Look after yourself


I am working on an essay entitled: The cognitive and emotional burden of disability. It is a reflection on the additional demands on our attention that can be imposed by simply living with a disability. Of course, this is very different for everyone – in terms of the degree of cognitive and emotional demand, and how we respond.

What triggered this essay was a conversation with a person who observed that sometimes they are not cheery and bright because of pain and other discomforts – and this is taken to be an expression of their character and general mood – and in an unkind way.

Last Friday the Neuroleadership Institute had a webinar promoting their services on the theme Outsmart your brain with the healthy mind platter. There were some powerful clues about how to manage your cognitive and emotional demands that apply as much to living with a disability as to working.

The need for cognitive effort is not just about work

Living with a disability can mean that a lot of effort is required to stay focused on personal tasks as well as work-related demands. This is true in general because our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the part of the brain we use when we engage in intentional conscious effort, is energy hungry. It deals with one thing at a time and gets easily distracted. The great insight is that not only is multi-tasking simply not possible (we just jump from one thing to another) attempting it degrades the quality of our focus.

In effect, the PFC really isn’t very good at doing what we want – but it’s all we have. By that I mean it is the most recently evolved part of our brain, so we are taxing its capacity to deliver what we want. We may want to be great at multitasking – but that’s not going to happen. It is “an area vitally involved in executive functions such as concentration, organization, judgement, reasoning, decision-making, creativity, emotional regulation, social–relational abilities, and abstract thinking—in other words, all the functionality we rely on for healthy relationships with ourselves and others”. You can learn more here.

We must acknowledge and embrace the limitations of our PFC and be kind to ourselves in a smart way.

We can deal better with the challenges of living with a disability if we remember that we have multiple other needs that, if met, give us the physical, cognitive, and emotional wherewithal we need to focus effectively.

These other needs are for sleep, relationships, time to chill and relax and have fun, time for self-reflection and, where possible, time for physical activity. Each is important, but the first two seem to me to be fundamental to our psychological survival. The others may sweeten our disposition toward the world – and of course, enhance our ability to focus.

As those needs are met to the best of our ability to focus on navigating our way in the world (getting to and from work, for example) and performing tasks, improves markedly.

Remember that disability is ‘normal’ plus

When it comes to responding to the demands of being in the world – on a personal as well as a work-related level – disability can add additional cognitive and emotional demands that must be factored in. This ‘plus factor’ that can add significant additional effort must not be forgotten. In fact, we must factor it in as we think about how we manage our needs.


I would not be happy if I was given gratuitous advice about how to manage living with my disability. I struggle at times to cover all the key needs and keep a balanced suite of options. But I do okay.

What I liked about the NLI webinar was that it was a reminder in principle that there is an array of needs to be mindful of – and meeting as many of them as possible, as often as we can, is an optimal choice.

We can all get infected with the hero bug at times and grimly push on – as if that is the best, and often see as the only, choice. It may not be.

It will be harder for those experiencing exclusion, discrimination, or bullying because such experiences can collapse of one’s sense of being in the world down to a grim core. Enduring is what we do well – but it cannot be the thing we do most of the time. A balance of needs met is always the better place to get to.

It is important to be aware that what can push us into unhealthy stress levels comes not from the demands of living with disability, but from experiencing exclusion, discrimination, and bullying. We can’t get rid of disability caused demands, but we can work to eliminate the other stressors. And we can do so in a balanced and self-supporting way. We can be kind to ourselves, and to others, as we do so.

The getting of wisdom, Disability Inclusion as a core service, and a reflection on the value of a growth mindset


I left the NSW Department of Communities and Justice on 10 June 2021 with a deep sense of unfinished business across the theme of Disability Inclusion. I had achieved a lot of good stuff, but nothing was settled and sure.

When I came across the idea of the growth mindset in the work of the Neuroleadership Institute, it encapsulated the essence of what I had achieved. But it left me keenly aware of what I had not. I’ve had 11 months of research since I walked away. That has been a profound journey of inquiry and discovery.

As a fulltime employee I didn’t have the time to invest in the level of inquiry that I discovered was necessary to catch up on, and stay abreast of, the research in, and developments on, the theme of Disability Inclusion – and DEI in general.

It is almost an embarrassment that the NSW public sector says it wants to be a ‘world-class’ public service, and yet is seems unaware of what it entails to get to that admirable standard. 

Since the announcement of the NSW Premier’s Priorities in mid 2019 the goal of more than doubling the proportion of staff with disability has gone nowhere. In 3 years no apparent growth has been recorded. There has been progress on other priorities. Disability employment uniquely has a zilch outcome report.

Why is that?

The obvious explanation is that there has been no co-ordinated strategic response to the announcement of the priorities. There are two reasonable explanations for this – a calculated judgement the priorities are just political window dressing and can be safely pushed onto the backburner, or a lack of means (resources, understanding and commitment) to make the target an attainable goal. Maybe a bit of both in some quarters.

Either way the message is clear. The executive leaders of the NSW public sector do not appear be committed to Disability Inclusion. Why? They have the power and the means to make a positive difference – and nothing has happened. But this isn’t the whole story.

Let’s pause a moment on assigning blame. Research into gender differences show that men are content when a policy has been developed and activated. This research has been conducted chiefly in relation to the slow movement toward gender equity targets in employment. A senior executive body comprising an overwhelming majority of men will see ‘job done’ at the policy level. It is unlikely that a minority of women at the senior level will change this until that minority has the numbers to be confident in driving attitudinal change. That’s some time off.

To be fair, leaders also delegate. But this has a cascading effect, so that same problem will express at each lower level of executive management, where men are the influential majority (predominantly rather than exclusively, of course). Here I don’t even mean that men must be in the majority, just that the ‘male model’ of thinking prevails. At the end of the delegation chain there may be staff able to act, but with fewer resources and little ability to influence the need for more resources and tighter planning.

It would be useful if senior leaders, and the people they delegate responsibility to, had a functional appreciation of current DEI developments. There’s a reason this doesn’t happen. When I was fulltime in Disability Inclusion (plus being DEN Chair) I was putting in at least 2-3 hours a day on audiobooks and podcasts. But I am a nerd. I do research like other people eat, breathe, and maintain a pulse. I get through at least 2 audiobooks a week, plus podcasts. I am not boasting. I am making a point. If it has taken me almost 11 months to catch up, how behind are other folk?

A prime function of the NSW Public Service Commission should be to scan the developments across the globe and post the best up-to-date insights in a clearing house of some sort. A lot of this stuff is free. But there’s so much of it that a curator is needed for the whole sector on an ongoing basis.

