Companies are increasingly utilizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives to fulfill social and ethical obligations as well as enhance employee well-being and optimize organizational performance. According to one report, 89% of companies have a formal DEIB strategy, and 79% plan to raise their DEIB budgets in 2022.
When designing and implementing their DEIB initiatives, organizations use a wide range of tactics. Some of the most popular strategies and offerings include:
Affinity groups: Affinity groups bring people together who share a common background, characteristic, or interest. They allow employees to safely discuss their experiences without judgment from others who may not relate.
Company audits: Before deciding where to focus their DEIB efforts, companies often attempt to identify where DEIB may be lacking by sending out surveys or conducting internal audits to check for key data points (e.g., demographic makeup, salary distributions, etc.).
Committees: These groups get together to propose solutions to problem areas and identify ways to improve DEIB in the workplace.
Training and education: Organizations offer various forms of training (e.g., bias training) to help employees better understand the importance of DEIB and how to behave in more equitable and inclusive ways.
Recruitment: To increase diversity within their organizations, companies implement strategies to diversify their applicant pools and make the interview process more equitable and inclusive.
While these measures are essential, they are often curiously separated from another rising area of focus: employee wellness. As employers continue to invest in solutions designed to improve the well-being of their employees, these efforts must be guided by a desire to ensure wellness is equally accessible to everyone. This is for several reasons.
Everyone is equally entitled to wellness: Everyone deserves to be well, regardless of their background, age, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference.
Wellness can mean different things to different people: Doing well doesn’t look the same for everyone. It depends, in many ways, on each person’s values, desires, goals, and views on what a good life looks like.
Wellness solutions are not equally beneficial: Even when wellness looks the same, the methods for attaining it might not. Some solutions work well for specific populations while having little effect on others. For example, a recent study found that digital interventions are more effective for wealthy individuals.
Health disparities require inclusive solutions: For many illnesses and conditions, the likelihood of suffering or recovering from them is not equal across all populations. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that individuals from several underrepresented races and ethnicities are more likely to suffer from diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease.
While wellness programs and DEIB initiatives are often disconnected, there are several steps organizations can take to ensure their wellness efforts provide all populations with an equal opportunity to thrive.
Effectively integrating DEIB into your wellness initiatives will prove difficult without a clear idea of what success looks like. This means organizations must have a solid understanding of what DEIB means and how it applies in the workplace.
In the most general sense, diversity refers to differences among people in a group. The more differences there are between group members, the more diverse the group is. Diversity in workplace wellness refers to differences among the program’s participants and wellness providers.
Equity is achieved when individuals have fair access to resources and opportunities. It is important to note that equity is not the same as equality. Whereas equality is more commonly associated with giving everyone the same things, equity is about creating a level playing field. A workplace wellness program is equitable when no single group has easier access to its benefits and programs than any other.
Inclusion requires that everyone is treated respectfully and given a voice regardless of their background or identity. In the context of a workplace wellness program, inclusion is achieved to the extent that everyone’s wellness needs are given the same weight when designing the wellness program.
Belonging occurs when individuals feel they are wanted, accepted, and valued for who they are. When it comes to workplace wellness programs, belonging refers to the degree to which employees feel the program was designed with their needs in mind and with an equal concern for their well-being.
After gaining familiarity with the DEIB concepts, organizations must decide who they refer to. Traditionally, DEIB is about groups or communities (e.g., races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and disabilities) that have experienced systematic exclusion or oppression. It may, however, be expanded to incorporate new ways in which groups may experience unique difficulties. For example, remote employees are asking their companies to be mindful of how they may be excluded from opportunities and interactions organized around in-person participation.
While a comprehensive implementation of DEIB in a wellness program would achieve total inclusion with respect to all groups, this may not always be feasible. Thus, organizations have to decide how wide the scope of their workplace wellness DEIB initiatives will be.
Individuals from underrepresented groups often fail to get the intended wellness enhancements out of their benefits packages either because their needs are different or must be met differently. Accommodating these variations in wellness requirements is essential for demonstrating that your organization is genuinely committed to DEIB and wellness.
The first order of business is to identify benefits that assist groups whose needs are often left out of corporate wellness initiatives. A notable example is the LGTBQ+ community. Individuals who are transitioning will need coverage for gender reassignment procedures and medications. LGBTQ+ individuals may also need benefits to help them start and care for their family, including adoption benefits, fertility treatments, and paid family leave.
