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Overcoming Barriers to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Healthcare

The need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in healthcare is not new. But DEI is still a new focus for many healthcare organizations. As you move forward with DEI efforts, thinking about the potential challenges to success is important. Let’s explore ways to overcome barriers to DEI in your organization.

In a 2021 Relias survey of 1,310 healthcare and public safety professionals, only 62% of respondents said that their organization participates in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Yet your organization must dedicate resources to intentional DEI efforts to succeed in a landscape where both staff and patients have choices. If you don’t support DEI actively, your organization faces the risk of being left behind as others recruit and retain the best talent from larger, more diverse applicant pools. With the versatility that diversity brings, your competitors can achieve better gains in patient satisfaction and health outcomes.

But what happens when leaders and staff are ready to move forward but encounter barriers?

Simply deciding to become an equitable and inclusive organization does not guarantee change. Next comes the real work of fulfilling that promise to create a better workplace, better care settings, and even a better world.

In a recent webinar, Rola Aamar, PhD, Behavioral Health Solutions Principal at Relias, and Celeste Duke, SPHR, Content Manager at BLR, discussed diversity and inclusion topics geared toward improving both health outcomes and staff retention.

After the webinar, Aamar and Duke took a few moments to answer additional questions on the following topics relating to DEI challenges in organizations.

Getting Buy-In and Responding to Resistance

One of the first obstacles you and your healthcare team may encounter is how to address DEI issues when you feel your organization isn’t doing enough.

To get buy-in, Aamar and Duke advocated tailoring your tactics to the audience:

  • To start a conversation with organization leaders, provide numbers that matter. Turnover costs and statistics relating to how DEI efforts can affect revenue could be persuasive.
  • For supervisors, DEI initiatives that reduce time, effort, stress, hits to morale — and ultimately turnover — could be meaningful.
  • For staff, appealing to their passion for caring for patients and showing how DEI efforts can improve care outcomes and create a more harmonious and effective work environment could prove effective.

Educate to Persuade

In cases where you encounter outright resistance to DEI, Aamar and Duke suggested education as the most persuasive route.

Whether through training, webinars, or research materials, look for ways to educate your leaders about the dangers of ignoring the need for equitable practices such as harassment policies, prevention programs, and response processes. Sharing articles about legal verdicts or settlements could help leaders understand the risks of not doing more to improve DEI in your organization.

Recruit Widely

In places where external limitations or obstacles exist, such as small, rural areas where it is difficult to recruit a diverse staff, or resources are limited, reframing might be needed. For example, in addition to education, you might also need to expand recruiting efforts outside of your community.

Develop Leaders

Regardless of the demographic makeup of your organization, it is critical to create a safe and welcoming environment where all employees can express themselves fully and feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work.

Aamar pointed out, “Even if your demographics are relatively homogenous, you might be surprised at how diverse your workforce actually is in ways like differing thought processes and perspectives and even lived experiences.”

Aamar and Duke acknowledged that achieving diversity in leadership is difficult but not impossible. Focusing on equitable training and promotion opportunities today will help develop potential leaders of the future. Bolster these efforts with research that makes your case.

Addressing Negative Practices That Undermine DEI

Even though high-quality, robust DEI training is now part of the education programs of many healthcare organizations, some employees may still exhibit problematic behaviors. New employees, traveling staff, or medical residents might not yet know about, or take part in, the inclusive culture you are trying to create.

Update Your Policies

Aamar and Duke emphasized that harmful behaviors or comments should be handled as disciplinary issues. If your organization’s policies don’t prohibit these behaviors or require respectful communication and conduct, you should revise them.

One policy to make explicit is prohibiting nepotism or favoritism in hiring. Your organization’s hiring practices are the first step toward improving your organization’s diversity. Make sure to to carefully plan out and document these processes for fairness and inclusion.

Watch for Unconscious Bias and Tokenism

Showing a preference for those similar to you is an unconscious bias that most people hold. Without policies that serve to eliminate this type of bias, organizations are less likely to diversify.

Organizations that have not yet developed a diverse workforce may struggle with tokenism, where a small number of people with diverse characteristics exist within a population that is mostly homogenous. When people feel tokenized, it could mean they don’t feel empowered or even comfortable in the workplace, leading to turnover.

Uplift Employees

Make sure individuals from diverse groups have a voice and decision-making power. Leadership should communicate that diversity is an organizational value so that you retain your diverse employees and attract more.

If you have solid policies and commitment, but you struggle to retain diverse staff, look at your pay and benefits. Also look at your culture as it relates to wellness and work-life balance. If you are not competitive in these areas, you may continue to struggle. Exit interviews could help you target specific areas for improvement.

Establishing Accountability for Your DEI Efforts

Accountability measures ensure that your organization truly embodies its espoused values. In addition to reinforcing policies, you can also reward positive actions and outcomes. Examples include awards for inclusion initiatives and recognitions highlighting DEI achievements throughout the organization.

Beyond incentives, Aamar and Duke discussed the importance of setting strategy, goals, and expectations at the leadership level. You might need to bring in an outside consultant to assist your organization in doing this. A consultant can measure your status and progress objectively, uncover problem areas, and help find solutions. They can even provide an avenue for employees to provide candid and helpful feedback anonymously.

Goals should be specific and measurable — and you should be transparent about data related to hiring, pay, and organizational demographics. Be sure to report back to employees so that they can see the progress and support more forward movement.


Inclusion + Diversity: Key Components to Improving Health Outcomes and Staff Retention

A workplace culture that embraces diversity and fosters inclusion benefits employers, increases employee productivity, and is good for the bottom line. In healthcare, this bottom line includes the crucial outcome of patient health and retention of passionate, competent staff.

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