How Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Changemakers Can Find Balance Without Burnout

by Lily Zheng

March 18, 2020

Making impactful, lasting change in our workplaces is rarely easy. Those of us who care deeply about advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion frequently come up against the same challenges in our advocacy: unwelcoming workplace culture, apathetic or hostile leaders, moving targets, and too few resources—time, budget, authority—to make a measurable dent.

These challenges frequently lead to burnout for many DE&I advocates, from high-profile Chief Diversity Officers to everyday advocates passionate about this work. Even existing as the only woman, person of color, LGBTQ+ person (and sometimes all of the above), or other minority in a space can lead to burnout. As a DE&I consultant, I frequently hear stories from clients and colleagues about the difficulty of self-care and sustainability in what often feels like a thankless industry. From these stories and my own experiences, I’ve pulled out four interrelated and essential practices for every DE&I changemaker looking to resist burnout and sustain their work into the long-term.

4 Ways to Center Sustainability in your DE&I Advocacy

Develop and Maintain Good Boundaries

So many advocates struggle with saying no. I have a hard time with it myself, even as I share that advice with others. Especially in this time of social, political, and environmental upheaval, overwork can be a response to the stress and overwhelm we feel as we work to gain some sense of control over our world. Moreover, those of us who are most passionate are also most at risk of succumbing to overwork. We imagine that if we say yes to every request, join every diversity committee or Slack channel, and put 110% into every employee resource group event that we’re doing our part in making better organizations and a better world.

But we can do neither of those things if we're burned out by our passion. Being honest with ourselves about what we can realistically and effectively manage is critical - which means knowing when to say ‘no’ so we can build in time to recharge and refocus. Some of the many signs of burnout include cynicism, lack of motivation, reduced productivity, dissatisfaction, and disillusionment. Burnout results in less effective advocates, long hiatuses, or in the worst cases, resentment and ended DE&I careers. Yet, despite knowing this, setting boundaries still feels hard for many advocates. We may worry that we’re becoming complacent or too easy on ourselves. We may feel guilt or shame that other people around us are doing more. We may fear that our effort isn’t resulting in the impact we want. We might worry about what our friends and colleagues say when we turn down their ask.

These are real concerns. The best boundaries are made with additional practices that resolve these anxieties.

Grow Your Network of Trusted Leaders, Mentors, and Allies

DE&I work can feel intensely isolating, especially if you work without much organizational support. Faced with the enormous challenges of this field, from institutionalized racism in hiring and culture to persistent disparities in leadership representation, it’s easy to get the feeling like the work is impossible to take on alone. And for the most part, it is. No matter how skilled they are, no DE&I practitioner or leader can succeed in isolation. The niches of work we carve out for ourselves as individuals are interconnected parts of a larger whole.

Investing in a network of trusted leaders, mentors, and allies is the best insurance against DE&I fatigue. When we have an off day, month, or year, we can think back to the specific people we know who are holding down the fort while we rest, who are all doing impactful work. And as we cope with the onslaught of DE&I resistance, current events, and bad news we face on a daily basis, we can lean on our network for encouragement, support, shoulders to cry on, and gentle reminders to keep going.

Leaders, mentors, and allies—whether they work inside our organizations or simply have a social media presence we admire—are reminders that DE&I is a collaboration, not a competition. Nothing is more reassuring for me personally than knowing that dozens of people are moving the needle every day, in every workplace, every industry, and every sector. They remind me that I am not alone in doing this work.

Understand Your Impact and Niche

If one extreme is feeling like we must take on the world by ourselves, the other extreme is losing our passion for this work and merely going through the motions of DE&I advocacy. When this happens, we don't "burn out" as much as we "fizzle out." We might start seeing our work as just a means to a paycheck, or as nothing more than meeting a hollow quota or metrics every month. Those of us who have been doing this work the longest are most at risk of fizzling out in this way.

To mitigate this risk, we need to make sure that the work we do is grounded in real-world impact from the start. Who are we impacting? How is their experience affected by what we do? How would things be different if we weren’t here? Once we’ve centered impact, we can create meaning for ourselves by learning about how our work fits into the larger landscape of DE&I. What work do we not do, and who ends up doing that work? Who depends on us, and on whom do we depend?

Taking the extra time to learn about these guiding philosophies and core metrics allows us to start telling stories about our advocacy and finding meaning in those stories. We’re not just “organizing events” but “holding space and empowering the self-advocacy and wellbeing of under-represented groups.” We’re not just “collecting data” but “providing resources for internal leaders’ change initiatives in the form of measurable ROI.” By gaining a more intimate understanding of the impact of our work and where it fits in with that of others we work alongside, we can take pride in our unique contributions and stay connected to the ideals that motivate us.

Seek Communities That Value You, Not Just Your Work

What I’ve learned over time is that no matter how well we do this work, we can’t find balance until we find a way to disentangle what we do from our sense of self-worth. DE&I advocates are passionate about DE&I work, but we're complex and multifaceted people with other hobbies, passions, and interests. Talking about our work can be empowering, but when work becomes our defining character trait, it's easy to let that spiral into something unhealthy and unsustainable.

As a simple test, imagine a few people you spend the most time interacting with each week. How many of those people did you meet outside of a DE&I context? How many of those people know you for another reason besides DE&I? If the number is 0, you might benefit from expanding your network to feed other parts of yourself.

The biggest benefit I’ve found from being a part of communities unrelated to work is that their presence can force us to take a break and switch gears. Some people simply aren’t interested in hearing a 30-minute rant about whether unconscious bias training works and in what context (please, don’t get me started), and so long as they can listen respectfully when we need them to. Having this kind of variety is, in fact, an incredibly good and vital thing, especially as we combat systems that reduce our value to what we produce.

It’s no coincidence that the hardest DE&I work takes time. For those of us who have committed to doing our work in organizations, succeeding means prioritizing sustainability and long-term impact. Doing so means finding our personal balance of work and rest, making our own meaning, and situating ourselves in communities of care. This is harder than simple self-care. Sustainability takes real work, and when we prioritize it, we’re committing to a more mindful and intentional approach to advocacy, work, community, and self. This is how we beat burnout together.

Topics: Diversity & Inclusion, People and Culture

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