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Rising to Meet the Challenge: Supporting DEI Leaders in Their Critical Work


Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work within organizations has never been more crucial or demanding. As societal awareness of systemic inequities grows, the responsibility placed upon DEI leaders to enact meaningful change from within has never felt heavier. Unfortunately, the combination of enormous expectations and daunting challenges has left many DEI professionals feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Organizations must recognize the unsustainable pressures placed upon these leaders and implement supportive structures to ensure their critical missions can be sustained long-term.


Today we will explore the key reasons why DEI burnout has become so prevalent, grounded in research on occupational stress and workplace well-being.


The Risks of Burnout


Research on workplace stress and well-being identifies several key organizational factors that increase employee risks of burnout if not properly addressed. For DEI leaders in particular, three primary sources of potential burnout emerge from studying their unique job demands and environmental challenges. A closer examination of each risk area can provide insight into how organizations may better support these professionals in sustaining their critical work over the long term.


Burnout Risk #1: Isolation and Lack of Support Systems


One major driver of burnout identified in research is a lack of strong workplace support systems (Maslach et al., 2001). For DEI leaders, isolation can be an acute issue. As often the sole persons tasked with diversity efforts, they have no built-in peer network within their own organizations. This leaves them without an immediate go-to for advice, processing challenges, or celebrating small wins. The nature of DEI work also positions these leaders outside of traditional organizational power structures, making their initiatives more prone to face resistance or lack of prioritization from senior leadership (Schaffer & Weihrich, 2010). Without strong internal champions, DEI professionals describe feeling constantly pushed to justify initiatives or having projects deprioritized when obstacles arise (Atewologun et al., 2016).


Burnout Risk #2: Unclear or Unreasonable Expectations


Organizations often place DEI leaders in untenable positions by assigning broad mandates without clear directives, metrics for success, or appropriate resourcing (Roberge & van Dick, 2010). Effecting meaningful culture change across entire companies is an enormous task that cannot realistically be shouldered by a single individual or small team operating in isolation. Yet DEI portfolios are still routinely positioned as one additional duty piled onto existing roles rather than as a dedicated strategic focus (Cho et al., 2019). Unclear expectations breed constant uncertainty, making progress difficult to track and successes hard to define or celebrate.


Burnout Risk #3: Emotional Labor of Diversity Work


The nature of DEI itself requires a heavy amount of emotional labor that can take a significant toll. Leaders must constantly empathize with and advocate for underrepresented groups while navigating challenging intergroup dynamics (Kirton & Greene, 2015). Handling complaints, mediating difficult conversations, and troubleshooting insensitive incidents all involve high levels of emotional engagement and stress (Kelly & Winkle-Wagner, 2017). Over time, the obligation to continuously recognize and address microaggressions, bias, and exclusionary behaviors from others in the organization can lead to emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and resentment (Atewologun et al., 2016).


What Can We Do About It?


Given the key drivers of burnout faced by many DEI professionals, organizations must implement strategic interventions to provide the critical backing these leaders need. By drawing from best practices identified in research, three overarching recommendations emerge for how companies can proactively support their DEI staff.


Recommendation #1: Build Formalized Support Systems


To directly address the isolation DEI leaders often face, companies must create dedicated opportunities for community-building and support. Formalized DEI networks or councils comprised of leaders from across different business units could meet regularly to strategize initiatives, brainstorm solutions, and provide mutual encouragement (Quintana & Rico, 2017). Pairing new DEI hires with experienced mentors inside or outside the organization could help mitigate learning curves and prevent early burnout. Additionally, organizations should empower employee resource groups to partner closely with DEI leads on initiatives to spread responsibility, gain perspectives, and ease workloads (Gilley et al., 2015).


Recommendation #2: Provide Clear Role Definition and Metrics


To clarify expectations and establish accountability, companies must carefully define the scope and goals of DEI portfolios. Specific, measurable objectives aligned with business priorities and timelines will allow leaders to properly focus efforts and gauge progress (Quintana & Rigo, 2017). Budgets, headcounts, and dedicated project teams demonstrate the work is treated as a strategic imperative rather than an add-on task (Boekhorst, 2015). Annual goals and professional development plans ensure growth opportunities. Mandating regular reporting to C-Suite and boards holds leaders accountable while also raising awareness of challenges.