It is not reasonable that people in high demand roles (at all levels) devote more of their time to exploring the field of DEI and ensure their understanding is current. What can seem like resistance is really a genuine lack of capacity.

But providing the updating is of little use if there is no growth mindset to be receptive to it, and act on it. 

What is a growth mindset?

Readers may recall that years ago that ‘Life-Long Learning’ was the buzz phrase of the age – and then it quietly limped away, defeated by sturdy ignorance. It may seem like a good idea – but only to a few – too few.

A Growth Mindset is the new version. And the cute thing is that some advocates hark back to Life-Long Learning as if it is not a failed aspiration. The same advocates struggle to gain traction with Growth Mindset – new jargon -same old resistance.

A 2018 HBR article, 5 Mistakes Companies Make About Growth Mindset

By Heidi Grant, Mary Slaughter and Andrea Derler clarifies some misconceptions about it. I quote from the article below in italics.

The idea of a growth mindset is the belief that continuous improvement is possible and that failures are opportunities to learn, rather than something to react to with blame and shame. I’d add that a commitment to the idea of constant adjustment or adaptation to novel developments is needed. The increased attention to Disability Inclusion is such a novel development. 

Though the idea of Disability Inclusion has been around for over 30 years, in NSW there was a watershed moment when the Disability Inclusion Act was passed in 2014. This meant there was a need for continuous improvement in the way Disability Inclusion was responded to, and an adaptation to the politics and culture of a greater emphasis.

Leaders in organizations can certainly help people adopt a growth mindset by fostering a culture around specific habits and practices, but abstract entities that don’t have minds (like a business or a brand) can’t have a growth mindset. But individuals can have them personally, and organizations as well — in the sense that all people involved have it. 

So, it is something that can be instilled at a cultural level. But there are limits to that expectation.

We often hear that growth mindset registers as “Anyone can do anything, so long as they put their mind to it.” In fact, this feeling of limitlessness may distract employees from pursuing what they were hired for, or from what they excel at most. The result is often demotivation and confusion. 

We hear a lot that leaders are using growth mindset to chastise employees who say they have too much on their plate. This is counter-productive. Growth mindset must always take people’s cognitive capacity in mind. No one has infinite resources. 

When people really do have too much on their plate, attacking their mindset is counter-productive. Because the problem isn’t their attitude — it’s that they can’t bend the laws of space and time. 

These last two quotes resonate with me strongly because you can’t mandate a growth mindset any more than you can mandate compliance with Disability Inclusion expectations – and for the same essential reasons.

Yes, a growth mindset is required, but getting it is a more subtle and complex matter than just demanding that it happens.

How do you meet the obligation for Disability Inclusion and respect the adaptive capacity of staff at all levels?

I want to suggest that Disability Inclusion is a subset of the growth mindset in two key ways. First is that both are about growth in knowledge and competence over time. The second is that, like engagement with any novel demand, mistakes are going to be made – and they are growth/learning opportunities. There is that enduring wisdom – if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying.

There is a steady pressure to respond to Disability Inclusion imperatives. The NSW Premier’s Priority on disability employment was meant to be such a pressure. But it was more like radiation from the sun than a call to action. It didn’t trigger action, just demotivation and confusion among those who hoped it wouldIts left other folk with red faces, in consequence of their inaction.

It’s not like the staff of the NSW public sector are sitting around wondering what to do with their time. I am hearing from all levels that they are feeling “smashed”. For a variety of reasons these are not easy times.

But that does not mean Disability Inclusion action should be shelved until times get better. No. Rather, it means that action must be strategically sensitive, properly focused, and sufficiently resourced to ensure that it is accepted as a growth opportunity and not the imputation of moral failing.

This means that the message given to all must be that we are all obliged to respond to the changing cultural environment and evolving values we mostly agree are desirable, if not essential. That response must be facilitated by employing the current insights about learning and change – positive opportunities for growth provided in small bites often.

The Neuroleadership Institutes talks about building habits. This isn’t about going from zero to perfect, but about getting better and better about adapting day-by-day, or more realistically, week-by-week.

Promoting learning is a science-based activity that can be elevated to an art by some. What it is not is something to be attempted with good intent and undisciplined beliefs. 

Re-imagining Disability Inclusion

The point of contention seems to be about how long it should take to make Disability Inclusion normal. From an idealist standpoint, Inclusion should be immediate. From a pragmatic standpoint it will eventually happen. What is missing is a middle path of a planned and resourced approach.

If there is no planned approach, progress can’t be assessed, resources can’t be wisely allocated, and a commitment to Disability Inclusion can’t be honestly asserted to be genuine. 

Change always requires effort, and that means it requires resources to fuel that effort. Two of the most precious resources in a contemporary public sector are time and attention. Both are needed to ensure that cognitive and emotional overload do not happen, and the desired change is resisted, and disliked. Neither of these resources should be squandered on change efforts that do not work, or which work poorly.

The approach must be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This is going back to basics, but with an important difference. Disability Inclusion is as much part of core business as anything else. In a public sector it is a service delivered to stakeholders (including public sector employees who are members of the community and are entitled to be treated inclusively at work as much as in the community). 

In fact, a service is not just about what you do, but how you do it. Its not an option to separate the what from the how. Whether a service is inclusive is an integral part of what it is – not an optional attribute. Think of the what and how of a service as the noun and the adjective of thinking and acting. They go together naturally. As we think more inclusively, we act more inclusively. 

Take the statement “Our services (noun) are inclusive (adjective)”. The adjective inclusive denotes the quality of the services. The quality of a service is an integral part of the service – as score business. As our cultural values evolve, so the quality of our services changes and adapts.


Inclusion has long been expressed as a moral element – a kind of cultural obligation at which some are failing. But if we understand it as an integral part of a core business service, we can see it as more of a learning and continuous improvement opportunity – as our cultural values respond to demands to reflect our community’s aspirations.

It takes some effort to reimagine Disability Inclusion as an essential aspect of core business service delivery. But this is necessary if it is going to be embedded in practice. We cannot afford to have it as a ‘nice’ sentiment we express when we can get around to it – after we have taken care of the ‘real’ core business. We must become SMART about it and grow a shared action-orientated mindset.

Part of having a growth mindset includes a willingness to rethink and reframe challenges. This includes integrating Disability Inclusion as a critical element of core business service provision – and is hence non-optional. It is not about extra work, but different work. This is the missing component. Managing that change to a different way of doing things hasn’t been thought through. The critical resources are not there.

