31.08.2023 | 10 min read

Belonging: The often overlooked tool for building wellbeing

An examination of evidence-informed research to drive not only Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, but also, critically, Belonging.
Sarah Cunningham

Have you ever found yourself in a room or situation where you felt as if you didn’t fit in, or that you couldn’t truly be yourself? Worse still, have you ever tried to change who you are, just to conform with those around you?

If the answer to either of those questions is yes, then you’ll know what it’s like not to feel a sense of Belonging. Now imagine that every day when you go to work, you feel this way, yet you cannot quite put your finger on why. You are not overtly excluded from anything work related, you are always invited to the company’s sports and social events, and you seem to have been promoted fairly in the past few years. Even so, you feel this persistent lack of a sense of Belonging in your workplace, and, if you’re honest, it’s detrimentally impacting your wellbeing at work.

As multifaceted beings, many factors influence our wellbeing at work: from our working environment to our manager, from our levels of autonomy and flexibility to whether we are recognised and appreciated for the work we do, from the relationships we have with our co-workers to our workload, the list goes on. But many people underestimate the impact that a sense of Belonging, or lack thereof, can have on our wellbeing. In fact, recent research indicates that Belonging is not only an often-overlooked driver of our wellbeing at work, but, when compared with many other factors, has a disproportionately large impact on how we feel1.

Which begs the question: what measures can business leaders take to create a climate of Belonging within their teams and wider organisations?

The first step, of course, is to create a culture that promotes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I). After all, DE&I are essential pre-requisites to Belonging.  While Diversity describes the demographic composition of a group, Inclusion is the degree to which all diverse groups are involved in organisational processes and decisions2 3.

Building a foundation of sustainable Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I)

In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of publications highlighting various interventions that business leaders can take to drive Diversity and Equity, and to build an inclusive culture. But with so much information out there, the literature can often feel overwhelming and difficult to navigate. It can also prove challenging to disentangle the trendy initiatives from the tried, tested, and proven science-based initiatives. Many well-intentioned business leaders would be justified in wondering where to start.

I recommend starting with interventions designed to drive DE&I in both the hiring and promotions processes. This is crucial because, as most good business leaders know, no matter how positive our intentions, we all suffer from unconscious biases. Implicit stereotype associations such as the representativeness heuristic (i.e., associating specific traits and jobs with stereotypes) or affinity bias (i.e., being drawn to people similar to ourselves)4 5 6 7 can cause managers to inadvertently make discriminatory hiring and promotion decisions.

Whilst studying for my recent Master’s degree in Psychological & Behavioural Science at LSE, I reviewed the literature covering the most impactful behavioural interventions that can be employed during the hiring and promotions processes to reduce such systematic biases. These include:

  • The removal of gendered wording (words associated with gender stereotypes) from job adverts8 9 10;
  • The anonymisation of résumés and blinding of potentially biasing information about candidates to overcome the representativeness heuristic11 12 45 46;
  • The eradication of panel interviews to avoid group think13;
  • The introduction of cognitive ability and work sample tests in later stages of the hiring process14 15;
  • Replacing unstructured interviews with structured interviews16 17 47;
  • Limiting the number of interviews a manager conducts or ensuring frequent breaks to avoid decision fatigue18 19;
  • The use of an interview scorecard that follows clearly-defined metrics or traits20;
  • The appointment of mentors to guide employees in their promotion process, and sponsors to advocate for employees when they are not in the room21 22;
  • The evaluation nudge for promotion decisions, whereby candidates are evaluated jointly rather than individually with a view to driving more reasoned choices23.

Although there is no magic formula, and all interventions have their limitations, many companies start to move the needle on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion when they combine multiple interventions to achieve greater impact.

Strengthening Belonging in your workplace

But while the literature on how to drive Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is expansive, evidence-informed insights on how to drive Belonging are scarcer. Perhaps because some find it more difficult to evaluate. Diversity can be easily quantified, whereas Belonging is more challenging, though certainly not impossible, to measure.

One simple but science-based behavioural intervention aimed at increasing diverse employees’ sense of Belonging is the approach that Accenture took with their Women on Walls project in my home country of Ireland24 25. Addressing the behavioural insight that “You cannot be what you cannot see”, they sought to make the contributions of female leaders visible by representing them in imagery on the walls of various public and private sector buildings, often for the first time. In doing so, they sent a powerful subconscious message that diverse employees do belong here26.

The centrepiece of Accenture's Women on Walls campaign, a large painting of eight women standing in various poses looking directly at the camera. Each holds an item related to their area of expertise.

