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November 18, 2020

Diversity, equity and inclusion in your wellness program: Keep it real

Frank Jakka

Corporate wellness programs can sometimes be perceived by employees as exclusive to specific groups, leading to feelings of alienation and discomfort for those who are left out.

Imagine assumptions are made about who you are, where you came from, and how you live, based solely on your appearance.

Imagine someone looking at you and only seeing your limitations, not your capabilities. 

Imagine feeling like you couldn’t be completely honest about your life, who you are, or who you loved.

“Uncomfortable” is the word many would use to describe how they feel in their communities today, in large part due to increased visibility regarding the unfair, unjust, and unequal treatment toward minority groups. While these inequities are certainly not new, the level of awareness is, prompting organizations to evaluate and consider everything from their hiring practices to their company logos. Accordingly, now is a great time to align your company wellness program to ensure it is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. What do these terms mean?

Diversity is defined as the differing characteristics or traits amongst people, such as race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion, and more. Alongside diversity is intersectionality, a term used when an individual has more than one unique social categorization to which they identify. Those identifications form the basis of how they experience the world and how the world experiences them.

Closely related is the concept of equity, or the belief in providing access, opportunity, fair treatment, and advancement for all people, while identifying and eliminating barriers for participation.

Finally, the practice of inclusion involves creating a welcome environment that is supportive and respectful, where individuals are (and feel) valued.

Unconscious bias is undeniable. To overcome this bias and strive towards developing a wellness program that is rooted in diversity, equity, and inclusion, keep it real: relatable, respectful and responsible.

Your program should be relatable to your employee population so that they feel welcome and want to participate.

One way you can take a step toward relatability is to make sure the images you use are diverse. It’s common to see wellness program flyers with the physically fit Caucasian woman running on the beach, or the thirty-something Caucasian guy meditating in the woods. Chances are, very few of your employees look like the people featured in these pictures. Do you see your employees in your photos? Will they relate?

Similarly, not all of your employees are training for the Olympics, so avoid focusing your program solely on fitness or offering challenges with unrealistic goals that won’t appeal to many of your employees. Instead:

  • Consider the uniqueness of your audience when choosing images.
  • Reasonable alternative standards should be considered and available for all individuals, even if your program isn’t outcome-based.
  • Be skeptical of niche programs that target specific populations or groups. Make sure there is a reason and purpose for offering said program and ensure you are addressing other unique populations accordingly.

Wellness is important for all of your employees, and your program should recognize and be respectful of all cultures, minority groups, sexual orientations, age groups, and abilities.

Disrespect can be subtle or overt. Think about all of your employees: the individual who is differently-abled, the co-worker nearing retirement, the LGBTQ+ colleague, or your counterpart who is Jewish. Consider the initiatives you offer and the language you use when developing your program. Does it appeal widely to your workforce? Have you offended anyone? Can employees for whom English is not their first language understand? Be proactive:

  • Wellness may mean different things in different cultures, for example, the food, the kind of movement, and how emotional well-being is practiced. Collaborate with under-represented colleague groups and ask for feedback.
  • Consider translating your content to secondary languages.
  • Ask your carriers and vendors about literacy levels, language availability, and sample marketing materials to make sure their content is accessible and appealing to all.

Be responsible with your wellness program—how it’s perceived, how it’s delivered, and how it impacts your organization’s culture.

Using traditional wellness images is potentially irresponsible in that it can perpetuate stereotypes and set unrealistic beauty and body standards. Be careful of American slang, which can get lost in translation for those whom English is an additional language or for those from differing generations. Be mindful that not all of your employees have the same education background – so keep it simple. And yes, pronouns matter. Consider:

  • Your wellness committee should be a cross-section of your workforce. This should include job function as well as varied representation by age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, and more.
  • Leverage affinity groups to engage and cross-promote events.
  • Evaluate programs and ask specific questions around exclusion to identify opportunities for more inclusivity.

People thrive when they are able to be their true, authentic selves. Help your employees feel seen, heard, and valued by developing a wellness program that recognizes and celebrates diversity. Employee well-being can be achieved if you keep it real!

To learn more, contact your Marsh & McLennan Agency representative.