How does employee well-being link to diversity and inclusion?

How does employee well-being link to diversity and inclusion?

by Felicity Menzies
Diversity & inclusion and employee well-being are linked in four ways:

The Positive Effects of Inclusion on Employee Well-Being

An inclusive work setting supports employee well-being through its positive effects on employee self-concept and self-esteem; enhanced career achievements and progression; greater work-life balance; social connectedness and belonging; reduced discrimination, prejudice and harassment; and pro-social behaviour.

Inclusive workplaces support a positive self-concept

Our cultural and social identities (e.g.nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, health status) form an integral part of our self-concept and self-esteem. Self-affirmation theory posits that individuals are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. Integrity refers to one’s sense of “worth”—an individual’s belief that they are a “good person”. Self-affirming techniques are used in education and clinical practice to reduce distress and promote more adaptive responses in the face of integrity threats. Similarly, when employers celebrate,  encourage and value the expression of an individual’s unique identity in the workplace,  the employee’s self-esteem and integrity are supported. Consequently, inclusive workplaces have workers who are psychologically well-adjusted and secure.

Inclusion contrasts with organisations that endorse ‘cultural fit’. Organisations promoting cultural fit seek to assimilate employees to a dominant norm by rewarding desired behaviours, traits and characteristics while penalising deviance from the norm. In those contexts, individuals actively mask or downplay their differences to fit in and be successful. Studies indicate just how demoralising and taxing it is for employees to actively hide aspects of their identity. Research by Deloitte and NYU Professor of Law, Kenji Yoshino reports seventy-five percent of employees cover in the workplace (up to 94% of racial minorities). The percentage of respondents who state that the practice of covering is “somewhat” to “extremely” detrimental to their sense of self is between 60-67%.

Inclusive workplaces support professional achievement and job satisfaction

Inclusive workplaces seek to remove obstacles that can threaten the career progression of diverse talent. Enhanced opportunities for career progression together with greater levels of engagement support job performance. Workers in inclusive teams are twice as likely to receive regular career development opportunities and ten times more likely to be effective than workers in non-inclusive teams. Success at work, in turn, feeds self-confidence and job satisfaction. Workers in inclusive teams are nineteen times more likely to be very satisfied with their job than workers in non-inclusive teams.

Inclusive workplaces support work-life balance

Inclusive workplaces also foster well-being through efforts to increase flexibility regarding when and where work is performed. Workplaces that endorse flexible working allow workers greater control over balancing work commitments with non-work demands. Improved work-life balance reduces stress and increases physical and mental well-being.

Inclusive workplaces promote connection with others

Workers in inclusive settings benefit from improved interpersonal interactions and connection with others. Employees experience a sense of belonging. They feel that they are part of a community—an important part of a collective whole. Our need for social connectedness is hard-wired. Studies show that the neural networks that promote social activity are the same networks that promote the satisfaction of physical needs like food and water. Social connectedness buffers stress and supports well-being.

Inclusive workplaces promote pro-social behaviour

Workers in inclusive settings are more likely to receive help from their colleagues. Instrumental and emotional support from colleagues buffers work stress. Employees are also less likely to experience prejudice, harassment or discrimination when their workplaces are inclusive. The positive impact of inclusion on employee well-being are is not limited to diverse talent, however. Studies show that helping others makes us happy and supports physical and mental health and well-being. 

The Positive Effects of Employee Well-Being on Inclusion

While inclusion can drive well-being, the reverse is also true.

Self-affirming workplaces decrease prejudice, discrimination and harassment

In-group or affinity bias is our tendency to favour our social group (in-group) more than groups of which we are not a member (out-groups). Studies show that, in general, people extend greater trust, positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to in-group members compared with out-group members. In-group bias discourages intergroup contact, perpetuates negative stereotypes, and is linked to prejudice and discrimination.

What is so striking about in-group bias is that it can occur when there is no real difference between the two groups, no competitive struggle over scarce resources, nor any threat to the in-group’s survival. In the 1970s and early 1980s, in a series of famous experiments, Henri Tajfel demonstrated that even an arbitrary allocation of people (for example, by the toss of a coin) to different groups caused ‘us versus them’ distinctions and triggered in-group bias.

Because in-group bias can occur in the absence of competition or threat, Tajfel theorised that it results from a universal human motivation to maintain a high regard for the self. Group membership is an important source of one’s self-esteem; we can boost our self-esteem by associating with high-status groups, by distancing ourselves from low-status groups, and by boosting the relative status of our in-group compared with out-groups. In-group bias is one of the ways we affirm our self-worth.