In the past we have assumed Disability Inclusion is a ‘seed idea’ that will take root anywhere because of its obvious moral virtue. But, in fact, it needs fertile soil prepared as well. This is what a growth mindset creates.

How to embed a growth mindset in an organisation’s culture is another discussion, however.

Sci fi and Inclusion


I have been reading a book called Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Luke Lafitte. It’s an exploration of the meanings that can be drawn from machine-men in fiction and in technological conception since the 19th century.

The book surprised me by looking at Inclusion in the context of sci fi – like Star Wars and Star Trek. It wasn’t a theme that I had hitherto thought of, so I thought I would take a meander down an entertaining pathway and celebrate sci fi’s pioneering spirit of Inclusion on a galactic scale. 

The first Star Wars movie hit screens in 1977, but Star Trek arrived on US TV screens 11 years earlier, in 1966. Star Trek 2nd Gen (my favourite) first aired in 1987. Of course, there are the Star Trek spin offs like Voyager as well.

The great Cantina scene in the first Star Wars was not exactly a model for inclusion, other than the fact that such a diverse gathering was depicted. I suppose that simmering tensions fuelled by alcohol can erupt in many pubs. The inclusion implicit in the diverse drinking community doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be functional.

I confess that I didn’t celebrate the arrival of the Gungan Jar Jar Binks in an inclusive spirit. But this happened in my pre-enlightenment days, and I now regret my intolerance.

The inclusive vision

I have been a huge Gene Roddenberry fan ever since I found out that he was behind Star Trek and even more so when I learned that 2nd Gen was closer to his original vision.

The world was introduced to Star Trek on September 8, 1966, amid what had at that point have been the mechanical-man’s most prolific decade. Gene Roddenberry, (1921 -1991), the show’s creator, yearned for a future in which diversity serves to advance human consciousness. Diversity in all of its forms, by celebrating the connections among individuals and groups, multiplies the possibilities for experiences and feelings.

Roddenberry clearly had an inclusive vision – seeing in diversity of lives and experiences a rich array of possible ways of being and knowing.

Star Trek is telling us that spirit, empathy, and equality have to be the goal for any society if it is to realise a lasting utopian future of wonderment and enchantment. Diversity and the act of inclusion with the feeling of compassion attached to that action manifests the objective reality of peaceful diversity…

Star Trek 2nd Gen, in particular obliged the viewer to imagine beyond their own foundations as humans to recognise that aliens in all their forms had a valid foundation to their own being that did not depend on human affirmation.

…Nichols watched Star Trek with his family – judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, the bumpiness of their foreheads, or any other irrelevant factors. Genuine and serious respect for and valuing of others involves a commitment to treating them as ends in themselves, not merely as means for our ends.

Aliens who look nothing like us, and who behave in ways that are incomprehensible, and even frightening to us, cannot be encountered through the filter of our fears and prejudices.

You don’t have to watch the hundreds of episodes of Star Trek in its various iterations to recognise that one must boldly travel through one’s own conscious and subconscious biases and prejudices in honest manner. 

The courage to embrace diversity, no matter how extreme, relative to what is our normal, can create opportunities for relationships that can enrich our life experiences.

Indeed, to “boldly go” is not necessarily a journey into physical space, but into an inner life based on discovering and celebrating interconnections with others. Therein, Star Trek tells us, lies peace and long life.


We can’t yet flash through the galaxy propelled by a warp drive. The best we can do is take a jet to almost anywhere on this planet. We witness and celebrate diversity we can escape from – and come back home.

In Star Trek and Star Wars human life is intertwined with alien lives. The galaxy is our home. We can’t flinch from confronting lives whose diverse attributes may be challenging at first. It’s their home too. 

The premise of the book is complex. But let’s say that advances in technology oblige us to redefine who we are. This is nowhere more compelling in the fiction of sci fi – which feed back ideas and aspirations to the ‘real world’ – which in turn stimulates more sci stories.

The compelling quote for me is Diversity in all of its forms, by celebrating the connections among individuals and groups, multiplies the possibilities for experiences and feelings. I’d add to that “that open us up to the truth that the wide varieties of human experience connect us all.”

If we struggle to include people with disability now, how do we imagine we will be able to handle our first encounter with ET?

Key concepts in Inclusion


It is remarkable what 11 months of dedicated inquiry has done to my gut feelings about what is necessary for effective Disability Inclusion. The shift from knowing something was right to being able to frame a theory of what inclusion is, and why it is so hard, has been liberating.

The development of a theory is critical for one vital reason. Overcoming the resistance to inclusion must be intentionally and methodically undertaken if success is to be expected. The evidence is quite clear on this. Below I have listed the 6 key ideas that have helped me frame a theory of inclusion. I will discuss each briefly.

  1. The illusion of inclusion
  2. Bias and our biological and social instincts
  3. Psychological safety
  4. The value of allyship
  5. Cognitive and emotional demands
  6. Changing values and the evolution of cultural values

The illusion of inclusion

We are mostly folk of good will who want to be inclusive – and we are to a fair degree. But we are all too often convinced that wanting to be inclusive, and thinking about inclusivity, is all it takes. 

It’s not that simple. Intentional effort is required – and that’s where the trouble starts. Without it, exclusion goes underground – and can become unconscious. We can end up with a surface appearance of inclusiveness, while real struggles against real harm continue.

Bias and our biological and social instincts

Bias has a bad rap, and that’s unfair. It has been misunderstood and made the culprit in well-intentioned, but misguided, efforts like anti-bias training.

The Neuroleadership Institute is blunt – if you have a brain, you have a bias. A bias is, essentially a short cut form of cognition that saves time and energy. But the founding premise must be valid and current – and the conclusion must be appropriate.

Bias is natural and mostly harmless. I grew up in a culture where there was a bias toward Ford or Holden cars. Aside from the odd drunken fight it didn’t do a lot of harm. But biases can also be toxic and damaging. This is especially true when they concern religion, race, sexuality, gender, or disability – and they arise in the workplace – or the community.

We develop biases easily, and we can change them – provided we want to and know we can. However, such change requires effort and energy, so motivation is important.

Bias is multilayered. At its foundation are instinctual reflexes that are deeply rooted to a biological logic that sustained our ability to survive, reproduce and thrive. Other biases are implanted in our family of origin, or our culture. Yet others are born from our life experiences.

There are two questions to be asked of biases. The first is whether the data on which they are formed is accurate and relevant. The second is whether the bias in an appropriate influence on our decisions.

