Why Many DEI Leaders Are Experiencing Burnout and How You Can Fix It

Photo: Getty Images.

Over the past two months, I spoke to more than 100 diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders across a variety of industries and asked them all how they were doing. By far the most consistent answer I heard was, “I’m feeling burned out.”

At a time when diversity and inclusion are top of mind for nearly every employer, DEI leaders have never been in higher demand. Head of diversity roles grew 107 percent in the past 6 years. But while the industry has advanced, many DEI leaders face significant headwinds as they navigate highly complex cultural and systemic changes in their organizations. They are in a role that is often misunderstood by colleagues, all while feeling a heightened sense of urgency to show immediate results.

This is not only leading to burnout, but is also causing early departures. In fact, chief diversity officers today have two fewer years of average tenure compared with other executives. This translates to a cost to organizations–up to twice the DEI leader’s salary to replace them–and jeopardizes progress in the DEI work itself.

However, it is possible for these leaders to strategically pivot and alleviate those burnout feelings. Here are some of the core challenges many DEI leaders face, and specific ways other leaders can support their colleagues and address the issues:

1. Recent events and the market climate have fueled an often unhealthy urgency and pressure for DEI initiatives.

The significant events of racial inequity that we witnessed in the past three years alongside the Great Resignation have created a heightened pressure for business leaders to make progress on DEI initiatives. Many organizations made public commitments to DEI, and leaders at those organizations have felt personally responsible to fulfill those commitments.

This pressure has come at a time when capacity on many diversity and talent teams is at an all-time low as many on those teams have left positions for new opportunities. The challenge is that diversity and inclusion work simply does not advance quickly at all levels. It is the combination of cultural, organizational, and behavioral change, all of which will take time to materialize.

How can you help? Preempt a more realistic expectation of what the DEI work entails and how long it will take to see significant progress. Create an actionable, data-driven plan that outlines how the team will achieve the goals over time and track those against a realistic timeline.

2. DEI leaders are often isolated and lack the resources to be successful in the role.

It is quite common for DEI leaders to come from an underrepresented community and even be one of the only underrepresented voices in the room. This often requires leaders to not only be the only person representing the DEI function but also, in many cases, the only voice in the room representing underrepresented communities.

This can lead to situations where DEI leaders feel tokenized, isolated, and unsafe in their role, hindering their ability to drive results. The role is also routinely removed from senior leadership within organizations and often not given the proper budget, team capacity, and buy-in from leadership to make progress, leaving DEI leaders at times stuck and frustrated.

How can you help? Advocate for continuing to increase diversity across team management and for DEI leaders to have a direct voice as a member of senior leadership.

3. Many DEI leaders are not equipped with goals or metrics for success in their role.

A study found that 76 percent of organizations still haven’t set diversity goals, leaving many DEI leaders and their colleagues without a shared sense of how to gauge success in the role. This has led to many differing views on the purpose of the role and whether leaders in those positions are making an impact on the areas that require change. The more that DEI leaders have alignment and clarity around the organizational DEI goals and metrics for success, the more these leaders will have clarity of focus and the means to gauge the impact of their efforts.

How can you help? Push for organizational metrics to gauge impact and success toward meeting your DEI goals, and remember, it is OK if these goals are not immediately advertised publicly. The actions will go a long way in proving dedication to change.

4. The DEI work often lacks shared responsibility and understanding from the rest of the organization.

One of the most glaring themes that emerged from a book I co-authored, Hiring for Diversity, was a general sentiment within many organizations that DEI work was the sole responsibility of DEI leaders and no one else needed to have shared accountability in the work. In reality, every single person in the organization has an influence over DEI outcomes, and it is the collective effort that can be the determining factor in making real progress. Rather than see DEI leaders as the sole drivers of the work, organizations should see them as catalysts to mobilize the rest of the organization to play an active role.

How can colleagues help? Promote shared responsibility for DEI efforts across the entire organization. Help clarify the expectation for participation by outlining each person’s role and actions so they are held accountable for their part in the success of the organization’s overall DEI initiatives.

We are in a critical moment for business leaders to consider why DEI colleagues may be burning out, and how they can better become partners in this work. This is important not only to enable DEI leaders to stay and thrive in the organization but also to ensure the sustainability and longevity of our DEI efforts.