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DEI and Wellbeing: A Winning Combination for A Thriving Workplace

July 13, 2023
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My name is Naomi Fung and I am a senior at the University of Hong Kong. I am double-majoring in Psychology and Language Communication. Currently, I am working as a research assistant intern at Cultural Infusion, where I am assisting in research in areas of Social Sciences such as sexuality and culture. I am passionate about creating a more inclusive environment for younger generations in the psychology and therapeutic field and I hope to pursue a career in this field after graduation.

Imagine: being the only non-fluent English speaker in an English-speaking company. You can’t help but be silent during team meetings and your manager interprets your silence as rudeness and lack of cooperation and team spirit. How would that make you feel?

Not good, right? That behavior would be not inclusive and as an employee you would feel dissatisfied in that situation.

There is a correlation between occupational well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies in business. However, what does wellbeing have to do with a company’s diversity and inclusiveness? Let’s take a look at the history of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and workplace wellness.

After World War II, many veterans who returned to work struggled with alcoholism and mental health difficulties. Managers soon realized the link between mental health wellbeing and workplace productivity, and so in the 1950s the first Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) were launched. The goal was to reduce alcohol and trauma while increasing production in factories. In the 1960s, the ideas which formed the basis of what is now known as DEI surfaced in the United States within civil rights movements, and people began fighting for rights based on gender, colour, sexuality, religion and other identity attributes. The main arguments surrounded tolerance and acceptance of minorities within countries. In the late 1980s, businesses began to consider the importance of psychological wellbeing in the workplace, emphasizing the need to create an inclusive and equitable environment (Edmunds, M., & Lind, D, 2021). In the 2020s, various industries including education, healthcare, finance and technology began to implement DEI policies to ensure an environment that embraces everyone’s differences and provides opportunities for all to reach their full potential.

However, many leaders continue to approach DEI and wellbeing as separate initiatives, despite the reality that employee mental health has a direct relation to workplace experiences of inclusion and diversity.

I previously undertook internships in Hong Kong with colleagues with similar educational and cultural backgrounds as myself, but despite being in a more diverse work environment, I currently feel more included in my Melbourne internship. Both companies in the two cities were welcoming and provided multiple opportunities for me to grow and flourish, but I have realised that the role of leadership is critical to my sense of belonging. In Hong Kong, my manager was more result-oriented, and as an employee, I followed whatever duties she assigned to me and completed them before a due date. While in Melbourne, I was allowed greater flexibility with my due dates and working patterns and there was a lot more back-and-forth with my manager and other teams in the office. The guidance and respect shown to my input was beneficial and drove me to be more innovative in my work. I’m not saying my Hong Kong experience was bad; in terms of work output, it was undoubtedly effective. However, if a manager is more communicative and engaged with employees one-on-one, it can make a major impact on how an employee emotionally perceives their job and the company itself.

My experience is not unique. Studies have demonstrated that even when an organization implements effective DEI programs, leadership support remains a critical mediator in employee perceptions of workplace culture. Leaders play a direct role in promoting workplace wellbeing and modeling healthy behaviors with their own actions (Kayilas, 2021), including acknowledging that diverse employees’ needs in terms of wellbeing can differ substantially. Employees who struggle with their health and personal wellbeing without acknowledgement or support from their bosses will be unable to perform at their best. Understanding each employee’s unique and distinct needs, as well as how perceptions shape performance, is a key first step in integrating DEI and wellbeing (Maese & Lloyd, 2022).

So, what does employees’ mental health wellbeing have to do with a companies’ diversity and inclusiveness? When an employee’s wellbeing is prioritised, there are likely to be positive improvements in their self-perception and self-esteem and feelings of ease with their integral cultural and social identities at work (Menzies, 2018). Consequently, the office will have employees that are well-respected and protected. An inclusive environment promotes wellbeing, leading to less conflict or threat in self-affirming workplaces, minimizing bias, discrimination, and harassment.

Let us imagine once again: your manager noticed your uneasiness and reached out to you privately to talk about it. You were able to communicate your concern about language barriers and your manager was willing to provide several options to meet your needs, such as written reports and one-on-one meetings. A simple act like this can foster an inclusive environment while also acknowledging employee talents. 

Though it can take extra effort and empathy, we cannot overlook the importance of incorporating employees’ wellbeing into the workplace; with inclusive workplaces facilitating equitable adjustments for different needs, the stigma of mental health at work will reduce and various talents will be able to reach higher levels of job performance and engagement.

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