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Apr 26, 2024
Holly Robinson Peete: Acknowledging, listening to, and understanding your employees

Every human wants to feel like they belong. We want to feel heard, valued, and understood in our personal lives and in our professional lives. Research from WebMD shows that a high sense of belonging is linked to a 56% increase in workplace productivity, a 50% drop in turnover, and a 75% decrease in sick days taken. However, 57% of employees say their companies fall short in making them feel like they belong.

The gap between employee expectations around belonging and feeling seen, and how companies are measuring up, is something we at Cigna Healthcare refer to as “The Visibility Gap.” To raise awareness of this workplace challenge, we partnered with acclaimed actress, author, and philanthropist Holly Robinson Peete to produce a series of podcasts called The Visibility Gap. Robinson Peete hosts each episode, convening insights, conversations, and guidance through the personal stories of six people who have felt unseen at work. 

We sat down with Robinson Peete to talk about the unseen challenges people face in the workplace, some of the biggest lessons she learned from podcast guests, and the role of employers in building workplace cultures that foster belonging and understanding, and value the unique perspectives of all employees.

What made you want to be part of The Visibility Gap podcast series? 

People need to be seen and feel valued, and The Visibility Gap is a great forum to create a dialogue around how to empower people in the workplace and simultaneously improve overall health and productivity. I think it has the potential to be really eye-opening to employers, and I am honored to be a part of this effort to drive awareness of the unseen workplace challenges so many people experience. 

The first episode describes the concept of “seeing the unseen” – what does that mean to you, and why do you think it is important for businesses to understand that concept? 

To me, seeing the unseen is taking the extra step to know the real person behind the professional persona in the workplace. It means removing bias and learning to respect individuals regardless of their differences. I think we have all experienced firsthand or know friends and family who have been unseen in the workplace. We all have unique skill sets that complement each other. When employers understand, support, and encourage the individuality of their people, it creates a more progressive and productive environment.

What was your favorite part about working on The Visibility Gap? Was there a particularly compelling story or a subject matter expert you connected with? 

The entire series was filled with incredible individuals sharing powerful stories. The episode called “The Breaking Point” really resonated with me. It focuses on when stress becomes burnout and then impacts a person’s overall life (work and personal) in a negative way. The guest, Dennis Yu, worked a job in tech sales while earning an MBA and raising two young kids. His desire to be successful (something he wanted for his family) ended up taking him away from his family. He missed out on a lot of “firsts” for his two young kids. The compounded stress he experienced caused sleep problems and mood swings and led to physical ailments such as acid reflux. When asked his advice on how to overcome burnout, he said to ask your employer about resources such as an employee assistance program. Also, finding community and having someone in your life who can support you is important.

As an actress, author, and philanthropist, as well as a mother with young children, I know the demands of balancing work and life. We never want to miss those “firsts,” and we are in constant pursuit of excellence. There should be room for both, and employers can cultivate a work culture that carves space for both.

As a caregiver yourself, how did the episode on caregiving impact you? 

This episode is called “The Balancing Act,” and it is about the experiences of people who have a full-time job and all the responsibilities that go along with that while also being a caregiver to a parent, child, or other loved one. Ivy Bryant was a guest who talked about the challenges of being a single mom to a daughter with special needs. Her daughter has sickle cell disease, which is an extremely difficult condition to manage. Ivy is a woman of color, and as such, she felt additional pressure to pretend she had a “traditional” family vs. being the often-stereotyped single Black mom. So despite her success, she felt unable to bring her true, authentic self to work.

The episode was heartbreaking. It is difficult enough being a woman of color occupying a C-suite role and caring for a loved one. But the additional anxiety of representing a “traditional” family made this such a sad reminder of the type of society that we still live in.  

The  episode titled “Unseen & Misunderstood” touches on diversity’s impact on workplace culture. Why should businesses strive to understand bias and its impact to diversity and their workplace culture? 

I feel that diversity is one of the greatest attributes of successful teams. When we acknowledge, respect, and encourage participation and input of the whole team, something wonderful happens. We witness perspectives, ideas, and outcomes that may not have been realized if only a single perspective was valued. When we are provided the freedom to show up as our authentic selves without fear of judgment, it instills a sense of confidence that organically promotes a sense of ownership and desire to be a contributing member of something bigger than ourselves. This breeds innovation.

What approaches do you take as a business owner to see your “unseen” employees? 

My style is open communication with my staff. I always work to know my staff on a personal and professional basis. My team is my most valuable asset. When they are well, my business does well.  Because of my schedule I may not always be physically present, but they always know that I am here to support.

Stigma around mental health is changing; how do you think programming like The Visibility Gap is contributing to that? 

For the first time in history, people of all ages are opening up about their mental health. Programming like The Visibility Gap is driving awareness through powerful storytelling that highlights successful professionals that people can identify with. By talking with people who appear to have it all but were suffering in silence, it provides comfort for others who are unseen to step into their power and show up as their authentic selves.



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