A Coaching Power Tool By Doris Bisaro, Well-Being Coach, ITALY
Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Strategy: DEI Fatigue vs. DEI Self-Compassion
“I remember clearly how excited I was when a very diverse panel of people co-designed the Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy last year and how eager I was to start implementing it.
The business strategy, the values, and the purpose of the company were all magically aligned. The business case was agreed upon and the leaders were onboarded aware of the market’s requests for impactful actions. I was so excited to start training programs, support the creation of new ERGs, engage new role models, and finally steer the whole organization toward new horizons to make a difference in the world.
Flash forward to today. Our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy is misunderstood and heavily criticized by half of the organization, I have not gathered my DEI Community of practice in the last 6 months, and my efforts to create a more committed HR community have not been very successful and frustration is rising as results are not coming while the perception of the population on belonging and inclusion is alarmingly weakening.
To add the finishing touch to the picture I feel overwhelmed with work responsibilities, under attack from multiple daily equally urgent requests, losing grip over my job, and, perhaps most importantly, feeling isolated and demoralized. How did I get here? Why do I feel so inadequate? Where did all the passion go and why do I feel so drained by a job that is fully aligned with my values? Will I ever be able to get back to a place of feeling energized and passionate about the work I do for my organization? I am so tired and exhausted that I am starting to doubt my passion for DEI. I wonder if I will ever be able to get up in the morning again with the feeling that I am enjoying my role again.”
This is the challenge Genevieve, a DEI manager working for an international corporation, was faced with this year when the emphasis on DEI in the corporate world put even more pressure on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practitioners.
Genevieve is suffering from DEI fatigue. The term DEI fatigue, which was coined in the 1990s to describe the stress companies complained about as they diversified their hiring practices, has come to encompass feelings of frustration, isolation, and demoralization that people doing the daily work of building more equitable workspaces experience.
DEI work is about fundamentally changing a lot of the structures we’ve built, and at the level of systems and structures, which requires patience and resilience as it is a long-term game. It comes as no surprise that in the past few years, people holding positions like Genevieve’s have been more likely to fall victim to burn-out and to leave their jobs (according to Linkedin, they report two fewer years of average tenure compared with other executives) with the consequent impact on the sustainability of the organization’s DEI efforts.
The reasons behind DEI practitioners’ fatigue are manyfold:
- They have to cope with increasingly complex cultural and systemic changes in their organizations, particularly due to the pandemic, which poses new challenges involving diverse pools of employees. This can make them feel inadequate, not having all the necessary expertise. They experience low self-worth as the breadth of knowledge in this field is never-ending.
- They face an increased sense of urgency to achieve very ambitious targets and implement increasingly impactful actions as required by the ESG, legislative, and market requirements. This leads to demoralization as the ambitions, targets, and deadlines are often too stretched while the results of this kind of cultural change cannot be reaped in the short term.
- Frustration and isolation are growing as they often feel alone in driving DEI work. They often feel they are not supported enough by the leadership despite the very tiring critical conversations they have on a day-to-day basis with them and their involvement in the strategy design phase.
- They have to listen to their internal clients’ stories of trauma, discrimination, and pain. They feel the pride and responsibility of providing a safe space for minority groups and often act as motivators for many leaders and role models. In many cases this work is highly emotional as they are intimately familiar with the barriers to equity and access they’re working to remove. Empathy and compassion are key skills for a DEI practitioner. They often fear that they will lose their credibility and reputation if they ask for help and try to manage their stress alone.
DEI Fatigue vs. DEI Self-Compassion Definition
What Is Fatigue?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary the word “Fatigue” means “extreme tiredness”. Interestingly, the term applied to engineering means “weakness in something, such as a metal part or structure, often caused by repeated bending.”
Genevieve came from a perspective of fatigue which was a mix of extreme tiredness and weakness which in her case meant a feeling of low self-worth, frustration, isolation, and fear to lose her credibility as a senior DEI expert if she admitted openly her internal turmoil.
During the coaching journey, she learned that shifting one’s perspective of fatigue to one of self-compassion could help her get to reconnect to her passion. Let’s see how.
As she came to the coaching session in an emotional storm (she was frazzled, tired, and unable to complete a full sentence), the coach invited Genevieve to take a breathing exercise to come back to the present moment and have more focus on the session. She then was gently invited to say how she felt trying to name her emotions. The word fatigue kept emerging all the time, both as a noun and as a verb (“I get up already fatigued and I fail to find a reason to go back to work”, “I feel the fatigue of explaining always the same concepts and not being understood or, in some cases, heard” “I often struggle with the fatigue of listening to people’s cases of discrimination and not being able to offer a quick fix”).
By labeling the emotion she experienced, Genevieve gradually gained clarity of her situation.
The coach asked the following questions during this stage:
- How do you feel when you get up in the morning?
- What emotions do you struggle with when doing your job?
- How is this feeling manifesting in your body?
- What do you say to yourself when you feel fatigued?
- What does fatigue look like for you? If it were an object/shape/animal what would it be?
- How do you treat yourself when you are fatigued?
- What does your family tell you when you treat yourself like this?
- How do you feel about what they tell you?
- What does your inner voice tell you when you treat yourself like this?
