How to Rebound from 2020 with Equity

What a year 2020 was! The COVID-19 pandemic underscored inequities within our healthcare systems, the murders of unarmed Black men and women further illuminated anti-Black violence, and the political divide widened in the U.S. as health recommendations became politicized and evidence of voter suppression and gerrymandering surfaced. Many organizations and workers have strived to maintain “normalcy” through remote work and updated protocols to protect onsite workers from COVID-19, but the weight of these issues still looms over each workday and each worker. As we begin a new year, many are ready to turn the page and start afresh, although much of what began in 2020 remains—and will continue to be with us into much of 2021.  

As of this writing, COVID-19 has taken the lives of an estimated 1.9 million people worldwide. Here in the U.S., more than 300,000 people have succumbed to the disease, and social and political unrest are still at the forefront. Business must go on—but it is certainly not business as usual. Just as 9/11 forever changed air travel, COVID-19 will reshape the way we do business in unprecedented ways. 

Stakeholders expect organizations to be socially conscious and to take positions on issues that not only affect workers but potentially their brand sustainability into the future. At the onset of the pandemic, Mark Cuban said, “How companies treat workers during the pandemic could define their brands for decades,” and I’d venture to say that how companies treat their workers in light of the issues highlighted above will impact their brands for the foreseeable future. It is through this lens that we note the importance of equity in the workplace. 

Equity defined

Equity begins with the realization that the playing field is not equally accessible to everyone. In other words, exposure to education, jobs, promotion, advancement, and other opportunities is influenced by socioeconomic factors and further compounded by other differences, including race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, ability, and religion, among others. This realization is the precursor to action. 

The picture below is a visual depiction of equity. It shows that, in many cases, there are systemic barriers that need to be removed in order for equity to be a reality. Equity is realized when those barriers are removed. 

Addressing barriers to equity

A primary role of organizational leadership is to identify and remedy systemic barriers to equity. Barriers to equity often include a lack of diversity within the workplace which leads to a reduced sense of inclusion and belonging. 

These factors are psychosocial hazards, elements of the workplace that can result in harm to the psychological well-being of workers. There are numerous sources of psychosocial hazards, including how work is organized or assigned, workplace social factors, and equipment and tasks that have the potential to cause injury or illness. Additionally, psychosocial hazards can synergistically interact with physical hazards, further increasing the risk of injury or illness, and can be exacerbated by current events that disproportionately affect subsets of the worker population. 

The presence of physical and psychosocial hazards within the workplace leads us to a secondary role of organizational leadership, namely to reduce business risk, including those resulting from workplace hazards. One of our goals at PGS Consults is to help organizational leadership with this role.

Reducing risk

There are numerous ways to approach risk reduction. At PGS Consults, we use management systems standards as a framework (ISO 45001 Standard, Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems, and its US equivalent ANSI Z10) for a holistic, systematic approach that identifies, assesses, prioritizes, and mitigates risks. These standards and many others are based on the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) cycle where each phase of the cycle provides input for the next with the goal of continuously improving through ongoing reduction of business risks.  The risk assessment process is an integral component of the plan phase and when psychosocial hazards and other material risks are identified and controlled, equity becomes a natural output of the organization’s management system.  

PGS Consults has long included equity in the work we do. Our consultants have developed a monthly Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) lecture series for members of a professional association; analyzed cleaner transportation with an equity lens; and designed a risk assessment process for a well-known winery that provides the methodology to identify physical and psychosocial hazards. These projects are foundational for PGS Consults’ newest service offering “Rebound with Equity,” a program that guides organizations in recovering from COVID-19 and business disruption with a focus on social equity and sustainability. We partner with business leaders to identify material risks to organizational success and further provide strategies for risk mitigation and control.

When rebounding the business with equity, it’s important for each organizational leader to (1) understand and articulate how employees’ diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging can help the organization meet its business goals; (2) understand that employees’ health and safety can be enhanced by diversity, equity, and inclusion; and (3) be able to create safe places where employees, customers, and suppliers feel that they belong, fostering a psychologically safe workplace. With understanding and commitment from the top, organizations are sure to reduce risks and rebound with embedded equity.

Kahlilah Guyah is a PGS Consults Senior Consultant, PGS guest lecturer and the Principal Consultant at EHS Compliance Services Inc. To enlist the help of Kahlilah and other talented experts to help your own organization rebound with equity, tell us how we can assist you with your project or reach out to us at [email protected] to request a free consultation.