Three years ago, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was at the forefront of many organizations’ agendas. Motivated to change their cultures and drive greater inclusivity, awareness of biases and the importance of embracing employees’ differences, companies committed to change. They launched DEI initiatives, sponsored employee resource groups (ERGs), hosted training and discussion sessions, donated to support social justice efforts, added more diversity to their boards, hired personnel dedicated to guiding and directing these efforts and more.
Today, however, enthusiasm has seemingly waned. DEI burnout—among both the professionals tasked with executing these initiatives and the employees on the receiving end of the messaging—has begun to stifle progress.
How did this happen? Mercedes Barragan, global inclusion and diversity manager at MHI member Dematic and a member of MHI’s DEI Advisory Committee, says she empathizes with the burnout sentiment.
“As a DEI leader, it sometimes feels like we’re just spinning our wheels. Unfortunately, too many DEI leaders have been battling limited budget and people resources while having to resort to performative metrics—long before 2020,” she said. “DEI leaders want to make real change in our organizations, but for too many of us, the time we spend defending why the work is important outnumbers the time spent actually doing the work.”
Barragan recalled social activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously remarked in 1964, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“She was sick and tired of being told that change takes time,” Barragan mused. “I would imagine most DEI practitioners feel similarly in that we’re sick and tired of being told that change takes time. In my opinion, change doesn’t only take time. It takes systemic reform and transformation. This type of reform can only come from the top levels of leadership in your organization.”
Gerry Paci, market manager for material handling at MHI member Pepperl+Fuchs, hasn’t yet noticed DEI burnout at his company—but isn’t surprised to hear it exists.
“Fatigue is a common part of any change process,” said Paci, who’s also a member of MHI’s DEI Advisory Committee. “Change—especially major changes like what DEI strives for—is a rollercoaster with highs and lows.”
Reframe to Overcome DEI Burnout
From Paci’s perspective, now is a great time for companies in the throes of DEI burnout to reflect and reset. He advised three approaches to recharge organizational commitment to change.
“First, if the expectations were, ‘We’re going to breeze through this, throw a message out there, it will be well-received, and we’ll make changes really quickly,’ then I would argue that an organization has to make some significant adjustments,” he said. “DEI is complex. It takes time. Not everybody will immediately understand the message or its importance.”
Consistency is also a key component. With all the demands and distractions constantly vying for attention, people need to be regularly reminded of the importance of DEI, he added. “You have to keep at it because everyone is so busy. Stake your claim by being consistent. Because if you don’t, you won’t see any change. It’s not going to happen organically.”
Second, Paci believes that multiple people across the company should be involved in ongoing DEI conversations. “You need to have more than one person or team leading DEI initiatives,” he explained. “The message has to come from as high up and from as many as possible because there are only so many discussions one person can be a part of.”
Barragan agreed. “Companies can prevent DEI burnout by staying committed to the work and integrating DEI throughout their business strategy, processes and policies,” she added. “DEI is transformational work that takes a team of people to support and sustain the changes.”
Finally, organizations that have only communicated one message about DEI may have missed the diversity boat entirely. “Chances are the message isn’t being communicated in a way that resonates with everyone. DEI is a complicated topic and definitely not a one-size-fits-all concept, so the way you deliver the message may need to be diversified depending on your audience,” he noted.