Types of Racial TraumaAs Black History Month progresses, there will be many events presented by corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations highlighting the achievements of African Americans in this country. Many of those events will be planned, coordinated, and implemented by the diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) and anti-racist advocates within your organizations. That may be your Chief Diversity Officer, members of your DEI Council, ERG, or affinity groups, or other identified diversity, equity, and inclusion bodies. While you will celebrate their accomplishments and may even honor them with awards during this month, it is important to recognize that the work they consistently do, outside of this or any other cultural heritage month, can take an emotional toll.

As a psychologist, I talk a great deal about racial trauma, which is the cumulative effect of racism on one’s mental & physical health. Direct racial trauma is when you experience incidents of micro-aggressions, racist incidents, or other forms of bias. Vicarious racial trauma is the trauma one experiences simply by hearing about or seeing a member of their racial group being a victim of racism (e.g. micro-aggressions, police brutality, discrimination). After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, requests for talks on racial trauma skyrocketed, as I discussed how constantly seeing images of Mr. Floyd being killed or hearing about it was leading to high rates of vicarious trauma in Black people in the U.S. Further, the recent waves of anti-Asian violence have similarly impacted our AAPI colleagues, causing a heightened sense of fear and hypervigilance in these communities.

The work of the DEI champions in your organization can also be traumatizing, either through direct experience or vicariously, as they are the ones who mostly deal with issues of discrimination, micro-aggressions, or other forms of bias. Whether they are DEI Council members, a part of your organization’s DEI office or department, or ERG leaders, they frequently must do additional emotional labor to process others’ feelings or their own, as it pertains to racially charged material (e.g. racist incidents, structural racial inequity). And they regularly may feel silenced or marginalized, with no helpful outlets to address their own concerns.

So how can you ensure that those individuals who are supporting your DEI and anti-racist initiatives are able to heal, while finding joy in their work? First, as a senior leader, you must acknowledge that the work they do can have more of an emotional impact than the work of other organizational leaders. DEI and anti-racist work does not only require engaging on an intellectual level, it also mandates a fair amount of emotional heavy lifting. Next, you must commit to their healing, and provide space for them to do so, especially if they are performing this work on a voluntary basis. Finally, you should find ways to bring joy to the work, by praising their efforts throughout the year, not just during Black History Month or other cultural heritage months. Some other strategies to utilize in helping your DEI and anti-racist advocates to find joy and to heal all year long are:

Why Leadership Coaching Matters in Sustained DE&I TransformationCommunity Support Groups – while ERGs and affinity groups are helpful spaces to engage with individuals facing similar challenges, oftentimes members do not feel equipped to manage the range of emotional reactions which emerge. Therefore, having a trained professional come in to discuss some of the experiences which impact the mental and emotional health of team members can be useful in communicating that you care for their overall wellbeing. Such support groups are best as an ongoing initiative, instead of a one time engagement. However, even one well facilitated session, with recommendations of other external mental health resources, can also be powerful and restorative.

DEI Leadership Coaching – when I was a Chief Diversity Officer, I always felt a bit isolated when it came to finding colleagues to explore some of my work challenges. Although I reported to the university president, I knew that he would not be able to fully appreciate the emotional and strategic difficulties I encountered on a daily basis, including from other C-Suite colleagues, who had longer tenures than me. Having a coach, who both had experience in this work, as well as training in mental health, would have been a game changer for me. I have been extremely honored to fill this role as a coach for many DEI leaders, who face both tactical and emotional struggles in managing their work. Coaching for so many C-Suite executives is viewed as a benefit to their leadership development, but far too few DEI leaders (Chief Diversity Officers, DEI Council members, DEI managers, affinity group leaders), especially those who are not in senior leadership, have access to this much needed support. I believe that one of the unspoken reasons that the average tenure of Chief Diversity Officers is under two years now, compared to three in 2018, is because they are not receiving the type of coaching, resources, and support they need to be successful. As a result, they burn out and are overwhelmed by their job duties, and the lack of aid they receive.

Why Chief Diversity Officers leave after brief tenuresPaid Sabbaticals – since their work is so emotionally taxing, and a few days off for vacation may not be sufficient, offering a sabbatical, an extended period of time (e.g. 3-6 months) to reflect or to recover, which is paid, may be a way to both retain and elevate your DEI champions.

Sufficient Resources and Power – whether it is money, staff, or time, your DEI champions often burn out due to lack of resources, and the lack of authorization to truly move the work forward. By providing them with an adequate budget (e.g. actually having a robust P & L to manage), giving them the power to make key decisions to shape the business or the organization’s mission, and ensuring they are always a part of the senior leadership team, you can give them more of an opportunity to enjoy their work, while making significant impact.

In our current climate, more DEI and anti-racist practice work is needed, not less. As a leader, instead of viewing DEI and anti-racist work as cost centers, visionary executives recognize they are key revenue generators, in terms of retention, productivity, and financial impact. Therefore, those DEI champions in your organization should be given all the resources and support they need to heal and to find joy throughout the year.

How do you ensure that your DEI champions heal and find joy? If you are interested in finding more strategies to improve the functioning of your DEI teams, sign up for a free consultation with me.

This article originally appeared in The Joy and Justice newsletter, a weekly LinkedIn newsletter focused on exploring issues related to leadership, diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racist practice, most specifically how to bring joy to this work, while ensuring workplace justice. The newsletter is produced by Richard Orbé-Austin, PhD who is a psychologist, executive coach, DEI consultant, speaker, and author. Dr. Orbé-Austin is the co-author of Own Your Greatness: Overcome Impostor Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life, the acclaimed book which provides a clear formula for defeating impostor syndrome. His next book, which will be released in fall 2022, will focus on how to transform toxic workplaces into healthier environments, where everyone can thrive and succeed, by identifying key strategies for leaders & employees to implement for workplace joy & justice. If you are seeking to transform your workplace into a more joyful and just environment, visit his website to learn more about the services which may suit your individual and organizational needs. If you feel this newsletter has value, please feel free to share it with others who may also enjoy it. If you want to learn more about impostor syndrome or leadership, visit Dr. Orbé-Austin’s blog page.