Tajfel’s theory is supported by a large number of studies. Research shows that when self-esteem is threatened, the tendency for prejudice increases. Also, when individuals who have suffered a loss of self-esteem, for example, after receiving a poor grade on an exam, are later given an opportunity to express prejudice towards an out-group member, their self-esteem rebounds. Simply put, we can make ourselves feel better by putting other people down.

Because prejudice can be a defensive response to integrity or self-esteem threats, self-affirming workplaces can reduce the motivation for prejudice and tendencies for explicit or unconscious bias. In contrast, workplaces that threaten one’s integrity and self-esteem are more fertile grounds for “us” and “them” categorisations, the activation of negative stereotypes, and explicit or unconscious biased attitudes and behaviours. To decrease the risk of negative intergroup relations, organisations should support their employees’ self-esteem by ensuring the performance appraisal processes includes timely and regular feedback on strengths and successes as well as developmental goals.

Reducing work stress decreases stereotyping

The adaptive benefit of stereotypes is supported by research that demonstrates they are more likely to be applied under cognitive load. When we have limited mental resources available for social perception—for example, because we are distracted by another cognitively taxing task, or we are under emotional or physiological stress—we rely more on stereotypes for our judgments and to guide our responses. Conversely, employees with lower levels of stress are less likely to rely on cognitive shortcuts such as stereotypes or “us vs them” social categorisations to drive their responses.

The demands facing today’s workers are significantly higher than for previous generations—workers are required to manage greater workloads, deliver higher levels of productivity, and cope with increased job uncertainty while receiving less recognition for their achievements. Excessive job demands enhance stress, limit opportunities for adequate rest and recuperation, increase the potential for burnout, and threaten self-esteem. Whereas work has been a source of self-worth and security for previous generations, today’s employees increasingly experience the workplace as a source of anxiety and depression. Those conditions increase workplace incivility and harassment, which further damage perceptions of self-worth. Organisations seeking to reduce unconscious bias and promote inclusion should be cognisant of the potential for excessive job demands to damage self-esteem and self-worth, trigger social categorisation processes and, in turn, activate negative stereotypes and bias.

Effective Well-Being Initiatives Accommodate the Needs of Different Employees

Organisations offering well-being programs should take care to ensure that they are accessible to all employees. Consideration should be given to language and literacy, job schedules, family demands, religion, culture, age, and health status including chronic illnesses, disabilities and allergies. Involving diverse talent in the design of well-being programs helps to ensure that they can be reasonably accessed by all employees. Programs that are flexible and broad and that can be tailored to meet individual needs are best-practice. Unless wellness programs are inclusive, they may exacerbate divisions between diverse groups. But when organisations actively seek to design wellness initiatives such as physical activities that accommodate for the needs of different employees, they can be used to promote inclusion as well as wellness by encouraging positive interaction between diverse employees and the formation of intergroup friendships.

Well-Being is a Diversity and Inclusion Concern

Best-practice diversity and inclusion programs recognise well-being as a diversity and inclusion issue. In particular, many workers will experience mental health challenges over the course of their working life that can prevent them from participating fully at work within traditional roles and schedules. Each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness. Mental illnesses are the third leading cause of disability burden in Australia, accounting for an estimated 27% of the total years lost due to disability. About 4% of people will experience a major depressive episode in a 12-month period, with 5% of women and 3% of men affected. Approximately 14 % of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder in any 12-month period. Those with a mental disorder average three days out of role (i.e. unable to undertake normal activity because of health problems) over a four week period. This compares with one day out of the role for people with no physical or mental condition. People unemployed or not in the paid workforce have the highest rates of mental disorder, a prevalence rate of 26% for unemployed men and 34% for unemployed women.

Inclusive workplaces make reasonable adjustments to work schedules and loads to support employees managing mental health concerns and offer professional support through employee assistance programs. Inclusive workplaces also recognise the stigma attached to mental health and that individuals may be judged, penalised or discriminated against unfairly. They train leaders and employees in mental health and provide tools and support to reduce the stigma of mental health at work. Leading organisations have employee networks for supporting mental health (e.g., Norton Rose Fulbright’s, Breathe, was launched in London in May 2018). They also recognise the role of work stress in mental health and well-being. Inclusive employers examine the work environment and practices to identify risks of psychological injury and transfer skills to employees for managing stress.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.