Identifying all the benefits necessary to create a fully inclusive package is a tall order. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through an anonymous survey asking employees to list or describe wellness needs left unaddressed by their current benefits package.
Once you have an inclusive package in place, the next step is to check and make sure that, of the resources provided, all employees can benefit from them just as easily and to the same degree.
Common factors that can prevent equal access include:
Affordability: Due to centuries of systematic oppression, marginalized groups are at a significant disadvantage when trying to achieve financial success. As a result, race and ethnicity are highly correlated with socioeconomic status (SES), with minority groups falling lower on the SES scale. With less income, they may have a harder time affording expensive benefits (e.g., health care under a health insurance plan with high deductibles or premiums).
Wellness education and awareness: Many benefits are not utilized by underrepresented groups due to a lack of education or awareness. For example, studies have found that even when adjusting for pay gaps, Hispanic and Black individuals often contribute less to their 401(k) programs and that differences in financial education are a likely cause.
Policy technicalities: Some requirements, which individuals from underrepresented groups have a harder time satisfying, only kick in when certain conditions have been met. For example, many fertility policies only provide coverage if an infertility diagnosis has been made. LGBTQ+ individuals may not meet this definition even if they need fertility treatments to have a child.
Companies must bear these issues in mind as they create their benefits packages. They should carefully aim to provide benefits at a minimal cost, with special attention paid to health insurance plans. These plans must also be vetted for hidden exclusionary clauses that prevent marginalized groups from using them. This strategy should be supported with holistic wellness education so that employees understand the value of the benefits offered to them.
As part of their wellness programs, companies often implement wellness challenges or modules where employees engage in various wellness-enhancing behaviors in an attempt to receive some reward or incentive. The most common examples are step-based competitions where workers are incentivized to exercise by increasing their daily step counts.
Companies must ensure that these challenges target a broad range of wellness needs and provide multiple avenues for getting involved. This is largely because well-being is complex and multi-faceted. While physical health is essential, wellness is about much more than that. As a result, there is ample room for individuals to differ concerning their wellness needs. For example, some may have their physical health in order but struggle with their financial wellness. Others may be thriving financially while suffering emotionally.
Even when focusing on one dimension of wellness, there is often more than one way of achieving it. For example, while increasing daily step counts can contribute to one’s physical health, individuals with certain physical conditions won’t be able to improve their physical well-being by competing in step-tracking competitions.
The main barrier to running holistic wellness programs is figuring out how to track all the different wellness-enhancing behaviors. This tracking is essential for ensuring that rewards are dispersed fairly. Unfortunately, though their capabilities are increasing, the current array of wellness trackers focus primarily on physical activity, making it difficult for organizations that want to incorporate other areas of well-being.
One simple trick is to allow employees to self-report whether or not they have engaged in an activity that benefits another area of wellness. For example, companies may have employees list the amount of time they have spent meditating or practicing mindfulness. Depending on how much an organization trusts its employees, fairness may become a concern.
Quizzes are another great option. After providing employees with educational material on the importance of wellness and how to achieve it in any given dimension, companies can make wellness rewards dependent upon the successful completion of quizzes that test their wellness knowledge. Given that these quizzes can cover any topic, they are a great way to incorporate all dimensions of well-being into a wellness program.
Different populations have dramatically different experiences with wellness providers. For example, according to a Gallup poll, Black and Hispanic individuals were less satisfied and more likely to experience discrimination when seeing their healthcare providers.
These issues are far from new. Marginalized groups have a long history of being mistreated by the healthcare system. For example, J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century doctor, conducted experimental surgery on enslaved Black women without their consent or anesthesia. In the infamous Tuskegee Experiment carried out by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the CDC between 1932 and 1972, researchers conducted various procedures on 400 African American men with syphilis. None of the men were told the nature of the experiment or that they suffered from the condition. Over 100 participants died.
Because of this history, individuals from underprivileged groups often lack trust in their wellness providers. In turn, they may avoid seeking preventive care and treatment.
Collectively, these factors result in significantly worse health outcomes. The following startling statistics compiled by the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy association, highlight the severity of the effects:
African Americans have the highest mortality rate for all cancers combined compared with any other racial and ethnic group.
Hispanic adults over age 20 are nearly twice as likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes.