We have deep instincts for inclusion and belonging. This is maybe our most fundamental need. For this reason, brain researchers say that experiencing exclusion activates the same part of our brain where pain is experienced. Exclusion is a threat, and it causes pain. But exclusion was also an ancient survival mechanism – when we looked after our own as a priority when life was dangerous and energy hard to come by.

Things have changed, and this is nowhere more evident in the contemporary workplace. We must modify exclusionary biases based on a threat response when mere difference is not a threat. We must expand our inclusionary biases to bring others into our embrace of belonging, even though they are not like us.

Psychological safety

This is a more complex area than it first seems. If you want to reflect on biases in a work context it is important that you do so in an environment where you feel safe to ‘talk truth to power’.

But contemporary writers like Amy C. Edmondson remind us that so often leaders are either unaware they are creating threat environments in meetings, or they do so intentionally. Hierarchy is a problem because we defer to authority status – and others use it for their own purposes.

Psychological safety can’t be faked. There will be leaders who assure that this is what they want but they are unaware that nobody trusts or believes them. Others may think they want it, but they have no idea what it entails. They may not be open or authentic people.

Psychological safety depends on authenticity at a personal level. We are highly sensitive to social threats and will react quickly to any hint of betrayal of trust. A leader who does not understand this will not easily recover trust once their actions violate it. The product may be a pretence that what they have is a psychologically safe setting – only nobody believes it.

In this context, it is important to also realise that we all have multiple dimensions to our identity. Several of these may be reasons to be anxious and trigger reluctance to be open. Psychological safety cannot apply to only one aspect of personal identity alone – like making it safe to talk about disability alone. Religious, age, gender, sexuality, and racial themes may also cause concerns.

The ideal of bringing your whole self to work means that all aspects of personal identity can be safely expressed (in an appropriate manner of course). In this ideal setting damaging biases are not operating, and individuals are free to express curiosity, concern, doubt, and disagreement.

Psychological safety is an essential, but complex, theme. It is easy to reduce it to a simple demand for tolerance or the delivery of inauthentic assurances that frankness will not be punished.

The value of allyship

Inclusion is not a solitary or heroic struggle. If you want change, you need allies. The more psychologically safe a work environment is the more allies will stand up and speak up. Allyship magnifies actions for inclusion.

Allies can be enlisted by Disability Inclusion activists as well as executive leaders acting as Champions. The difference here is instructive. There is a risk associated with becoming an ally in response to a call from a person with disability or an activist. There is a potential reward in the choice to become an ally in response to a Champion.

Allyship should be seen as a skilled activity. There are learnable ways of being a highly effective ally.

Cognitive and emotional demands

There is an interesting perspective from contemporary brain science that can be summed up in – we move away from threats, and we move toward rewards. But the threat sensing is stronger than the reward sensing. And here’s the problem at a very basic level. Change is often felt as a threat. How do we make change rewarding?

Change can place high demands on our cognitive and emotional capacities. The evolution of more inclusive workplaces is only one kind of change you may be experiencing. Organisational restructures, new work processes, new roles, new staff, new work challenges – all these accumulate as ‘threat’ responses demanding cognitive and emotional energy. Add to this change influences in our private lives.

Being inclusive, if it means undoing a bias, can be felt as just too much at times. For leaders, addressing issues about bullying of a staff member with disability by a manager might be a difficult conversation they don’t need to have now – and end up never having.

While change is necessary, how it is managed in a workplace will determine whether it is resisted or embraced. If staff are close to being overloaded with cognitive and emotional demands, unintentional resistance can derail what should be a desired and positive change.

Being inclusive includes including those who struggle to change. We need to remember that.

Changing values and the evolution of cultural values

Depending on how old you are, you will have a very different take on how the Australian culture has changed. Older readers will have a keener sense of change than younger readers, for whom what was radical change to older readers is now normal.

Let me put this into a technological perspective. Here are some watersheds – the introduction of remote controls for TVs, colour TV, touch dial telephones, fax machines, plain paper photocopying, and mobile phones. More recently we have the development of smartphones and social media. Each one of those technological milestones will either trigger a recall or leave the reader unmoved.

Our culture has changed in equally radical ways, but with markers that are far harder to see. Events post World War 2 have progressively transformed Australian culture – and not always to every one’s taste. We developed multiculturalism and introduced anti-discrimination legislation for a reason. We have had to give inclusion assistance to get going, and stay moving.

Inclusion is part of the trend of ongoing adaptation to emerging ideals and demands for fair and equal treatment. We are not only increasingly diverse from a cultural and racial perspective, the drive for diversity, equality and inclusion is also internal – growing in our shared cultural values. Disability Inclusion is a focused area of inclusion that really kicked off in the late 1980s. Thirty plus years on and the job isn’t done yet.

Our cultural values are changing faster than our instincts and biases can adapt without intentional effort. We are all under the pump in terms of keeping up. The older one is, the more likely that looks like a long history of change. The younger you are the more likely you are born into times when some inclusion issues are no longer part of a culture war.

Still, youth and seniority are not determinants. You can still be raised in cultures that resist our goals for inclusion because of religious or cultural traditions. And older folk may have been pioneer activists for inclusion.

Regardless of age or background our response to the demands of changing demographics and cultural values can be complex and challenging. A genuinely compassionate religious person can still have a hard time accepting transgender people as okay.


Disability Inclusion sits within the domain described as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as a uniquely specific field because it adds the dimension of physical and sensory factors in relation to accessibility and inclusion. 

Outside specific cultural markers (like turbans and veils) physical markers of disability convey a signal of ‘can’t’ that no other diversity group conveys. Intersectionality draws our attention to the multiple ways that biases and discrimination can impact an individual. But mostly these impediments to inclusion are psychological and cultural – not physical or sensory.

Adding psychological and cultural discrimination to physical and sensory exclusion deepens the Disability Inclusion challenge. Some disabilities do trigger psychological and cultural discrimination as deep-seated biases are activated. Other times intersectional attributes may also play a role. How do I know whether the hard of hearing Moslem woman is experiencing discrimination and exclusion just because of her hearing disability?

We must understand the challenges to inclusion at a deeply rational level if we are to make real progress in a reasonable time. Cultural evolution, unassisted, is slow. Good will, while widely present, is neither uniformly distributed nor equally disposed to action. 

We must nurture that good will by feeding it reasoned arguments. We must also protect it from ill-advised expressions of frustration that wrongly assign inaction to moral failings, and also from inauthentic assertions of inclusiveness. We must also ensure that leaders do not self-exempt themselves from a responsibility for accountability in leading and promoting inclusion.

