“Diversity fatigue” is a phenomenon that has garnered increased attention in recent years, particularly within academic and corporate settings. A research study by Jessi L. Smith and her colleagues defined diversity fatigue as “variation in the extent to which someone experiences a diminished response to or desensitization toward diversity efforts.” Their study offers a more nuanced definition and distinguishes between those who are and who are not on the front lines of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work. However, at its core, DEI fatigue refers to the emotional and psychological exhaustion individuals may experience when engaging in DEI-related activities or initiatives. This fatigue can manifest in a variety of ways, including feelings of burnout, frustration and resentment. It is experienced by both those who may feel there is too much emphasis on DEI and those who feel responsible to drive DEI efforts forward.
Multiple factors can contribute to DEI fatigue. One is the prevalence of microaggressions and other forms of discrimination within many organizations. Microaggressions are defined by Oxford Languages as indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. These experiences can be emotionally draining and may make individuals feel their efforts to promote DEI are unappreciated, unwelcomed and futile. Additionally, these initiatives may place a disproportionate burden on those who identify as underrepresented or tasked with DEI work to educate their colleagues or advocate for their own inclusion constantly.
Another factor that can contribute to DEI fatigue is the constant need or request to engage in difficult conversations about race, gender, disability and other forms of diversity. According to a review on racial microaggressions research, these conversations can be emotionally taxing and may leave individuals feeling drained and overwhelmed. Furthermore, there may be a lack of institutional support for DEI efforts, which can further add to the sense of frustration and burnout individuals may experience, as noted in a Forbes article by Shelley Willingham.
Broader societal factors can also contribute to DEI fatigue. For example, the ongoing prevalence of discrimination and prejudice within society can make it feel like DEI efforts aren’t working, as these issues are deeply entrenched and may seem insurmountable. Additionally, the pervasive nature of negative news, disinformation, and social media content related to DEI can lead to feelings of despair, overwhelm, and depression.
For those who view DEI initiatives as “too much, too soon,” and are experiencing feelings of resentment toward the recent increase in discussion and efforts, the study by Smith and her colleagues attributes this resistance to a state experience known as system-justifying beliefs. System-justifying beliefs posit that the world is fair and good things happen to good people, so blame is placed on the people rather than the system. They perceive discussion and/or ridicule of the system as ridicule of them; therefore, it becomes harder to understand or fully agree to the need for systemic change.
Despite these challenges, it is important to recognize that DEI fatigue is a real and valid concern that should be addressed, and organizations should take steps to move forward. One way is to provide support and resources for individuals without judgment. This might include providing access to training, mentorship and other forms of professional development, as well as creating a culture that values true inclusion.
Another important step is to ensure DEI initiatives are inclusive and equitable. This means actively seeking input and participation from underrepresented individuals and ensuring their voices are heard and respected. It also means being mindful of the burden DEI efforts may place on certain individuals and making sure support is provided to ensure that these efforts are sustainable.
Finally, it is important to recognize that DEI efforts are not one-time events or a quick fix. Instead, they require ongoing commitment, dedication, resources, and measurement/evaluation of efforts. This means being prepared for setbacks and challenges and being willing to continue the work of promoting DEI even when it is difficult. Leaders must be willing to listen to those who are experiencing DEI fatigue and who may be in a state of resentment. This also provides an opportunity to test the organization’s commitment to its DEI goals.
In conclusion, DEI fatigue is a real and valid concern that can have serious consequences for individuals and organizations. Dr. Carolyn Thomas, Provost, California State University, Fullerton, said on her recent appearance on the Race in the PR Classroom series hosted by the Institute for Public Relations and PRSA Educators Academy that, “[Diversity] includes bursts of passion that we make space for,” which means that fatigue will happen, and DEI work is not a short-term commitment. By providing support and resources, ensuring that DEI initiatives are inclusive and equitable, and committing to ongoing efforts, organizations and individuals can work to mitigate the effects of DEI fatigue and promote a more diverse and inclusive society for all.
Anetra Henry is senior director for strategic initiatives at the Institute for Public Relations.