On 7 April 2022, Sharon Bennett, Deputy Chair Comms, NSW Department of Communities and Justice’s Disability Employee Network (DCJ DEN) sent me an email. It said in part, “Like all of us we come with our amazing points as well our baggage that’s why the DEN is such a great safe place. I’ve been getting so many people reach out with their stories and they’re all saying they finally feel heard and safe. Some of whom are actually advising they’re ready to speak up about their stories so others can feel safe. You started that and you should be very proud.”
That is great news. It has taken a few years for it to be possible to write such an email because the DEN had to develop the ability to have such influence, and then work within, and with, the Department to generate the change desired. It’s a work in progress, and it will continue to be so for a few years yet.
I have noted in an earlier essay that having time to engage in research has opened my eyes and mind to the complexity of the challenge of achieving real Disability Inclusion.
In this essay I want to focus on psychological safety; but get there via the terms intersectionality and microaggression (also called Subtle Acts of Exclusion).
I am reflexively wary of terms coming from academia into popular use because they are invariably politicised (which may be the right thing for the users) and frequently misinterpreted and misrepresented. Intersectionality is one such word. It has a powerful and universal application.
Put simply, a person may possess several attributes which might be, each by itself, a cause for discrimination and exclusion to some degree. In fact, it is probably safe to say that a minority of people with disability in any given workforce have only the attribute of their disability as a potential trigger for discrimination and exclusion.
I have a cluster of physical disabilities and I am also over age 55, so age discrimination creeps in. A friend has the same 2 attributes; but adds Aboriginality. Other people I know are ‘diversity’ quadruple and even quintuple ‘threats’. But instead of making them valuable, it can make them miserable. We laugh about having a high ‘diversity score’, but it’s not funny, not really.
The other side of this is the reality that a person who feels discriminated against because of some aspect of their identity may choose not to seek a workplace adjustment for a non-visible disability. That discrimination need only be excessive recognition of an identity attribute; and may not be intentionally hurtful. But it can be enough. A person who feels uncomfortable about an identity attribute is treated at work is not going to always be okay about asking for a disability related accommodation.
Intersectionality is an important idea. It can remind us that disability may not be the only, or even the main, cause of discriminatory conduct.
The Victorian government has a webpage devoted to ‘Understanding Intersectionality’. I urge you to read it, share it, and use the downloads to help make intersectionality an important insight.
This is another term that is misinterpreted, misrepresented, and can be misunderstood. Our speech is something we think we control, but, depending on our cultural and family upbringing, and our own life experiences, there may be elements of how we talk that can injure others. That can be intentional, of course, but here I want only to focus on the unintentional.
This isn’t about walking on eggshells every time you open your mouth. The fact is that we can cause unintended harm, and send signals of exclusion, by what we say.
There’s a useful primer on microaggressions on the NPR website (NPR is the US National Public Radio). The related podcast is available through your podcast app – NPR Life Kit 6 June 2020.
As I have observed before, so much material on discrimination and exclusion has a USA focus, and this can leave us thinking it’s not as bad here in Australia. But that’s not a safe assumption. The US has researched, written, and talked on the theme way more than anybody else.
I have just started a book, Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify and Stop Microaggressions by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran. I will come back with an essay on this theme when I am finished. The authors don’t particularly like the term microaggression, and they have come up with subtle acts of exclusion. At first encounter, I like this approach. But microaggression is in widespread use, so it’s good to know what it is about.
Psychological safety is a vitally important concept, as you can see in what the Western Australian government has put together. The Harvard Business Review has a good articleon the subject. And then there’s agreatplacetowork.com.au.
In NSW the government has a much dryer approach. Safe Work NSW has a Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work and another page on Mental Health.
Here’s a quote from a recent interview with Brendan Thomas, former CEO of Legal Aid NSW and now Deputy Secretary, Transforming Aboriginal Outcomes, Department of Communities and Justice:
If you find a workplace that has a high level of staff engagement, that engagement tends to be high across all kinds of people in that workplace.
So, if you’ve got an organisation where it’s comfortable for everyone to come to work, then it’s comfortable for everyone to come to work regardless of who they are.
But it has to be a place in which people are openly encouraged to participate and engage. It has to be a place where people can feel safe. That’s a really important thing.
Brendan has summed up the importance of creating a safe and inclusive workplace neatly. Psychological safety means “it’s comfortable for everyone to come to work regardless of who they are.”
Psychological safety in the workplace is a right of all employees, regardless of who they are. Ensuring that is what they experience is a duty incumbent on all employers.
The issue is not just whether the harm caused by a psychologically unsafe workplace is compensable, and hence has an impact on WorkCover premiums. The issue is whether we want genuinely inclusive, happy, and highly productive workplaces. Everyone benefits. There is no downside.
Safe, inclusive, and diverse workplaces are more productive, effective, and innovative. They generate lower costs because staff turnover is lower, and unplanned absences are also reduced.
As with everything to do with being inclusive, psychological safety is a complex theme that requires intentional effort to attain it. Intersectionality reminds us that we are multi-dimensional – and some of us have multiple identity attributes that may generate intentional and unintentional exclusion and discrimination. We can be included for one attribute while being excluded for another.
Learning about microaggressions (Subtle Acts of Exclusion) can help us see that we can unintentionally signal exclusion in the act of being inclusive, and then be bewildered by the reaction we have precipitated – sometimes leading to an act of intentional exclusion in response.
Psychological safety in our workplaces is an essential, and it is an attainable goal – with the investment of effort.