This last point consistently shows up in assessments on why inclusion has stalled. Leaders have unequal power and influence. One person can influence many in a positive or negative way. The value to an organisation in addressing the adverse impact of one toxic leader should be self-evident. But leaders can see themselves as a class apart and can become self-protective. This remains as the single most problematic issue in moving inclusion forward. Hierarchy adds a level of complexity to leading inclusion that is inadequately understood. 

To counter this, inclusion advocates must use contemporary research to make compelling arguments for strategic and accountable change where it matters most.

These six key concepts are what I believe Disability Inclusion advocates need to understand and work with to make their work as fruitful as it can be.

A Reflection on leadership and psychological safety


I came across a draft I had prepared about 14 months ago ahead of a Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) DEN’s presentation to the DCJ Board. It had some good content, but were I to write it today, I would update it considerably. In this essay I want to convert that draft into a current body of thought based on 10 months or so of research.


Early in 2020 the DCJDEN embarked on a patient journey to Change the Conversation about mental illness. This was initiated because of the stigma connected to the terminology of mental illness. It implied a cognitive impairment – and something managers and colleagues did not feel comfortable talking with the staff member with the diagnosis.

In fact, many people who are labelled as having a mental illness are more commonly experiencing depression or anxiety – more of an emotional injury. They have no cognitive impairment. However, cognitive impairment can arise from stress, and this can come from a variety of circumstances, including when anxiety or depression is ramped up. 

Current brain science research is quite clear that there is a cognitive impairment that arises from stress in people who would be seen as psychologically healthy as well. 

Over 2020, the DEN worked with the Global Leadership Foundation (GLF) to develop a series of innovative workshops on emotional self-awareness. Each workshop series (3) had 4-5 sessions of 1.5 hours a week. The aim was to enable participants to become confident in sharing their inner states using simple concepts and non-clinical language. The hope was that these workshops might be taken up within DCJ. This has not happened because of severe budget constraints – still a prevailing factor.

DCJ did undertake to incorporate some GLF material in its leadership development program – as a DIAP project. Its goal is to stimulate leaders/managers to develop a capacity for more empathic engagement with staff with disability – and staff more generally.

The key consideration behind Changing the Conversation was if there was a wide sense of confidence in talking about inner states using non-clinical language the issue of having a diagnosed condition would not have to arise. We all experience anxieties, low times, and stress because of work related circumstances, or in our private lives.

What an alternative normal might look like

Emotionally healthy and self-aware people are confident in talking about their inner states – using secular non-technical language. But they need to trust the people they talk with, especially if they are in a subordinate position and they are seeking some accommodation from their manager or team leader.

That lack of trust is reported often, and it is accompanied by reports of being treated in an insensitive, demeaning, or degrading manner that can itself be injurious, and even cruel.

This behaviour is not intentional. But at some stage a refusal, or failure, to be aware of the impact of one’s behaviour must be considered intentional. It is commonly reported that managers whose conduct is unintentionally harmful also seem to intentionally avoid situations (learning and development events) where that kind of behaviour is identified as something to be addressed.

The idea of psychological safety is gaining recognition are a key concept for a contemporary workplace. In a psychologically safe environment staff feel it is okay to question or challenge ideas that put by high status or more assertive staff (executives or managers). Decisions are not handed down based on power, but are co-created, using the knowledge and perspectives of all members of a team, or all participants in a meeting.

Psychological safety exists when a staff member can ask for an accommodation or an adjustment to deal with a personal matter without being required to provide details so a manager can adjudicate on whether the reason meets their criteria for assenting to the request.

A psychologically safe workplace accommodates diversity of personal backgrounds and circumstances, cultures without overt or subtle acts of discrimination or exclusion. It is where a staff member can ‘bring their whole self to work’ and ‘belong’. Beneath these sentiments dwell a genuine aspiration. The translation of the sentiment into genuine and effective action is another matter.

The critical elements in establishing such a normal state

Executive leaders, managers, and team members all must work toward developing the personal attributes that contribute to psychological safety. But there is clear evidence that leadership on doing this must be exhibited by senior executives and modelled by managers.

Where team members are motivated to create psychological safety, their efforts can be sent underground by a lack of support from leaders. Where teams are not motivated to create such an environment and there is no leadership or modelling from executives or managers the resultant workplace culture is toxic – and a perilous environment for people vulnerable to bullying or exclusion – and that includes staff with disability.

The NSW Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Age of Inclusion campaign has a manifesto which says, in part, “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” This would address the issues raised by staff with psychological injury. But how do we get there unless we intentionally develop those skills? The sad thing about the campaign is that it did nothing by way of guidance. What’s the point of setting a destination if there is no map to get there, and no plan either?

Of the PSC’s 20 capabilities in its Capability Framework, 17 arguably require competence in Emotional Intelligence and self-awareness.

However, there is no widespread promotion of Emotional Intelligence, and there’s not a lot of readily accessible training or developmental material readily available.

The impact of this situation is twofold:

  • Staff needing to seek accommodation because of their psychological state are not confident in approaching their team leader/manager.
  • Team leaders/managers who do not have a requisite level of self-awareness and empathy are unaware of the impact of their behaviour.

Is this just another burden put on team leaders, managers and executives who are already stretched? No. This is part of core business in a knowledge economy. Staff are the ‘tools’ and they must be looked after. Psychological injury is far more prevalent than physical injury, and it receives scant attention.

While Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness and Empathy are not equivalents; they are sufficiently linked to make two observations valid:

  • They are attributes that are critical in high performing teams – not only for leaders, but all team members.
  • The best high performing teams are diverse, and they can be psychologically safe if well managed. Research on high performing teams suggests that, depending on the context, they can be highly competitive and demanding. But that is less likely the case in the public sector. Even so competitive pressure isn’t inherently harmful.

Sound recruiting practices must ensure that new leaders in public sector possess the requisite personal competencies that will ensure that unintentional (or intentional) injury to vulnerable staff is not perpetuated. But, at the moment there is no evidence that self-awareness and empathy are attributes being sought in candidates for manager/leader roles

There are also current leaders who not only cause injury, but who lack the motivation and insight to initiate self-directed efforts to address their deficits. They are likely to avoid exposure to experiences that will challenge their approach as well. Unless there is an internal mechanism for identifying these individuals and providing the support they need to adapt their performance, they will continue to inflict psychological injury on subordinate staff.