Eight Scientists by Blaise Smith, commissioned by Accenture for the Royal Irish Academy

The beauty of this intervention is that it’s so simple for business leaders across the globe to emulate. But don’t stop at imagery. If your meeting rooms are named after well-known entrepreneurs, scientists or inventors, ensure that those historical figures are representative of your diverse workforce.

Indeed, office décor and layout can make a big difference towards driving both Inclusion and Belonging, not least of all for neurodivergent talent who, by recent estimates comprise 15-20% of the workforce27 28. The bright, clashing primary colours of early 2000s office décor should be relegated to the past. Instead, offices should be designed with a neutral palette, natural lighting that doesn’t overwhelm the senses, with plenty of quiet areas, and leveraging principles of biophilic design to bring the calming effects of nature indoors29 30 31.

Where possible, offices should go beyond simply allocating a mix of desk seating, meeting rooms, and quiet spaces. The most inclusive offices incorporate rooms with specific functions to aid a sense of Belonging for diverse groups of employees. This can include a private room for employees who wish to observe their religion’s prayer times during the working day32; a new parent room with baby-changing facilities and a comfortable private space for Mums to express milk33; gender-neutral bathroom facilities; and more. And it should go without saying that inclusive office design should always thoughtfully incorporate the diverse needs of employees with disabilities.

These learnings come from personal experience. In my previous job as Vice-President and lead of Mastercard’s European Technology Hub, I collaborated with many brilliant colleagues on the design, fit-out, and launch of Mastercard’s state-of-the-art Dublin campus. During that time, I learned the principles of people-centred design from leading interior architects, brilliant employee wellbeing experts, and countless colleagues across all parts of the business, who provided invaluable feedback throughout the project.34

However, it should be borne in mind that inclusive office design is just one tool in the suite of tools available to business leaders seeking to drive not only DE&I, but critically also, Belonging. An inclusive office should complement other tools such as flexible working patterns, and not be used as an excuse to eradicate flexibility via full-time return to office mandates. Indeed, research shows that remote and hybrid work are important options for employees with child or elderly care responsibilities35, neurodiverse employees, and employees with disabilities36 37 38, all of whom have often historically been excluded from far too many roles.

Business leaders should also think about whether their social events advance or impede a sense of Belonging for their diverse workforce. It should go without saying that not all social events should revolve around free drink, and that hosting food-centred team meetings when team members are fasting for religious reasons is hardly inclusive. There are many reasons, cultural, medical and personal, why different employees will have different dietary needs. Where food and drink are served at work-related events, the diverse dietary needs of the group should be considered and catered for39 and, there should be some more exciting non-alcoholic options than simply water or orange squash.

An inclusive office should complement other tools such as flexible working patterns.

And remember, it’s not just food choices that can inadvertently exclude certain people from work-related social events. A friend told me that their office recently organised a mandatory annual sports day. While the intent behind this ‘mandatory fun’ was positive, the organisers failed to consider the many groups of employees who, for a whole host of reasons, may not feel a sense of either Inclusion or Belonging being mandated to either partake in group sporting activities, or stand (or sit) on the sidelines cheering on their team in support. This is not to say that sporting activities shouldn’t be hosted at all, but rather that attendance shouldn’t be mandated, and that such activities should form part of a varied calendar of social events throughout the year, aiming to incorporate something for everyone.

One practical tip for business leaders seeking to organise more inclusive events, where all employees can feel a sense of Belonging, is to consult your Employee Resource Group (ERG) members. After all, over 90% of Fortune 500 companies now have ERGs40: employee-led groups that build community through bringing together colleagues with shared identities and interests41.  It is important that these groups are truly employee-led, however they must have the support and funding of executive management to be successful. When established and implemented effectively, such groups boost company culture, champion DE&I initiatives, and have been shown to strengthen employee wellbeing and mental health42.

A note of caution, however: employees volunteering for ERG committees should be fairly rewarded for this extra work, both financially, and in terms of recognition during any performance review process. Furthermore, their workload should be flexed to account for the time they dedicate to their ERG responsibilities. While this may seem like obvious advice, unfortunately far too many employees are taking on this “invisible work” for little to no reward in companies across the world today43. Even more disappointingly, due to the nature of ERGs, such invisible workers are often from already underrepresented groups. This observation raises another important tip: membership of these groups should be inclusive, inviting in allies who can promote the needs of these groups and amplify their voice when needed.