She mentioned her feelings of exhaustion and tiredness, pointing at parts of her body where she felt pain or unease. She also described the vicious circle of self-inflicted pain she had created when she felt she was not up to her own expectations about her role: she would continue to work long hours, often to the detriment of her personal life, trying to find a solution to her a daunting challenge, staying up at night searching for tools and resources and often not sleeping or waking up with anxiety and pain in her chest.
The coach then tried to understand what she had done so far and how this worked/did not work. This surfaced one of her main blockers: the perspective that she had the duty to be caring and compassionate for her internal clients, who deserved to be treated with empathy and compassion.
At this stage, the coach explored some possibilities to bring about a shift in her perspective of the “duty to be compassionate for his external clients” to see how she would react.
- If one of your internal clients comes to you telling he/she struggles with the same fatigue as you do, what would you suggest his/her duty should be?
- As the best DEI practitioner in the world, how would you treat him/her?
- Imagine that client is you. How would it feel to treat you the same way?
- What is your duty towards yourself?
- How would your life change if your duty would be to treat yourself with the same compassion you treat your internal clients?
- You mentioned your duty. What about your rights?
- If you inject self-compassion into your life, how do you imagine your day would change?
- How do you imagine your fatigue would “feel” if you became “self-compassionate”?
- With self-compassion, how do you think you would show up during a critical DEI conversation?
- How would a more self-compassionate DEI practitioner do her job?
- What right do you obtain if your duty is self-compassion?
These questions generated a shift in how Genevieve could look at herself as a DEI practitioner. The duty to be compassionate towards others which was one of the main causes of her fatigue could be reconciled with the duty/right for self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion has been defined as a self-attitude that involves treating oneself with warmth and understanding in difficult times and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human. (Kristin Neff)
Self-compassion is how compassionate we are with ourselves. It requires treating ourselves with empathy and kindness. Self-compassion allows us to respond to ourselves the way we would respond to a friend or loved one. Compassion and self-compassion have the same root. Both can emerge when we accept to stay in contact with pain as a self-protection mechanism. When we are hurt, paradoxically, often we “take care of ourselves” through self-blaming, self-criticism, hostility, and self-punishment. In the case of Genevieve, she was self-inflicting harder work and experiencing a lower sense of self. It often happens that when our hearts or souls hurt, we feel we do not have a right to be ourselves. Through self-compassion we heal the wound and accept that a scar may remain – the scar does not eliminate pain, but it is a sign of our courage. It hurts because we had the courage to live. If we bring self-compassion when we experience fatigue, shame, embarrassment, and anxiety, our feeling of unworthiness or inadequacy diminish. We are able to create a space where we no longer feed shame or perfectionist depression. Unfortunately, in a corporate environment, self-compassion may be sometimes perceived as something that deprives us of our motivation, because we become more attuned to pain. The opposite is true. The care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation. Self-compassion supports us in unleashing our potential. When we burn out, when we are fatigued, if we whip ourselves, we become even more nervous and stressed. On the contrary, if we rest, we can replenish our energies and internal resources. Ultimately self-compassion allows us to nurture our motivation rooted in our real interests and therefore we become less vulnerable to external events and validation. Research indicates that self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.
The shift from fatigue to self-compassion allowed Genevieve to make the first step towards stopping self-inflicting pain by working long hours and feeling drained and inadequate. On the contrary, self-compassion allowed her to reconnect to her passion for her job. A balanced, healthy, and harmonious passion for her work. She then moved on to plan the way forward with the help of the coach.
- How can you leverage self-compassion as your best partner?
- What is the first thing you will do to treat yourself with compassion?
- How will you make sure you practice self-compassion regularly?
- What obstacles might emerge to treating you with self-compassion?
- What is going to help you be more self-compassionate?
- Who can support you on this path?
- What will show your accountability for practicing self-compassion?
- If you look at yourself in six months, how will you as a DEI practitioner have changed?
- What will your family/friends say to a more self-compassionate you?
- What will you say to a more self-compassionate you?
DEI Fatigue vs. DEI Self-Compassion Practitioners Work
DEI is challenging and high-stakes work. High stakes often come from the passion with which DEI practitioners work. Identification in the work they do is a motivational engine as is the ability to be compassionate and empathetic towards their internally diverse clients. However, in order to be able to do their job at their best, they need to care for themselves, be able to ask for help, and to develop self-compassion when they feel they have failed or they have not met expectations. Self-compassion is a necessity for DEI practitioners. Furthermore, DEI is a long-term job and self-compassion is key to accepting failure, replenishing energy, developing resilience, and supporting them to focus on long-term goals while celebrating short-term wins.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leaders Face Burnout, Exhaustion (businessinsider.com)
Do you have ‘diversity fatigue’? People doing DEI work often face frustration and isolation- The Globe and Mail
The Questions Good Coaches Ask (hbr.org)
You have passion, but do you have self-compassion? Harmonious passion, obsessive passion, and responses to passion-related failure - ScienceDirect
Self-Compassion - The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (stanford.edu)
Nicoletta Cinotti, Mindfulness Ed Emozioni, Gribaudo 2022
Thrive, Arianna Huffington, Harmony Books 2014
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff, 2011