Senior leaders are yet to fully appreciate that allowing such individuals to remain in leadership roles without addressing their unintended impact on vulnerable staff represents important impediments to the development of genuinely safe and inclusive workplaces:

  • Staff with psychological injury will remain unconfident in seeking accommodations critical to their well-being – and this may result in depressed performance and absenteeism.
  • There is an increased risk of workers’ compensation claims to support extended absences from work.
  • There is an increased risk that return to work following a workers’ compensation-based absence will fail. 

Research on staff loyalty, commitment and performance demonstrates that staff do not work for organisations so much as their work teams. The manager/team leader is, therefore, the lynch pin in driving high performance and ensuring staff wellbeing. Add to this retention of staff and you have a crucial role that must be performed to a contemporary standard.


There is, I believe, an imperative need to review how leaders are recruited – at executive and manager levels. Needless to say; this infers a need to review leadership development programs for current staff in those roles as well.

Psychological safety is a must have these days if the sector wants high performance, and the goal of being a ‘world class public service’ not mere fluff with nothing substantial behind it.

Several things must happen:

  • The imperative of recruiting psychologically mature individuals capable of self-awareness and empathy must be understood and committed to.
  • A sector-wide minimum standard concerning the personal attributes competencies must be set and monitored. In fact, a minimum standard should be set for leadership capabilities – and at a far higher level than current. No capability below Advanced should be okay for grade 11/12 positions manager/leader roles and higher.
  • Agency leadership teams must ensure developmental activity is available for current manager/leaders, including requiring informal and self-directed learning and development as part of their professional development obligations.
  • A culture of effective leader accountability is needed. This is the weakest aspect of any public sector.

Demands to return to the office – after the pandemic – must be kind


For many staff with disability, working from home during COVID has been an unexpected blessing, for a variety of reasons.

But there are potentially hidden down sides as well. The comfort of safe isolation may have atrophied relational skills and made going out into the world feel like a dangerous adventure to be avoided when possible.

We should see the pandemic as a cause of trauma for some people

We all respond to threat in our own ways. Depending on how we assess our vulnerabilities, we will respond to a threat accordingly. Some threats arise quick and subside just a swiftly. Others arise and persist for some time. The COVID 19 pandemic is a persistent threat. Under such a persistent threat adaptive behaviours develop and become normal. When things change, those behaviours must be unlearned.

It is one thing for the pandemic to be traumatising for some people with disability because of the risks associated with infection or isolation. It is quite another thing to appreciate that a demand to suddenly end protective adaptive behaviours may carry its own traumatic implications.

We all respond differently

A uniform uncompromising demand to return to the office will be met with relief by some – and alarm by others.

A demand to suddenly abandon protective adaptive behaviours can trigger trauma at the best of times. And these are still not the best of times.

Some keen observers in the DEI space are wondering what portion of ‘The Great Resignation’ is down to people making trauma-induced decisions to quit work rather than be forced in return to office demands that fill them with dread. Faced with an ‘all or nothing’ choice, nothing can seem the safest and least traumatic.

The impact of 2 years of lockdowns, isolations and avoidance is something we can only guess at. It is an unprecedented situation. But there is evidence that bringing atrophied social and relational skills to work can lead to conflict at work, triggering acts of exclusion.

Dr David Rock, co-founder of the Neuroleadership Foundation (NLI), had a short article We Need Time to Rehabilitate the Trauma of the Pandemic published in the Harvard Business Review in February this year.

Rock says this applies to everyone. The NLI ran a webinar on de-escalation on Friday May 6. It was clear from participants across the country that there were heightened inter-relational tensions as staff came back to the office – and there was a need to know how best to handle them before they became a destructive force in workplaces. The cost of such a destructive scenario on teams and work performance – and individuals – can only be guessed at at this stage.


Staff with disability have been expressing anxiety about returning to the office for some time. There are two considerations to be kept in mind. 

The first is that getting to the office may have always been something of a perilous and taxing adventure for some. I have spoken with blind staff and those with mobility disabilities who described the normal stress of getting to and from work. Working from home relieved that stress.

The second is that COVID is still a serious threat to some who may not wish to contract it, regardless of their vaccination status. If returning to the office requires the abandoning of self-protective behaviours the individual believes are important to take, the sense of threat will be high.

I don’t want to buy into the return to office debate here. I want simply to observe that for some people with disability the requirement to return to the office can trigger a multi-faceted traumatic response that cannot be dismissed or ignored.

Read Dr Rock’s short article and share it widely with those who may benefit from his insights. 

And let’s ensure that insight and compassion prevail.

Enforcing rights unlikely to happen?


I was listening to the CBC podcast Ideas, which was randomly replaying one of Margaret Visser’s 2002 Massey Lectures – Beyond Fate. I was jolted by Visser’s claim that “no way of enforcing rights has ever been found.”

The day before I had been prompted to download the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, dated 6 December 2006. I wondered, over the past 20 years, had we found a way of enforcing the rights of persons with disabilities, despite the fact they were affirmed after Visser’s lectures?

In Australia it is possible to call people who violate the rights of people with disability to account via the Human Rights Commission and by invoking anti-discrimination legislation. But such action tends to be reserved for the most egregious violations. And even then, this recourse does not assure rights are respected and honoured into the future – for the aggrieved individual, or fellow sufferers.

It’s time to rethink what is a fair thing to anticipate when asserting the right to enjoy an inalienable right.

What does a right really mean?

Rights are an interesting idea from the point of view of a person with a disability. People may agree you have them, but then may act as if you do not. You see, a right is consensual. To have it, you must act as if you have it, and so must everyone else. If you act as if you have a right and others do not – you don’t really have it. Rights are, in fact, subject to dispute and disagreement.

A right is “a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something” (Oxford Dictionary). The UN Convention speaks of “the inherent dignity and worth and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Inalienable means something cannot be taken away or surrendered. A right must be declared inalienable by others. Even so, that does not mean it is a contract, let alone a law.

This would be good language – if it had a worthwhile meaning. But it doesn’t. A “moral entitlement” is meaningless because it requires common assent and a powerful cultural or communal commitment to which all are bound. Violation must have undesirable consequences. We don’t live in that kind of environment these days.

A legal entitlement is another matter, provided there is a will, and the means, to enforce it. There are a multitude of reasons why this is an unattractive and ineffectual option. Australians are not inherently litigious – so getting up a head of steam of moral outrage is a lot harder than in the USA. The pool of skilled litigators might be another, through want of practice. I don’t want to get too deep into this theme. It merits a more legally articulate comment than I can offer. The history of government departments defending against flagrant violations of the rights of staff members with determined passion doesn’t help either.

