The concept of “diversity fatigue” may seem perplexing. How does one become fatigued by diversity? How does one grow tired of including other people and being fair? How is it that someone “can’t stand” equality? We ushered several new words into our lexicon a few years ago - diversity and inclusion, equity, social justice, and phrases like “doing the work.” But unfortunately, and even more so sadly, only a couple of years later found a new term entering the chat - diversity fatigue.
What is diversity fatigue?
Diversity fatigue, also known as inclusion fatigue, shows up in two forms:
· Practitioner fatigue: where an individual leading diversity and inclusion efforts experiences a state of mental and emotional exhaustion that can result from ongoing efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace or society at large.
· Organizational fatigue: where an organization appears to grow tired and less tolerant about hearing or engaging with diversity & inclusion efforts
Both are sentiments that has been unfortunately growing over the last year and the only way to combat it is to understand it and recognize how it manifests.
The four faces of diversity fatigue
These impact differently for those that experience them. We have outlined the groups these can impact (the four faces of diversity fatigue) and offered some suggested ways forward.
Practitioners (and Supporters). Supporters include those who are active in DEI initiatives, in favor of DEI in general, and those who are impacted by DEI work.
What causes this fatigue is a lack of progress, long-term goals, and leadership support. When the work only “feels” and “looks” good at first but has no real gravity, it will be viewed as superficial, and supporters may grow frustrated, disheartened, and eventually disconnect. This is where we lose our greatest champions.
● Focus on small wins and the movements forward you have made. This could be across an organization, or acts that have supported individuals to feel more included. You might feel frustrated at the pace of change, but believe us, when you list what you have achieved, there will be wins you can be proud of. “Reality check.” Reflect on why you are doing this work and what you hope to accomplish. And give yourself the space to recognize you cannot change everything all at once.
● Refocus. Once you get through the initial frustration, you can begin to evaluate your goals and what you are still able to do.
● Keep your personal community strong. Leaning on friends and supporters helps to push through the mental and emotional exhaustion.
● Leverage budgets. Typically, the money is the first thing to get cut, but that doesn’t mean everything is over. Get creative. Consider all opportunities to combine costs and move money around.
Among those Neutral to DEI in the workplace. This group has no strong feelings either way. They may be interested or open to DEI initiatives, but if all they see is a lot of new cool sounding words and attend a few fun events, but that’s all they see and nothing more than delves deeper to really engage them, they will grow fatigued quicker than the supporters. With this diversity fatigue, we lose a valuable opportunity to gain more supporters and believers in these virtues.
● Keep it simple. Everyone can understand why including others makes sense. Everybody understands the basic concept of “being fair.” Remove the academic jargoon and explanations, and stick to the basics.
● Make it relevant. People have to be able to associate and see themselves in something in order to fully engage with it. Allow those who may be unfamiliar to see themselves in DEI conversations. Things become real when it “comes home.”
● Align with your HR and marketing/communications teams. Where fatigue might be driven by over-community of diversity-related messages, engage with the relevant teams to integrate communications and embed diversity, equity and inclusion messages into wider communications and channels.
● Integrate the principles. It’s easy to disconnect from DEI when it’s disconnected from the company culture. The remedy is to include DEI concepts in training and policies i.e. onboarding, recruiting, anti-harassment etc.
With Detractors and Cynics. These are the individuals that believe “all this diversity stuff is ridiculous.” So, they are either disinterested or against it from the beginning. Diversity fatigue in this scenario drives people further away or, even worse, creates opposition - an enemy. And an enemy will sabotage progress. But just because someone is a detractor DOES NOT mean that can’t become a supporter, but if the DEI initiatives aren’t introduced properly and with follow through, then we miss yet another crucial opportunity.
● Understand their perspectives. Engage in conversation to understand their pain points and the narratives that inform them.
● Collect yourself. To engage in healthy and constructive conversations around complex and emotional topics, you have to be mentally and emotionally ready.
● Practice what you preach. Detractors often feel as though they are constantly shouted down and told they are wrong, so to have them open up to new uncomfortable dialogue, you have to be open as well.
Within the Organization. Many western-based organizations, in particular those with US operations, experienced a system shock in 2020 after the George Floyd tragedy, Black Lives Matters protests, and wave of studies and reports published highlighting gender pay and position disparities. At this turning point, organizations hired Diversity Officers, hired consultants, and committed to “doing the work.” But that work was challenging, confusing for some, and required more time and emotional and financial commitment than originally assumed. The endurance DEI work requires created fatigue where we saw many organizations abandon their original campaigns.
● Have long term data-driven goals. Have a defined game plan with tangible metrics, so when organizational priorities and budgets change, you don’t have to abandon core values and progress.
● Policy integration. Have a policy and procedure standard that includes DEI values. This way, the culture improves and can work on its own without excessive management.
● Lean on the team. ERGs (employee resource groups) are a great way to continue DEI work even when budgets decrease. This encourages team participation and collaboration.
The most important thing is to understand that diversity fatigue is real, for both practitioners, colleagues and organizations, so it’s important to develop a strategy that preemptively counteracts it. Once you recognize how it manifests, you can make adjustments and remain successful, moving forward with your vision and accomplishing your goals.