Asian Americans are twice as likely to develop chronic hepatitis B and eight times more likely to die from hepatitis B than non-Hispanic white individuals.
Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Native Americans and Alaska Natives ages 10 to 34 in 2017.
One of the best ways to help combat these tragic consequences is by ensuring your wellness program includes diverse providers. This is for two key reasons. First, individuals from marginalized groups are more likely to feel comfortable seeking care from a wellness professional of the same identity. Second, wellness professionals from underrepresented groups can better understand the needs of other individuals from underserved populations and deliver compassionate and judgment-free care.
Ensuring that employees have access to diverse health care providers may seem unattainable. After all, how can an organization control what doctors are available to their workers? In truth, companies have a significant degree of influence on the demographic makeup of the wellness professionals their employees have access to. One reason for this is that employers decide what insurance plans employees get, which determines what providers are in-network. When picking an insurance plan, be sure to choose one with a clear emphasis on diversity.
It’s important to remember that a focus on offering diverse wellness providers shouldn’t stop with doctors, nurses, therapists, or other professions that may be included in a health insurance plan. Instead, it must be all-encompassing and include everyone from fitness trainers to aromatherapists. The strategy for ensuring diversity with respect to this category of wellness professionals is similar to picking the right insurance plan. Employers need to carefully vet the vendor for a commitment to diversity.
Employees won’t participate in a wellness program or utilize their benefits if they don’t know they exist. As a result, employers often provide educational and promotional materials to inform employees of the offerings they have access to and incentive them to use it.
While this step is essential, the way it is executed can have a significant effect on whether underrepresented groups feel their company’s wellness program was meant for them. To weave DEIB into their promotional materials, companies must focus on two key areas: images and language.
The images used must include a diverse range of individuals. If employees don’t see themselves represented in the material used to promote their organization’s wellness program, they won’t feel a sense of belonging. In turn, they may not participate.
It’s important to note that diverse imagery isn’t enough. Employers must make sure that the images they use represent the populations in a light they want to be seen and without reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
When creating promotional materials, employers must be careful of the language they use, especially as it pertains to marginalized or disenfranchised groups. The following guidelines are a good place to start.
Use gender neutral pronouns (e.g., they, them, their).
Swap identify-first language (e.g., mentally-ill person) with person-first language (e.g., person with a mental illness).
Avoid terms or phrases that imply victimhood (e.g., affected by or victim of).
When uncertain whether a term is appropriate, ask or look it up.
Once you’ve infused enough DEIB into your wellness program to benefit the diverse populations within your organization, it’s important to highlight the success stories. This will help persuade those who are still reluctant to participate that the programs are designed with their needs in mind and that enhancing their wellness is possible.
One way to do this is to have a representative speak to other employees from underrepresented groups and discuss their experience with the program. Employees will be more likely to feel their organization's focus on DEIB is authentic when they hear about it directly from colleagues with shared identities who have gone through the program or utilized their benefits.
Interviews are another great option. A candid discussion between an organization’s leaders and members from underrepresented groups who utilize their organization’s offerings can go a long way towards solidifying the message that leadership cares about making wellness accessible for everyone.
DEIB will not be achieved in the same way at every organization. While there are several general steps companies can take that are likely to positively impact a significant number of employees, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Try out the following methods for learning about your organizations unique DEIB needs:
Surveys: One of the best ways to figure out how your organization's DEIB needs differ from others is to ask. Send out an anonymous survey where employees can freely discuss how they feel their wellness program could be better designed to meet their needs.
Town halls: While surveys are helpful, they have their limitations. For one thing, it can be hard to convince employees to fill them out. For another, there is limited space for them to explain their concerns fully. Town halls may be more likely to garner participation, especially from those who are reluctant to take a survey. These meetings allow employees to interact with colleagues and discuss their concerns together. With the backing of their team members, they may feel more comfortable expressing where they think their organization's wellness program falls short of its DEIB aims.
DEIB officer/expert: Employees may not be able to identify all of the problem areas on their own. A DEIB officer whose sole job is to determine how an organization's practices can better meet its DEIB aims can highlight any remaining gaps.
DEIB initiatives and wellness programs are critical to the well-being of employees and the success of the organizations they work with. As companies continue to appreciate the importance of both movements, they must infuse DEIB considerations into their wellness efforts so that all employees have a chance to be well.