Violators of rights in ways that cause serious injury can escape being held to account with comparative ease. And chilling tales of the deeply aggrieved pursuing justice to the point of financial and psychological ruin offers no comfort.

I am not saying that pursuit of rights through tribunals and courts is pointless and fruitless, just that doing so can be fraught, handled incompetently, and fail. The ‘system’ is not tuned to favour the victim – from the instance of violation of a right through subsequent responses to the point where adjudication of the matter is sought.

It is safe to say that rights in any practical sense, are fragile and vulnerable. They are expressions of genuine noble sentiment. But a declaration of a right, even if expressed in legislation, is not a magic wand.

Despite efforts to the contrary, a right isn’t a real thing. It isn’t property. At best it is an agreement concerning conduct that is often imposed upon people whose goodwill and assent must be obtained for that imposition to have meaning and value.

The victimization of victims

Staff with disability who experience violations of their rights are routinely turned into accusers, not of their oppressors, but of the agency the oppressors represent. The burden of proving a case falls upon the victim, with a presumption of innocence being accorded to the manager, who is often the alleged perpetrator. This seems like natural justice, but it is not.

Part of the role of management is to ensure that staff with disability do not find themselves in a position where they are aggrieved. The belief that a grievance is most likely unjustified is favoured by managers because that forces the onus of proof on the victim. 

It is far more likely that a grievance is justified, and that the matter of concern was preventable. In the time I worked with staff with disability to find a resolution to their grievances concerning violation of their rights I encountered only one instance of the complaint being objectively unfounded. It was, however, triggered by psychological stress which had to be addressed in any case.

Vexatious complaints are rare and may be triggered by an underpinning issue that may or may not have anything to do with work. This is a far more complex matter than it may at first seem.  

The raising of a complaint is usually a signal that a situation has been ineptly managed. It is this fact that a complaint has been raised that should be the focus of concern. This shifts the focus to human-centred management, where the rights and dignity of staff matter, and away from a quasi-legal adversarial approach. Historically this approach has been designed to favour those in positions of power. It has no place in contemporary management practice.

Exactly why a manager should be more representative of an organization than a productive employee shouldn’t be a hard question. Get rid of a highly skilled and experienced worker who complains about discrimination or keep an incompetent discriminatory manager? That’s so often a no-brainer. But so often the manager is the one who stays. 

Those who manage look after their own. Management culture readily turns those below them into others – members of an out-group. This complex reality of organizational hierarchies is under-estimated in the practice and perpetuation of discriminatory conduct.

Just before I left my department in June 2021 a new approach to complaints was circulated. It was well-intended. But it distinguished between managers and workers. Really? I as a subject matter expert with near on 20 years’ experience was a ‘worker’? And a manager with far less expertise that was a class above me? They were in a different role category – performing a role I had no interest in. But they were not in a different class. This class divide between managers and workers is ancient and tenaciously persistent. This is despite the reality that managers and ‘workers’ mostly come from the same social class these days. This is a major factor in the persistent failure of organisations to honour the rights of staff (workers) with disability (and others).

Let’s think about the rights of a person with disability

In an organization – a department, business, or community the exercising of the rights of a person with disability may mean adjustments must be made to the physical and cultural environment. 

The problem is that while people may be fine with adjustments to the physical environment- because other people benefit as well – that does not mean they are going to be okay about adjusting their beliefs, attitudes, values, or behaviours. Individuals are not usually personally invested in adjustments to the physical environment. But they are personally invested in changes to the cultural environment – where that includes them. 

Many will be prepared to make a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to their attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviours – but on their terms. We must remember that there are other demands on individuals, and that such changes can be very demanding – cognitively and emotionally. 

There is interesting brain research that suggests that if an organization wants to increase the extent to which its staff respond supportively to staff members with disability it must accommodate a range of variables that can impede the desired reaction:

  • Mandatory awareness training can have the opposite effect if it adds a cognitive and emotional burden, and there is no motivated personal commitment. 
  • Work related stress lowers willingness to change attitudes and behaviours.
  • Unconscious and implicit bias can lead people to violate rights while believing they are upholding them.

There is a spectrum of willingness to adapt, and a spectrum of capacity to adapt. At the top extreme there is high willingness and high capacity. At the bottom end is low willingness and low capacity. We are all somewhere on that spectrum.

The challenge for any organization is to determine where it draws a line on that spectrum to signal the extreme of the negative response it is prepared to live with. Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) advocates have urged businesses to respond to the evidence that high willingness to create optimal DEI conditions has a bottom line pay off. But the lure of lower cost and higher income does not always work. The attitudes of senior leaders may not be that idealistic or pragmatic. 

Public sector organizations have an obligation to treat all members of the community they represent fairly and equally, so their line on the spectrum must be toward the highest level of willingness. This isn’t a pragmatic option. There is a fundamental difference between profit and equity bottom lines that applies in relation to private and public organisations. It is that one can opt out of a shared value and the other may not.

However, a moral obligation to not opt out does not translate as an actionable duty to opt in. This is what confuses many who assume that an assertion of their rights is an affirmation they will be honoured – and then find they are not. Worse, the people who ignore or violate them persist in insisting they do, in fact, honour those rights.

The fundamental difference between private and public organisations

The private sector has a discretion about whether it agrees to abide by laws of a nation or state. It can choose to leave, or it can choose to violate the laws. In many countries it can be cheaper to violate. The right to violate can be bought at a good price. In the US corporations seem to be frequently sued for violations of rights. That suggests that there is a calculation that such violations are often successful – and this is something the organisation’s leadership culture is comfortable with.

The public sector of a country, or state, does not have the option of departing. It must choose to violate at an acceptable cost. This is what usually happens. Governments accept a burden of non-compliance against their own laws by their own sector is a cost of doing business.

Evidence that this is a real assessment is demonstrated in the fact that the cost of insurance premiums for workplace related injury is going up, despite the fact reasons for preventable injury are known. This is especially the case concerning psychological injury. The cost of prevention is deemed higher than the cost of compensation. Prevention is seen as a cost, not an investment.

Private sector businesses are constrained by investors making rational choices based on a profit motive. The public sector is shaped by less rational choices. Whether it has the means to engage in needed reforms and growth is resource dependent. And beyond that, it is a question of values and will.

Public sector problems

A morally responsive public sector must ensure equal access and participation across increasingly diverse communities. There is obviously a political dimension to how this response plays out. That’s not a topic for this essay.

