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The emotional labor of diversity, equity and inclusion

Author: Cassie Myers

When we reflect on what it takes to fill a role, we often revert to what is included in the average description; we list tasks, responsibilities, outcomes and organizational goals. This description reflects what type of work is most visible to peers and to which compensation is decided. However, some jobs, including some in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space, require emotional labor that go beyond a job description. 

Coined by sociologist Arlie Hoschild in her book, The Managed Heart, Hoschild defines emotional labor as, 

The work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings


Emotional labor boils down to doing work that is emotionally distressing for you and having to hide your feelings. In my work at Lunaria, emotional labor can include managing my emotions when someone is sharing something racist that happened to them, giving myself a pep talk before a charged conversation, or continuing with a meeting and hiding my internal emotions. Emotional labor increases perceptions of job stress, decreased satisfaction and increased overall stress (Pugliesi, K.)

Emotional labor is particularly problematic in the context of diversity, equity and inclusion, because systematically excluded groups are often the ones pushed to perform it and the work itself can result in harmful conversations. The average tenure for a ‘Chief Diversity Officer’ is only three years, compared to the nearly 5 years for Chief Financial Officers and 6 years for Chief Executive Officers (Bloomerg). 

As an employee, understanding and recognizing emotional labor is important in order to reflect on your own job satisfaction and realize how much of yourself you are putting into your role. As an employer, understanding emotional labor is critical to ensure that employees are not being inequitably forced to absorb all emotional labor. 

In this article I explore a few reasons why you as a DEI practitioner, or practitioners you employ, might be doing emotional labor and how you might address it. 

Lack of psychological safety 

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, psychological safety is the belief that you won’t face retaliation or humiliation for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. At work, psychological safety is the shared belief that those you work with will not reject or embarrass you. 

When a team member lacks psychological safety, they might perform emotional labor to mask their discomfort, or to simply survive a situation. 

An example of a lack of psychological safety within an equity and inclusion role might be a DEI manager sharing a plan for Black History Month through which some team members are whispering. After the plan is shared, the team members say, “I think you missed the mark yet again. Not sure what you’re trying to do but it is wrong.” 

This response provides a criticism without a point for open conversation, and is shared directly after the DEI manager was not given attention. This situation can cause the DEI manager to feel disrespected and stuck. 

Having psychological safety does not mean that teams always agree with each other. However, it does mean that when disagreements happen they are done with respect and in ways that builds psychological safety, not break down. 

To grow psychological safety and reduce emotional labor, employers can create practices for productive conflict. To ensure that conflict can happen respectfully and not at the expense of psychological safety, practices created should answer the following questions:

  • How does our team communicate disagreements respectfully? 
  • How do we manage conflict as a team? 
  • How do we build trust after conflict? 
  • What are desired and unacceptable behaviors in team conflict? 


DEI work is not meant to be completed alone-  it requires different voices, inputs and reviews to make change. Unfortunately, many DEI practitioners are forced to work in silos, and are denied access to staff or leadership. Isolation can result in suppressing feelings of loneliness or nervousness about performance. 

In a report by Webers Handwick on Chief Diversity Officers (CDO), of the many challenges CDO’s report in achieving DEI goals, 23% cite limited staffing and a lack of integration with other functions and 18% cite lack of adequate C-suite support. 

Addressing isolation does not mean expecting your DEI practitioner to be present at every meeting, but rather giving them the autonomy and opportunity to influence other parts of the business required for true inclusion. 

Some actions employers can take to address isolation, and the emotional labor it can cause, include:

  • Giving DEI practitioners the title to call on others in the organization for support. 
  • Providing regular, open and accessible channels to upper leadership. 
  • Providing DEI practitioners with autonomy needed to connect with other team members. 
  • Giving practitioners the flexibility to engage with others outside of your organization to share resources and best practices. 

Lack of tools 

The type of tools DEI practitioners might need can range from softwares and data, to assistance and external practitioners. With respect to emotional labor, not having the tools to complete your work can leave practitioners feeling stuck and stressed about their ability to do their job well. 

In Russel Reynolds’ report: A Leader’s Guide: Finding and Keeping Your Next Diversity Officer, 234 diversity executives were surveyed. More than half of respondents said they don’t have the resources to execute new programs and strategies. Resources are not limited to financial support, in the same report, only 35% of diversity executives revealed that they had the employee demographic information to support their work. 

To ensure limitations in tools do not result in emotional labor, employers should:

  • Be transparent about the tools available when hiring a DEI practitioner. | Sometimes organizations do not have access to all the resources, and that is okay. Practitioners need to know before they accept a position what the environment might be like. 
  • Create an accessible process for requesting or discussing the procurement of supports. | Whether a support costs money or is free, DEI practitioners need access to requesting support when and if it is needed. It is important that this process is connected to someone with decision making power to ensure the practitioner does not end up stuck. 
  • Set realistic expectations. | DEI work is difficult, oftentimes outcomes are tied up alongside systemic barriers within an organization, or even in the world. Expectations need to be managed, especially if tools are lacking and one DEI practitioner will not solve all of your equity problems. In this same tune, it is critical that DEI practitioners are not pigeonholed into roles without opportunity for change at all. Before you hire, define your why and how for your prospective practitioner to review and adapt. 

Emotional work is not always visible, but it is critical to address within and outside of DEI roles. Failure to address emotional work can result in employee health impacts, resignations and failed targets. DEI is not an initiative that should be taken lightly – it should be planned and appropriately invested in to ensure real change. To learn more about how to do this, speak to one of our associates. 

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