On choosing the title for this latest blog, I erred away from writing what I actually wanted to, as it was potentially a little too inflammatory. However, what I actually wanted to write was that diversity without inclusion is worse than meaningless, it is at best negligent and at worst harmful to health. Bear with me for a minute. There was a time as an HR Business Partner and even as an employment lawyer when I was oblivious to how our psychology influenced our physical health. Sure, stress was ‘bad’ and might result in high blood pressure and a heart attack, but that was about it and, truth be told, I didn’t fully appreciate the interrelationship between the two.
What they fail to teach you as a lawyer or as an HR professional (although the tide is slowly starting to shift), is that our thoughts can fundamentally alter our physiology for better or for worse. There has been an increasing amount of research over the past 20 years to help scientists understand the link between social isolation (whether actual or perceived) and chronic illnesses. Recent studies by Holt-Lunstad (2010, 2015) and other scientists have likened the health impact of social isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Sarah Pressman at the University of California Irvine found that the risk of premature death due to poor social relationships was as high as 70%. To put that into context, the risk of premature death for a smoker is estimated at 50% and for obesity 20%. In addition, a famous longitudinal study from Harvard, which has tracked over 700 men since they were teenagers dating back to 1938, found that one of the key predictors of long-term health and longevity was the quality of the social relationships the participants had.
According to the field of Human Social Genomics the health impact of feeling socially isolated makes sense. Scientists have identified that feelings of social isolation have evolved to trigger our fight or flight response and with it the up-regulation of inflammatory gene expression and down-regulation of our antiviral response. A shift that essentially dials down the part of the immune function responsible for tackling pathogens likely to be more prevalent in a tribe environment, while simultaneously ramping up inflammation which is better suited to tackling wounds inflicted by a potential predator. While it may seem far-fetched, the science strongly indicates that our biology has evolved to adapt to the perceived safety of the environment we find ourselves in.
The health implications of a psychologically unsafe environment (whether at work or elsewhere) are fairly stark. Short-term (acute) inflammation, such as that produced by a short-term stressor e.g. a work deadline, may have beneficial protective effects. However, long-term (chronic) inflammation, such as that produced by working in a non-inclusive work environment where people feel excluded or isolated, has been shown to have a deleterious effect on both mental and physical health. In addition to longer-term health implications, scientists have found that being in a state of fight or flight can effectively lower IQ by as much as 20 points.
When you join up the dots between social isolation research and its impact on health, coupled with a non-inclusive work environment, you may well end up coming to a similar conclusion. Namely, that diversity without inclusion is meaningless and, worse still, harmful to employee mental and physical health. A psychologically ‘unsafe’ work environment has been shown to lead to worse business outcomes, actively harming an organisation’s bottom line through increased employee turnover, poor engagement, worse collaboration, lower productivity and less thought diversity. A three year project by Google, codenamed project Aristotle, identified psychological safety as the key driver for high performing teams, ahead of 100 other factors including IQ, technical ability and emotional intelligence.
By all means invest in diversity. Diversity of thought from different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions etc as well as neurodiversity, is consistently shown to lead to better long-term business outcomes. But diversity by itself is meaningless without practising true inclusion. If people do not feel safe in an organisation, they will be far more pre-occupied with self-preservation than contributing to an organisation’s future direction.
Fostering an inclusive work environment requires psychological safety, but the topic of psychological safety in itself would require another blog or even an entire book all to itself. If you are interested in learning more about how organisations can create a psychologically safe environment for employees to enable them to unleash their true potential (or understand how you may inadvertantly be undermining yours), feel free to drop us a note by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on 0207 993 4402.