Is a “covering culture” undermining your organization’s well-being efforts?

Five signs that pressures to “cover” might be hindering the effectiveness of organizational well-being initiatives—and what leaders can do to course correct, according to Deloitte US research

Jen Fisher

United States

Sameen Affaf

United States

Amy Fields

United States

Corrie Commisso

United States

Heather McBride Leef

United States

Amy Smith

United States

In an era in which the lines between work and life have substantially blurred, work can naturally have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being.1 So it makes sense that leaders and organizations are increasingly investing in well-being benefits and programs. But so far, organizational well-being efforts have apparently failed to meet employee needs.2 A recent Deloitte US survey revealed that most C-suite respondents (88%) report their company will be more focused on well-being benefits over the next two years.3 Yet, despite organizations’ existing and growing investments in these initiatives, most employee respondents say their well-being either worsened or stayed the same in 2023.4

Deloitte’s Well-being at Work survey indicates that organizations’ well-being initiatives could be more effective if they address the underlying organizational culture issues that may be undermining well-being—looking beyond mental health and wellness, work/life integration, and other factors commonly considered today, to also embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts as part of a well-being imperative. By acknowledging the ways in which identity and well-being intersect, a DEI-informed well-being strategy can activate efforts in ways that adequately address the disparate needs of workers to advance equitable outcomes, and support workforce well-being as a whole.

According to the Uncovering culture report from Deloitte’s DEI Institute in collaboration with the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU School of Law, there’s likely a connection between worker well-being and how strongly workers feel the need to “cover,” or downplay certain identities (such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, to name a few) to blend into the mainstream.5 Only 50% of workers report their team leaders create the psychological safety necessary for them to uncover. If some workers don’t feel they have the requisite environment to be their true selves in the workplace, ensuring the success of organizations’ well-being initiatives likely has more to do with creating an inclusive culture where demands to cover are disrupted. Given leaders’ intentions to invest more in well-being benefits, identifying and addressing an underlying covering culture may give those investments a better chance of adding real value.

Five indications a covering culture could be affecting worker well-being

While organizations are struggling to make progress on workplace well-being, they’ve also struggled to make progress on creating inclusive cultures where workers feel less need to cover. In our first survey on covering fielded in 2013, we found that 61% of respondents reported covering at work in the previous 12 months. The same holds true a decade later, with 60% of US workers surveyed reporting that they’ve felt the need to cover in the workplace, according to the Uncovering culture report.6 What’s more, 74% of workers report negative impacts due to pressures to cover at work, and 60% report negative impacts to their well-being in particular.7 While not all demands to cover are unwarranted, demands to downplay certain aspects of a person’s identity to fit in can have substantial influence on their well-being, and in turn, the well-being of the organization.

Covering is not limited to individuals from any particular identity group. Most people cover, but our research indicates that people from nondominant identity groups report covering at higher rates. Workers cover in response to an organizational culture in which they believe they will be penalized for otherwise displaying greater authenticity. Our research reveals five indicators that a covering culture could be hindering an organization’s overall well-being efforts.

1. Workers from marginalized identity groups are reporting high levels of emotional fatigue or burnout

Worker stress is on the rise, with many reporting that they frequently feel negative emotions and fatigue. For example, around half “always” or “often” feel exhausted (52%) or stressed (49%).8 And workers who feel the need to cover may be experiencing even higher levels of exhaustion. Our survey found that 60% of respondents who reported the need to cover at their organization say the experience left them feeling emotionally drained. Among workers in nondominant identity groups, that emotional impact is even higher.

Workers with high levels of emotional exhaustion are at risk of many physical and mental effects, including headaches, depression, insomnia, and heart conditions9 And these individual effects can have wide-reaching organizational impacts, as they can contribute to higher rates of absenteeism, drops in productivity, less innovation, and a higher likelihood of workers making errors.10 But when workers feel comfortable showing up to work as their authentic selves, the emotional fatigue that accompanies the perceived need to cover is reduced, and overall workplace well-being can increase.

2. Organizations are experiencing high turnover rates, particularly among marginalized populations

Organizations’ commitment to workplace well-being is becoming a higher priority for workers: Sixty percent of workers who participated in a recent Deloitte Well-being Market Survey say they are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.11 Similarly, 56% of respondents to our covering survey say that the need to cover has had a negative impact on their commitment to their organization.

3. Overall job performance and productivity are being impacted

When workers feel the need to cover in the workplace, they end up expending significant amounts of effort and energy on activities related to covering that they can no longer invest in work-related tasks, leading to decreased productivity, less engagement, and reduced commitment to their organization.12 Fifty-four percent of respondents report that covering demands have negatively impacted their ability to do their jobs.

4. Fewer individuals from marginalized identity groups are being promoted or moved into leadership positions

A lack of diversity in organizational leadership could make workers feel the need to cover to gain access to professional opportunities. When mostly majority identity groups are represented in leadership,13 it can send a signal that career growth is tied to, or even dependent on, assimilating into a particular culture, thus pressuring workers to conform if they want to grow their careers.14 Fifty-seven percent of respondents to our survey say that pressures to cover negatively impact their perception of the opportunities available to them.

Opportunities for growth and development can have a significant impact on worker well-being. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, workers who lacked these opportunities were more likely to feel stressed out about their work than those who had access to them (66% vs. 42%). But workers who indicated they were somewhat or very satisfied with their opportunities for growth and development were more likely to report good or excellent mental health than those who were unsatisfied (79% vs. 52%).15

5. C-suite and executive leaders appear to be struggling to model authenticity

As leaders move up the corporate ladder, the perceived demand to conform also increases. As a result, our report found that C-suite or other executives and senior manager respondents had the highest rates of covering across organizational roles, at 67%.

