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The Case for Belonging—How Feeling Valued and Included at Work Affects Employee Well-Being

A commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a key employer strategy for the last few years. Recently, “belonging” – or the extent to which employees feel valued and included – has become an important focus as well. In this week’s blog, we take a look at the results of our recent diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) independent research, and unpack why the need to belong at work is so critical to the employee experience right now.

About our research

In September 2022, with the help of Blue Research, WebMD Health Services conducted a survey to better understand employee experiences and perceptions of their employers’ DEI efforts, and whether those programs and policies had made a positive difference in their work life.

In general, employees felt that their employers’ DEI&B efforts fell short. More than 60% said their company is not doing enough, and nearly two-thirds said they would benefit if their company were truly committed to DEI&B policies. And, almost half (46%) have personally experienced situations inconsistent with DEI&B, i.e., feeling like an outsider or that their opinions and perspectives were not always valued.

What is belonging at work?

As a relative newcomer in the inclusion space, we also wanted to explore the concept of “belonging” in our survey and understand how respondents felt their workplaces fostered it (or didn’t). But before we share our results, let’s take a moment and define what belonging is as it pertains to the workplace.

Great Place to Work® defines belonging as “an employee’s sense that their uniqueness is accepted and even treasured by their organization and colleagues.” In other words, it means valuing the different parts of a person’s identity – like being a parent, a member of a certain race, or a person’s sexual orientation.1

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) believes belonging at work means employees:

•  Are not only able to share individual perspectives and ideas, but also are encouraged to do so and are recognized for their contributions.
•  Feel like they can be authentic at work without negative consequences and don’t feel the need to hide any part of themselves to fit in.
•  Develop meaningful relationships with colleagues, creating trust and a sense of caring.2

Why is belonging so important in workplaces right now?

According to Deloitte, the isolation of the pandemic, remote work, domestic and global political instability, the social justice movement, and even climate change have made us feel polarized, less stable, and volatile.3 Trust in government institutions is falling and ties to communities are weakening, too.

Our survey echoed these sentiments. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said they worry about the impact of these macro environment factors on their financial, physical, and emotional well-being. Headlines about the Great Resignation and quiet quitting also remind us how employees are reevaluating their relationship with work these days.

So it’s understandable that people are trying to find a sense of belonging and stability in the organizations they come to work for every day. In fact, Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report ranked ‘Belonging’ as the top human capital issue that organizations face today.4

Employees in our survey were particularly critical of efforts to support belonging. So how did the respondents in our survey feel their organizations were faring when it comes to belonging?

Overall, fifty-seven percent of employees felt their companies fell short in ensuring that they felt included and valued. This is compared with 43% of respondents citing diversity, 53% citing equity, and 48% citing inclusion as needing improvement. LGBTQ employees struggle more than other employee segments with belonging, with 65% reporting that companies need to do a better job of fostering belonging, and two in five reporting that they feel undervalued.

When asked about specific situations in the workplace that led to a lack of belonging…

• One in 5 said they have felt disconnected or unfairly excluded;
• One-third of employees did not always feel valued in the workplace; and
• Nearly 1 in 5 said they have been treated differently based on what they look like or have felt unwanted.

While these sentiments may be due, in part, to the fact that initiatives focused specifically on belonging are slightly less prevalent, these findings do suggest there is an opportunity for employers to focus on efforts to increase feelings of belonging at work.

How a focus on belonging can benefit your organization.

Aside from the obvious personal benefits to employees, organizations who focus on belonging also stand to benefit from:

• Improved employee well-being and job performance. Feeling like you belong at work can impact multiple dimensions of well-being. Mental health clearly suffers when you feel excluded, and so can all-important social connections. And since all aspects of our well-being are interconnected, declines in mental health may lead to physical health concerns down the road. All of which adds up to an employee who may be distracted and less productive at work.

• Increased engagement. It’s not surprising that feeling “seen” also has a direct impact on employee engagement. Recent Workhuman research found that about a third of workers said they are more engaged when they feel seen and 40% said their performance improves. Focusing on belonging also increases psychological safety on teams, a known engagement booster.

• A better bottom line. Research from BetterUp found that high belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.5 BetterUp estimates that for a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Our research and many other studies confirm that employees overwhelmingly want to work for a company that values workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion. Organizations who do place a priority on inclusivity reap the benefits of the unique insights and perspectives of a diverse workforce, tend to have higher engagement, and are also more profitable than those with less diversity.6 It seems the next step in the evolution toward an even more inclusive workplace might be a greater focus on efforts to ensure employees feel valued and seen for their work.

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