When Steph Rebello took her first job spearheading diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, she was excited to make change in the corporate world — but less than two years later, she was burnt out.

“I wasn’t playing to my strengths,” says the Toronto woman. “I wasn’t actually fulfilling some of my design research skills and practices that I was hoping to hone as a professional.”

About 52 per cent of S&P 500 companies in 2021 had a chief diversity officer or equivalent, up from 47 per cent in 2018, according to data from consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. But nearly 60 per cent of the chief diversity officers working in 2018 have since left the job, with the majority pursuing other roles. The average tenure of a chief diversity officer similarly fell from 3.1 years in 2018 to 1.8 years in 2021.

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The firm found some left for other similar roles, but many more could no longer tolerate what the report calls “unrealistic and misaligned expectations (that) pull the chief diversity officer in too many directions at once.”

DEI practitioners emphasize they don’t leave because the work is unnecessary or unimportant. Some, like Rebello, continue with it at companies such as external consulting firms, but others lament how many factors hamper their work and leave them feeling under-supported.

Many feel driven out by a corporate culture that’s “tokenizing” them and offering little more than lip service to DEI efforts, says Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, who runs a consulting firm specializing in anti-racism work.

Read: How CIBC is supporting LGBTQ2S+ employees, increasing DEI targets

Many also leave because their positions are underfunded and come with unrealistic deadlines from companies eager to show change or progress immediately, she adds.

Those in the field also notice burnout is common. Being the lone expert on a complicated topic meant to transform every corner of a company is difficult and can be even more emotionally taxing for marginalized practitioners.

“People are struggling with compassion fatigue. . . . You’re really holding space for a lot of pain and frustration and challenging conversations while dealing with it yourself,” says Rebello, who now works for DEI firm Feminuity.

Chief diversity officer roles have existed in the U.S. since the 1960s — a product of the civil rights movement — but such jobs only cropped up in Canada about 10 years ago, the majority of them in the last three years, says Sarah Saska, co-founder and chief executive officer of Feminuity.

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Many times, the roles are created in the wake of big news like George Floyd’s death in police custody or the #MeToo movement, so they don’t involve longer-term plans or treat DEI efforts as seriously as a product launch.

“Often they’re just putting a huge amount of money into something or making this giant promise to the world of donating this and funding this and so forth,” she says. “If they use that budget and spread that out, these efforts can be more sustained and not underfunded during more difficult times.”

She’s noticed they also tend to centre on the business case for diversity — the idea that staff from a wider array of genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations boost profitability and other outcomes for the company.

Read: Connecting DEI initiatives to employees’ mental well-being

A 2019 analysis from McKinsey & Co. found companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. And companies with more than 30 per cent of women executives were more likely to outperform companies where women made up between 10 and 30 per cent of such roles.

“If you’re still on the business case, you’re not ready to be doing this work,” says Saska.

Sojourner-Campbell agrees. She feels every inch of an organization needs to take responsibility for DEI, especially executives. “They need to . . . not just put it on the shoulders of the individual who has now been hired . . . because that one person can’t hold and change the organization.”

“It’s a collective journey and it will require the very leaders who say they want to do something, to recognize they need to move into that space, admit where there is failure, apologize for where there are limitations and demonstrate it time after time with actual actions.”

Read: Employers need to ‘walk the walk’ on anti-Black racism, DEI issues: survey