How to foster a healthy and inclusive workplace

a diverse group of people sitting around a table chatting

Any conversation about inclusion needs to start with understanding what it is. Inclusion is about accepting and respecting each other — as we are. It means feeling like you belong, your ideas matter, and you can make a difference.

Creating an inclusive workplace is essential to bringing out the best in everyone and creating a unified team. It’s a process that engages all employees in a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment — across all business units and locations.

And it’s not an easy process — it takes a commitment of time and energy, along with finding the answers to some important questions:

Who are we?

Knowing who you are as a company is the first step toward an inclusive culture, says Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD, Med, MPPM, FACOG, the first-ever SVP & Chief Clinical Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at Highmark and Health Allegheny Health Network (AHN).

Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew is eager to share her personal experience with inclusion. She tells a story about learning who she is and having to embrace her own family history and diversity as the great-granddaughter of an African woman and a prominent Civil War Confederate leader.

“The double consciousness that I’ve had to live reminds me that I need to understand everybody’s story,” she explains. “I need to understand their journey and who they are. Their beliefs, practices, and traditions may enhance or present obstacles to their growth as well as the company’s.”

Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew’s journey encompasses a rich career in academia, military service, nursing, medical practice, and global health. That was before joining Highmark and AHN. “With passion and purpose, I find myself here now trying to make a difference in the lives of all people,” she says. “That includes our employees, our members, and our communities.” 

Leaders are able to set a foundation for inclusivity when their organization understands and shares its authentic story. Telling that story starts with asking “Who are we?” and seeking answers about what the company does, who it serves, what it cares about, where it’s been, and where it’s headed next.

Who is here?

As part of her leadership position at Highmark and AHN, Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew also serves within the Enterprise Equitable Health Institute (EEHI) at Highmark Health.

EEHI promotes a diverse and inclusive workplace for the organization’s combined 42,000+ employees — from recruitment to professional growth and beyond. This involves taking an honest assessment of what real-world challenges and opportunities exist. 

“For example, 70% of our employees are women,” says Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew. “Knowing who is here helps us further well-being and inclusion across the enterprise, whether that means offering certain types of benefits, work-life balance, job sharing, or the flexibility to put family first.”

Engaging and supporting employees is essential to better retention. Key data points from career coaching company BetterUp show that:

  • Women report improved well-being by 17% when they have supportive leaders. That number increases to 28% for employees who are parents.
  • Belonging is the second most important indicator of an employee’s “intent to stay” with a company, behind a sense of organizational commitment.
  • Employees at organizations with inclusive leadership are more than three times more engaged and satisfied with their jobs.

Who is coming to join us?

In addition to who is on your team now, it’s equally important to know who you are inviting in and how you can best support them.

“Inclusion means investing in the individuals who come into your space,” states Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew. “Invest in those who are different, who bring different experiences, and who can give you more insight and innovation. Give everyone an opportunity to grow while they also experience wellness, safety, balance, and joy in their work and life.”

Knowing the benefits needs of your candidate community is part of creating an inclusive culture. Consider that we now have five generations in the American workforce. What experienced, expert-level hires need is different from early-career Gen Z recruits.

But all employees want a health benefits plan that serves who they are as individuals, at their particular life stage, with their unique physical and mental wellness needs taken into consideration.

How can we uplift one another?

Dignity, respect, compassion, humility, and empathy are the watchwords for inclusion at Highmark and AHN. There is a sense of accountability in caring about one another.

When employees have support, they can achieve greater personal and professional success. They know they can get help if they have a problem. They have the confidence to share their ideas. They feel safe to be who they are as a whole person with a life outside of work.

“Inclusion makes us all better,” Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew concludes. “We accept people for who they are, and they accept us for who we are. We move forward together. Inclusion is a key element of the growth experience.”

All references to “Highmark” in this communication are references to Highmark Inc., an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and/or to one or more of its affiliated Blue companies.

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