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Sharing the Burden for Wellness and Diversity

"silent diversity"​ by DryHundredFear

Over the course of the pandemic–and especially as businesses transition more fully away from remote and telework options–wellness and well-being have taken a larger role in the business consciousness. This is a great thing! Taking time to ensure individual workers and leaders are healthy and fulfilled ensures they are able to bring more energy and focus to their work, delivering more value for their customers and organizations.

A recent article from the Harvard Business Review suggests, however, that well-being should not be an individual responsibility. With Stop Framing Wellness Programs Around Self-Care, Michelle A. Barton, Bill Kahn, Sally Maitlis, and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe suggest that organizations focusing on perks for individual employees are missing an opportunity. There is certainly value to supporting individuals’ efforts to protect and strengthen their well-being. Gym memberships and similar perks are an excellent start. But they note that recent studies suggest feelings of disconnectedness from others are “as significant a health risk as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and a lack of physical activity.” That is something leaders and managers should be concerned about and that organizations should take steps to address.

While offering a pair of techniques to introduce collective action in support of employee well-being, a critical part of the article explains how “‘struggling well’ together” creates different benefits. These benefits can reach below the surface of physical health–weight loss or reduced blood pressure (which are, of course important)–to touch the emotional core, improving compassion and empathy. This can facilitate movement away from anxiety and toward the connectedness that helps protect against other health risks. Shared struggle can “surface more authentic and complex identities,” “facilitate emotional dispersion and processing,” and help teams and organizations “recognize and reflect on their behavior.” In the context of the pandemic, just acknowledging our common challenges together can lessen their impacts.

But there is another aspect of struggling well together that can pay big dividends for individuals and organizations. The same benefits of authenticity, emotional dispersion, and reflecting on organizational behavior can be found in the context of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. For employees who are part of underrepresented groups, different challenges can be layered on top of those that all of us are dealing with. As a personal example, I carry the same concerns as others around returning to the office. These include health impacts and greater stress around commuting and the increased stress that creates for scheduling kids’ activities or dog walks. But I’m also a Black employee who is part of the nation’s largest law enforcement organization, and the two years since George Floyd’s murder have reminded me of the role these organizations have had in the systemic oppression of Blacks and other underrepresented groups have faced. Moreover, that conflicted sense of duty as a life-long public servant pressing against the immense sadness at the continued plight of minorities and other underrepresented groups is amplified by shame at not having thought more or done more about any of it sooner. I’m not the only one feeling these things and it is a lot to process, especially when trying to do it alone.

Creating opportunities for employees to ‘struggle together’ disperses the burden of that struggle simply by acknowledging it. One way to do that is to facilitate ‘safe space’ discussions, where employees can voice their concerns together. These could be focused on employees with child- or elder-care responsibility, or single employees dealing with isolation. These could also be discussions focused on the concerns of your BIPOC, immigrant, or LGBTQIA+ employees. Creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to struggle together is an organizational opportunity for growth, stronger connections, and increased organizational resilience. Vulnerable and authentic leadership is necessary to make it happen; this is not something that an all-hands meeting with instructions to “tell everyone how you feel” will fix. But it is something that every organization and team can work toward if leaders and managers want to increase the support they provide to their employees. You will create opportunities to support all your employees’ wellness and, perhaps more importantly, also create an environment that demonstrates the value you see in workplace diversity.

*Originally shared here on LinkedIn



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