Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Supporting Today’s Workforce”
In these unprecedented times, millions of professionals have experienced an exponential rise in stress, emotional challenges, overwhelming new responsibilities and more, and these challenges have impacted their well-being both at work and at home. The American Psychological Association’s research shares that there is a true national mental health crisis right now that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come. Other research reveals that organizations that proactively and effectively commit to expanding their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts also make a direct positive impact on employees’ well-being. There are numerous key benefits and outcomes of a DEI organizational focus from a business-case perspective, but also proof that DEI efforts that ignore mental health are doomed to fail.
To learn more about how leaders can engage in successful DEI efforts that improve both business success and employees’ mental health and well-being, I caught up this week with Kavitha Prabhakar, a principal and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Deloitte US. Prabhakar also co-leads the Black Action Council for Deloitte, focused on architecting Deloitte’s long-term strategy to advance their Black colleagues and communities by developing a culture of anti-racism for their people, firm, and our communities.
Here’s what Prabhakar shares:
Kathy Caprino: As many of us transition to hybrid work on a more permanent basis, what are some concerns related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that professionals might have specific to this new workplace approach?
Kavitha Prabhakar: One thing that’s interesting about the transition to hybrid work is the larger societal context in which it is taking place.
We all know that the past 18 months have ushered in a much-needed reckoning in corporate America about the biases and trauma that Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian-American professionals experience. Organizations are under increased pressure and many—Deloitte included—have made public statements that will hold them accountable to their commitments to driving racial equity.
Meanwhile, nearly 3 million American women left the labor force, as Covid-19 forced the dual role that many women play to its tipping point. A recent survey conducted by Deloitte Global found that 82% of women in the U.S. feel their life has been disrupted by the pandemic and 70% of those women are concerned their career growth will be limited as a result.
These dynamics showed us all the true extent of the challenges we face in achieving equitable workplaces and society. I think the transition to hybrid work presents yet another fresh opportunity to continue to challenge the way things have been done in the past, and find new ways take positive action.
And this certainly will not be the last opportunity to challenge conventions—hybrid is the just first of many transformations we will see related to the talent experience as organizations continue to implement their future of work strategies.
At Deloitte, while our talent model has always required the ability to work effectively both onsite and virtually, our shift to a hybrid model is about applying even more intentionality and rigor when planning time across client sites, offices, and home. Our plan is to come together in person in cases where it derives the most value for our people and clients, while activities that derive less value are more likely to be virtual.
You asked about concerns related to DEI as we transition to hybrid, and of course there are risks that we have to be honest about. For example, caregivers could pick roles that provide more flexibility and choice which could unintentionally result in disparate outcomes, or the new way of working could cause people to lose their connection to each another, and stifle efforts to create inclusive workplaces.
Caprino: In what ways might a hybrid approach have a positive impact on DEI and well-being?
Prabhakar: As organizations have started to shift to a hybrid approach, I think we’ve showed more grace toward each other in authentic moments such as the dog barking, or our kids entering a video conference. We’ve become more aware and respectful of flexibility needs, and more aware of how to better include others, such as the ways in which those with physical differences benefit from virtual options.
The transition to hybrid gives us a chance to continue to show that grace thereby strengthening our organizational cultures. Taking small everyday actions to deliberately build organizational culture will become more vital given the reduction in in-person interactions.
It is very important that our approach to hybrid work considers our broader aspirations regarding DEI. One of the common misperceptions about hybrid work is that it could be a model where professionals can work anytime, anywhere based on their choice. While we are considering individual preferences in how we deploy our people to work, the mix of in-person and virtual time isn’t entirely at the professional’s discretion. If that were to happen, you could see disparate outcomes that are not equitable for the workforce.
We are encouraging in-person presence for “moments that matter” such as client labs and working sessions, apprenticeship-based training, and human connection events like team meetings. Finally, we have to actively observe, measure and track data and sentiment of our workforce to better understand DEI impacts and then be ready to adapt our approach if needed. This includes continually monitoring the experience of people who work remotely to ensure they have high levels of engagement at the same level as in person colleagues.