Filling the research gaps

There is a well-known saying that:

“Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Many DE&I champions now like to extend that saying in our own unique way, to account for the missing ‘B’ (Belonging). I like to say that:

“Belonging is unselfconsciously bringing your unique style to the dancefloor, and finding you are not alone.”

But instead of merely accounting for the missing ‘B’, isn’t it time that DE&I teams incorporate Belonging as a critical component of their work, and not an add-on? Forward-thinking companies like the recruitment company, Indeed, have rebranded their DE&I function to the far more inclusive acronym: DEIB+44, thus spotlighting the importance of a sense of Belonging to all employees.

Of course, it will take far more than an acronym to create a future of work where all underrepresented groups metaphorically feel invited to the party, asked to dance, and unselfconsciously able to bring their true, authentic selves to the dancefloor. And that’s where research plays a key role. Many of the interventions I’ve shared in this blog are evidence-informed. But far more work is needed to fill the research gaps.

Last year, upon completing an Executive Master’s degree in Psychological & Behavioural Science, I pivoted from a career spanning over two decades in the corporate world to lead the scaling non-profit social impact organisation, the World Wellbeing Movement.

In some ways, the World Wellbeing Movement’s approach to achieving our mission – to put wellbeing at the heart of decision-making in both business and public policy – echoes my own career journey, bridging both the academic and business worlds. From our home within the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre, we are aiming to translate cutting-edge academic research into real-world impact by sharing those insights in an accessible, easy-to-implement format, with business leaders and policy makers across the world. But nobody has all the answers, and that’s why we are also collaborating with like-minded academic, corporate and philanthropic partners, including our founding and associate members, to commission more research.

If you’d like to hear more about the work of the World Wellbeing Movement, please explore our resources For Business Leaders and For Policymakers, and listen to our podcast, Working on Wellbeing, on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.


Diversity – Describes the demographic composition of a groupi

Equity – Treating each and every employee fairly, ensuring all employees get the supports they need to succeed, and putting measures in place to ensure that an employee’s identity is not predictive of their opportunities and/or progressionii

Inclusion – The degree to which all diverse groups are involved, heard and considered in organisation process and decisionsi

Belonging – A feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group, and, importantly, when an individual feels free to bring their authentic self to work.iii

Although each concept has its own distinct definition, they are interconnected. It is only in combination that organisations can realise the full benefits of having a diverse team with an inclusive culture, where each individual feels a sense of belongingiv.

i. Roberson, Q. M. (2006). Disentangling the Meanings of Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations. Group & Organization Management, 31(2), 212–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601104273064
ii. Indeed Editorial Team. (2023, May 23). DEIB+: What It Means, Why It Matters and How to Do the Work. Indeed. https://www.indeed.com/lead/deib-what-it-means-why-it-matters-and-how-to-do-the-work
iii. Cornell. (n.d.). Sense of Belonging. Belonging at Cornell. https://diversity.cornell.edu/belonging/sense-belonging
iv. McKinsey & Company. (2022, August 17). What is diversity, equity, and inclusion? McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-explainers/what-is-diversity-equity-and-inclusion

Resources and further reading

  1. Cotofan, M., De Neve, J.-E., Golin, M., Kaats,  M., & Ward, G. (2021). Chapter 7: Work and well-being during COVID-19: impact, inequalities, resilience, and the future of work. World Happiness Report . https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2021/work-and-well-being-during-covid-19-impact-inequalities-resilience-and-the-future-of-work/
  2. Roberson, Q. M. (2006). Disentangling the Meanings of Diversity and Inclusion in Organizations. Group & Organization Management, 31(2), 212–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601104273064
  3. McKinsey & Company. (2022, August 17). What is diversity, equity, and inclusion? McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-explainers/what-is-diversity-equity-and-inclusion
  4. Ajzen, I., & Dasgupta, N. (2015), p. 132. Explicit and Implicit Beliefs, Attitudes, and Intentions. In The Sense of Agency. Oxford University Press.
  5. Kahneman, D. (2011), p. 150. Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Random House.
  6. Powell, G. N., & Butterfield, D. A. (2015), p. 315. The glass ceiling: what have we learned 20 years on? Journal of Organizational Effectiveness : People and Performance, 2(4), 306–326.
  7. Rivera, L. A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms. American Sociological Review, 77(6), 999–1022.
  8. Criado-Perez, C. (2020), p.7. Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Penguin Random House.
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  10. Waylen, G. (2018), p.177. Nudges for gender equality? What can behaviour change offer gender and politics? European Journal of Politics and Gender, 1(1), 167–183.
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Header image: World Wellbeing Movement