doctors, specialists, and health care infrastructure and coverage. These and other social determinants of health (SDOH) have a powerful influence on health outcomes.
Underrepresented populations often suffer from poor mental health outcomes. This is due to a number of factors, including challenges accessing high-quality mental health care services, cultural stigma surrounding mental health, discrimination, and lack of awareness about mental health. These challenges can impair day-to-day mental acuity and have long-lasting effects. Mental and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of disability in the U.S., accounting for 13.6% of all years of life lost to disability and premature death.
How Employers Can Support Underrepresented Employees’ Well-Being
It’s imperative that companies implement programs and policies that holistically address employee well-being and DEI. There’s not a single solution for this, but a series of actions that employers should take to ensure every part of their population has the resources and information they need to address the special needs of marginalized employee populations:
Bring in — and compensate — subject matter experts.
In June 2021, we held a month-long “Gathering Space” at Virgin Pulse facilitated by a licensed psychologist and DEI expert. The space was designed to be a healing experience that provided support regarding the daily impact of racial trauma and injustice. Facilitated group discussions for Black-identifying employees addressed topics such as racial battle fatigue, microaggressions, emotional labor, self-preservation, stamina for systemic change, and Black joy. Not only did this space provide our employees with a greater understanding of their emotional trauma, it also equipped them with tools to navigate that trauma in the workplace.
Upskill your managers.
Many managers have expressed feeling ill-equipped to address the mental toll social unrest takes on their team. Given that 45% of employee experiences of inclusion are explained by their manager’s inclusive behaviors, it’s critical to help them develop the necessary skills and behaviors.
In March 2021, we provided training for leaders on how to manage during times of unrest. Key takeaways included just-in-time tools to communicate solidarity as well as language to support underrepresented employees. We also taught managers to reframe how they offer support. Rather than asking open-ended questions like, “How can I help?”, which can create an emotional burden on the recipient, we suggested they reframe their proposition. Offering specific, tangible support, such as, “I would like to support you and am happy to take point on our Thursday meeting if that would help,” can demonstrate care and help relieve stress and anxiety.
Embed mindful DEI practices into your talent strategy.
Small changes can help encourage employees to take a more active role in their well-being. For example, begin a department meeting with a centering activity such as a guided meditation or a simple “temperature check.” At the same time, find ways to weave DEI and well-being into your broader talent strategy.
Last year, we started including more inclusive language in job descriptions, such as “No candidate will meet every single desired qualification. If your experience looks a little different from what we’ve identified and you think you can bring value to the role, we’d love to learn more about you!”
Showcase employee stories.
Sharing stories about people’s personal journeys in spaces at work can create opportunities for people to learn about perspectives different than theirs and how to be better and more inclusive colleagues. We recently created an employee storytelling series chronicling stories of resilience, well-being, and triumph called “Just By Looking At Me.” In one story in the series, an employee based in Bosnia detailed his experience as a veteran battling PTSD and agoraphobia. He described how simple workplace actions like a smile and “good morning” help him feel more like himself.
Create a well-being-centered ERG.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) can help foster a diverse, inclusive workplace that’s aligned with the organization’s mission, values, and goals. We have an employee community group focused on mental health called WE SVPPORT and a group focused on caregivers called VP C.A.R.E.S. These groups fall under the umbrella of our DEI team and partner with other ERGs on events and initiatives.
There’s no silver bullet for addressing well-being and DEI holistically, as each organization’s workforce is unique. With all programming, however, personalization is critical to success. Personalization enables a company to use data and analytics to ensure they’re delivering the right messages and programs to support employees in their personal journeys. This can include the use of demographic, SDOH, health history, and other data to understand the needs of employees, develop programs customized for their needs and experiences, and create messaging that drives action and meaningful results.
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DEI and well-being are key business strategies. While the business community has made great progress toward both, they can no longer be treated as separate and distinct. Experiences like Nichelle’s happen every day in businesses across industries. To create a workplace that does right by its employees, leaders must understand and address their unique experiences and needs holistically. We will be better leaders and businesses for it.
Editor’s note 3/4/22: This piece has been updated to remove a reference to an initiative that hasn’t been publicly announced yet.