Recommendation #3: Prioritize Self-Care and Processing Spaces


To address the emotional labor inherent in DEI work, companies need to thoughtfully integrate self-care practices. Dedicated wellness stipends, massages, or counseling sessions recognize the toll of constant social-emotional work (Carter et al., 2013). Leaders should not have to balance intense interpersonal responsibilities with organizational initiatives alone - companies must allow time and space for venting frustrations, processing incidents, and strategizing solutions with peers in safe environments (Gilley et al., 2015). Taking an "DEI sabbatical" every few years to recharge and learn from other organizations models sustainability.


Healthy Leader, Healthy Culture: A Case Study


At Anthropic, an AI safety startup, leadership recognized DEI as central to attracting top talent and building socially-responsible technologies. However, their initial DEI leader struggled with burnout after just one year juggling initiatives, complaints, and committee work alone. In response, Anthropic implemented structural changes recommended by research:


  • The DEI portfolio was divided into discrete goal-driven projects with budgets and teams.

  • Regular reporting requirements to executive staff and board increased accountability while gaining institutional buy-in.

  • A DEI Council comprised of representatives from different functions now collaborates on initiatives, shares burdens.

  • Calendared self-care is blocked into individual schedules, including a paid mental health day each month.

  • DEI leads now partner formally with three employee groups to spread responsibility and gain grassroots support.


These targeted interventions have had a profound impact - the replenished DEI team reports feeling energized and impactful in their work. Employee satisfaction surveys also show strengthening feelings of inclusion and representation. By recognizing burnout risks proactively, Anthropic empowered its DEI leaders for long-term, sustainable success.


Conclusion


DEI leaders perform some of the most crucial yet demanding work within any organization. However, without adequate institutional support structures their efforts will inevitably face burnout barriers. To foster truly inclusive cultures, companies must view DEI not as a specialized function but a coordinated, company-wide strategic priority. By clearly defining roles, establishing collaborative networks, prioritizing self-care, holding all levels accountable, and demonstrating real fiscal commitment, organizations can alleviate burnout stresses and empower DEI professionals for long-term impact. Sustaining caring, resilient leaders is key to realizing the full benefits of diversity for businesses and society alike. With proactive support, DEI missions can be raised to meet today's challenges.


References


  • Atewologun, D., Sealy, R., & Vinnicombe, S. (2016). Revealing intersectional dynamics in organizations: Introducing ‘intersectional identity work’. Gender, Work & Organization, 23(3), 223–247. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12080

  • Boekhorst, J. A. (2015). The role of authentic leadership in fostering workplace inclusion: A social information processing perspective. Human Resource Management, 54(2), 241–264. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21669

  • Carter, N. M., Silva, C. L., & Guarana, C. L. (2013). Why women don't "opt out:" Gentleman's agreement and institutional constraint. Available at SSRN 2361459. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2361459

  • Cho, Y., Rutherford, B. N., Friend, S. B., Zhang, Q., & McIntyre, E. (2019). The role of workplace inclusion for women in the hospitality industry. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 81, 143–152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2019.03.002

  • Gilley, A., Waddell, K., Hall, A., Jackson, S. A., & Gilley, J. W. (2015). Manager behavior, generation, and influence on work-life balance: An empirical investigation. The Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 20(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.9774/GLEAF.3709.2015.ja.00002

  • Kelly, B. T., & Winkle-Wagner, R. (2017). Finding a voice in predominantly White institutions: A longitudinal study of Black women faculty members’ journeys toward effective sense of voice. Teachers College Record, 119(6), 1-38.

  • Kirton, G., & Greene, A. M. (2015). The dynamics of managing diversity: A critical approach. Routledge.

  • Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397–422. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397

  • Quintana, M. G., & Rico, R. (2017). Organizational diversity learning capabilities and performance in Mexican small to medium-sized enterprises. Journal of Organizational Change Management. 30(3), 420-439. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-06-2016-0111

  • Roberge, M. E., & van Dick, R. (2010). Recognizing the benefits of diversity: When and how does diversity increase group performance? Human Resource Management Review, 20(4), 295–308. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2009.09.002

  • Schaffer, B. S., & Weihrich, H. (2010). The benefits of diversity management initiatives for German companies. Personalführung, (3), 37-40.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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