Leaders who struggle to model authenticity in the workplace might be inadvertently encouraging the same behavior in workers: Fifty-four percent of workers in our survey report their need to cover increases when interacting with C-suite or other executives. Workers look to leadership to model both inclusion and well-being. For example, in one Deloitte study, 84% of C-suite respondents agreed that employees are more likely to be healthy if their executives are healthy.16 If organizations can help their leaders address the challenges they may be facing between their opportunity to disrupt covering culture and their motive to maintain it for their own advancement, there could be positive trickle-down effects on worker well-being.

Disrupting a covering culture to improve worker well-being

Rather than seeking to address these five indicators themselves, it’s more effective to focus on correcting the underlying culture that makes workers feel the need to cover. If you believe a covering culture may be affecting worker well-being in your organization, consider these ways to help disrupt it.

  • Create a common language for covering, based on your organizational values.

It’s critical that everyone understands when covering demands might need to be disrupted—or not—based on their organizational values. Not all covering demands are negative. For example, treating colleagues with empathy and respect may be a high value for an organization, even if it requires people to downplay certain aspects of their identities to do so. On the other hand, pressures to cover due to societal inequities and a lack of inclusion can cause covering behaviors to become so ingrained in how a person operates in the workplace that they’re not even conscious of them. The first step in fostering greater authenticity and belonging is having a shared understanding of what covering is and when covering is acceptable and when it is damaging.

  • Audit your benefits, programs, and policies.

Benefits, programs, and policies are intended to support workers, but they might also unintentionally reinforce covering. Leaders need to take a look at their benefits, programs, and policies through the lens of equity and ensure they’re inclusive. For example, are caregiving policies gender neutral? Are accessibility considerations built into in-person or virtual program offerings for those with disabilities? Do your company events cater to a wide range of cultural and religious dietary requirements?

  • Empower allies to counter covering culture when they witness it.

Leaders play a critical role in creating inclusive cultures, but everyone can be an ally. Allyship typically requires leveraging one’s advantages in support of others who don’t have those same advantages, and anyone can and should engage in it. It can be a particularly powerful intervention when responding to covering demands, because research suggests that allies are often taken more seriously—and penalized less—when they challenge noninclusive behavior than those affected by covering.17

  • Enable leaders to model authenticity.

Survey respondents say having leaders who uncover is a top intervention in helping others feel less need to cover in the workplace. But it’s clear that leaders could also be under pressure to cover, even if they value an inclusive work environment. By acknowledging these pressures and yet acting with intentionality to integrate authentic behaviors into their everyday interactions, leaders can better align themselves with these values to foster psychological safety and encourage their team members to follow suit. The impact of leaders bringing their authentic selves to work is potentially transformative, not just for the culture, but also for up-and-coming leaders looking to forge a new, more human-centric path to leadership. Leaders can further maximize their impact by demonstrating appreciation, empathy, and curiosity when team members take the risk of uncovering, receiving them without judgment to signal that their authenticity is encouraged and valued.

  • Connect the dots across organizational efforts to enhance intentionality and drive impact.

Organizational structures often create various teams and leaders focused on DEI, well-being, employee engagement, and other functions that seek to create impact for employees inside and outside of work—without necessarily acknowledging the ways that these efforts intersect or inform one another. Integrating these efforts by cultivating ongoing relationships between leaders who share subject matter expertise and data can lead to greater coherence in organizational strategy, ultimately making work more inclusive and sustainable. Appointing a well-being leader who understands the ways well-being is impacted by equity and belonging—or lack thereof—can help connect the dots to better position organizations to maximize return on their investment, and meaningfully improve outcomes across the workforce.

Well-being benefits and programs are often organizational staples, but the returns on those investments could fall short if they’re built on too narrow a definition of worker well-being. Our research shows that inclusion is key to workers’ mental and emotional health—as well as their productivity, success, and career advancement. There is a greater likelihood that when individuals are valued for their lived experiences and organizational pressures to conform and cover are replaced by behaviors, protocols, and programs that support greater authenticity, workers’ well-being—and organizations as a whole—can thrive.

BY

Jen Fisher

United States

Sameen Affaf

United States

Amy Fields

United States

Corrie Commisso

United States

Endnotes

  1. Jamie Ducharme, “Work is the new doctor’s office,” Time, January 3, 2024.

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  2. Jen Fisher, Paul H. Silverglate, Colleen Bordeaux, and Michael Gilmartin, “As workforce well-being dips, leaders ask: What will it take to move the needle?,” Deloitte Insights, June 30, 2023.

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  3. Ibid.

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  4. Ibid.

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  5. Deloitte, Uncovering culture: A call to action for leaders, accessed May 2024.

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  6. Ibid.

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  7. Ibid.

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  8. Fisher, Silverglate, Bordeaux, and Gilmartin, “As workforce well-being dips, leaders ask.”

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  9. American Psychological Association, “Employers need to focus on workplace burnout: Here's why,” May 12, 2023.

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  10. Ibid.

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  11. Fisher, Silverglate, Bordeaux, and Gilmartin, “As workforce well-being dips, leaders ask.”

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  12. Antoinette Bailey Nottingham, “Covered potential: The perceived impact of workplace covering on high performers,” thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 2020.

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  13. Qualtrics, “The diversity of the top 50 Fortune 500 CEOs over time,” August 4, 2023.

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  14. Deloitte, Uncovering culture.

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  15. American Psychological Association, “2023 Work in America Survey,” accessed May 2024.

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  16. Jen Fisher, Dr. Jay Bhatt, and Amy Fields, “Six leader/worker disconnects affecting workplace well-being,” Deloitte Insights, November 14, 2023.

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  17. Deloitte, Uncovering culture.

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Acknowledgments

Cover image by: Manya Kuzemchenko