Caprino: What are some tactical things that managers can do to promote equity/inclusion through day-to-day interactions? Is there anything leaders need to be mindful to avoid?
Prabhakar: Today’s leaders need the courage to challenge the status quo and actively flip age-old orthodoxies to drive meaningful change. In my experience, courage is contagious: First, we must have courage with peers, teammates, and leaders, challenging them to see a different perspective. Second, have courage to change the system, challenging entrenched organizational attitudes and practices that promote cultural sameness. And third, have courage with yourself. Speak up, be vulnerable and have your voice heard on what is important to you
Another seemingly small but very important thing that I’ve discussed recently is the importance of names. A name is often central to our identity and is an essential element of human connection and belonging. Making the effort to get someone’s name right is an important chance to connect. It’s a relatively easy but profound act that shows curiosity and cultural intelligence, two traits that we’ve found to be very important to inclusive leadership.
As for what to avoid, the increased pressure on leaders around DEI could create situations where activities are celebrated over results and outcomes, and intent is valued over actual impact. That’s one of the reasons we evolved our DEI strategy to drive equitable outcomes, which is about removing barriers to realize concrete change. I’m proud to have helped draft our research report The Equity Imperative which looks at how organizations can create better outcomes by breaking down old systems, flipping long-held orthodoxies, and changing entrenched beliefs and behaviors.
Caprino: How can business leaders and organizations measure their progress and set goals related to DEI and well-being, especially in the new world of hybrid work?
Prabhakar: To truly embrace equity, it’s important for organizations to address the challenges that can be seen, as well as those that may lie below the surface. Organizations should look to determine the root causes, understand the potential societal dynamics at play, and address factors that may be perpetuating inequities in our society and workplaces.
To that end, Deloitte has set public goals and we are holding ourselves accountable with the release of our inaugural DEI transparency report, which takes a critical look at our current state, both from a quantitative and qualitative perspective.
It is not easy to be vulnerable and transparent about where the problems exist. But we know that as we figure out how to ensure positive impacts from the transition to hybrid work, our ability to measure, observe, and adapt will be important. Data transparency ensures that our efforts will be aimed at solving the real issues, and will help us be more agile, because we will see the impact of our efforts, and know when we need to change course.
Caprino: Why is it so important that organizations act now on DEI and well-being?
Prabhakar: Organizations with inclusive cultures are two times as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be innovative, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.
In addition, many clients and talent are demanding DEI leadership from the organizations they work with.
Furthermore, the pandemic blended our personal and professional lives like never before, shedding light on the inequities and stresses that many people face. In February, the American Psychological Association found that 80% of U.S. adults have reported emotions associated with prolonged stress.
These trends show that when it comes to DEI and well-being, it’s never been more important to turn words into action.
Caprino: How can being part of a workplace culture that takes DEI seriously help advance well-being in the workplace? Can you share a personal example of this?
Prabhakar: We’ve long believed that well-being and inclusion are interdependent. Making sure everyone feels comfortable talking about and pursuing their unique well-being needs is absolutely essential to achieving DEI goals.
One illustration of the intersection between DEI and well-being is the issue of racial trauma. An organization that takes DEI seriously is likely to also take the issue of racial trauma seriously and understand the impact on well-being. These organizations might provide supportive communities and encourage open dialogue to help process racial trauma. They might provide access to culturally competent mental health professionals and resources.
We piloted “Healing Circles” for our Black professionals this past year with a Black psychologist experienced in processing racial trauma. We are now rolling out this program more broadly across our workforce.
A very personal example of the intersection of DEI and well-being is when Covid-19 ravaged India, my home country. I was able to discuss this openly with my colleagues and share the impact this situation was having on my well-being. I’m taking three weeks off to visit my aging parents and family in India this month. Being part of an organization where I can be so open about this and take advantage of our culture of well-being is proof that Deloitte wants to help me meet my unique needs—in a way that accounts for who I truly am as an individual.
I see it as my role to lead by example, showing others that it’s okay to be vulnerable and take time when you need it.
Kathy Caprino, M.A. is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of the new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build their most rewarding careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs, Most Powerful You course, and Finding Brave podcast.