In public sector organisations, upholding the rights of people with disability (and others) may not be a value shared by its workforce. It then has a challenge concerning how it is going to ensure that most of its workforce is on the high side of the spectrum of acceptance of those rights, which is reflected in a high capacity to uphold them. 

In the New South Wales public sector there is a code of conduct which requires conduct consistent with the declared rights of people with disability. But it is not specific or clear about how violations of these rights are assessed, and what penalties, if any, are imposed.


I am starting to think we need to move away from the idea of rights and think more in terms of obligation or duty. If we see it as a two-sided equation and recognise that one side is not keeping up its end of the deal, it all falls apart. Rights walk with 2 legs – assertion and confirmation. With only one leg, we have rights with disability – not disability rights.

To assert “I have a right…” is to essentially assert a nice sentiment, which may not be shared by those you are speaking to. They may have been told they are required to share the sentiment, and they may say they do, but their actions may not agree. What is more important is the capacity of an organization to self-police its ability to stand by its self-described and self-declared duty to treat its workforce with equal dignity.

I conclude that Margaret Visser is right – “No way of enforcing rights has ever been found.” Twenty years has made no difference to the acuity of that insight.

What can we learn from the DRC Report?


The Disability Royal Commission commissioned a report from the University of NSW and Flinders University. The title is Research Report – changing community attitudes to improve inclusion of people with disability.

It is a general report that does not specifically address the employment issues that are the focus of this blog. However, I recommend a careful reading because the principles articulated here are applicable, and they are discussed in more detail than I will address.

The literature review covers academic research in the past 3 years. This is important because it lays a foundation for observations and opinion based on recognised research.

I am going to reflect on 3 ideas that struck me as most compelling.

Attitude change

The implications for government are that attitudes and behaviour both matter, both should be targeted for change, and both should be measured. The facilitators of attitude change are:

  1. Active presence of people with disability
  2. Leadership
  3. Targeting multiple levels and multiple types of policy and interventions
  4. Long-term approaches with adequate resources 
  5. Measuring and monitoring change.”

Three takeaways:

  • Changing attitudes requires a sustained strategic approach.
  • Active senior leadership and staff with disability are indispensable elements in that approach.
  • That strategic approach must include an accountability mechanism which monitors and measures progress. 

What an attitudes survey tells us

In the Attitudes Matter survey of community attitudes towards people with disability conducted on a representative panel of the Australian population, most respondents reported positive or inclusive attitudes, with only a minority reporting overtly negative attitudes.

Nevertheless, 78% of the respondents agreed that people without disability were unsure how to act towards people with disability. It appears that, regardless of people’s intentions, actions based on uncertainty can have adverse impacts for people with disability.

However, the survey could not measure implicit attitudes or bias. Also, it could not explore intersectionality, which is the impact that different types of impairments, identities and social positions such as gender, race and ethnicity, class and sexuality can have on attitudes and behaviour.

There were 3 key takeaways for me:

  1. There is a minority that has negative attitudes toward people with disability. And there is no reason to assume that such people are not in senior leadership or management positions in an organisation.
  2. An absence of confidence in engaging with people with disability can lead to unintended acts of exclusion.
  3. The impact of intersectionality is not fully appreciated. There is a potential for multiple biases to cluster on a single individual with disability.

The importance of leadership

When leadership positions are places where people demonstrate their commitment to change attitudes, then the interventions initiated from other levels are endorsed and gain momentum. Also, when people with disability hold leadership positions throughout organisations, the attitudes of others change, as seeing people with disability in leadership positions becomes an expectation and a common experience. 

Second, this facilitator requires change in structures, with leadership about disability embedded in organisations. People in leadership positions in government, business and social and cultural organisations need to be incentivised to communicate about the importance of attitude change, and they need to be incentivised to appoint people with disability to leadership positions. Effective leadership also contributes to resisting any counterforces to change.

Third, leadership needs to require co-design with people with disability. Examples of structures required for this type of leadership are inclusive governance and management, including employee resource groups and disability staff networks; and building campaigns and interventions from grassroots priorities. When interventions to change attitudes adopt co-design processes, they validate the collective voices and lived experience expertise of people with disability in the way the interventions are designed and conducted. These processes can effect change by joining the power of life stories to specific calls for action. Co-design activity needs to avoid risks of tokenism. Instead, it needs to connect deeply to structural change. 

My 3 key takeaways:

  1. When leaders affirm their demonstrable commitment to change, other efforts at change are boosted. And it would be better if leaders with disability were seen to be committed to change – alongside those with no disability.
  2. The sector must ensure that there are ‘incentives’ provided to leaders to be engaged in active support of change. What those incentive might be is another discussion entirely.
  3. Leaders must require co-design with staff with disability in all reform efforts – and in sufficient numbers to avoid appearance of tokenism. This means at least 3 people with disability in any co-design exercise.


Academic reports can be hard to read if you are not accustomed to the academic voice. But this report does a very good job of articulating key ideas drawn from contemporary academic research. This means that these ideas are not mere opinion, but well-grounded and thought through arguments. They should become the foundation of advocacy for change.

I recommend the reader downloads the report and goes through it with a highlighter draw out the ideas that are most compelling to them. There is little point in inviting senior leaders to read a report of this size. I don’t think the executive summary is fit for purpose in the context of an organisation. The report is too broad for that. It is necessary to develop a targeted summation of the findings to fit the organisation.

Rethinking mental illness


I am very familiar with the phenomenon we call mental illness, but I do not like the term at all. It is misleading and is frequently misapplied to cause harm to people who already have a psychological injury. Adding a stigma to what can be a challenging thing to live with seems cruel and pointless.

In the 1970s I worked in psychiatric hospitals, engaging with people who had severe to profound cognitive and behavioural disabilities. From December 2001 to June 2006, I worked with what are now known in NSW as Assisted Boarding Houses as a Support Manager. The resident population of these boarding houses was a combination of people with intellectual disabilities and those diagnosed with mental illness. I visited these boarding houses often and became familiar with, and comfortable in my interaction with, the residents.

In between those roles there were others that exposed me to psychiatry and the challenges of living with cognitive and behavioural disabilities in the community and at work.

I have friends and family members who live with depression and/or anxiety, and more complex conditions. And I have had my own challenges.

I have no formal learning in psychology. I have read widely for decades in psychiatry and psychology as part of my own professional development.

The mind is the brain?

The idea of mental illness arises chiefly from the idea that the brain is the source of the mind. This is a position that arises directly from empirical evidence in brain science. It is a perfectly reasonable one to hold. But it is disputed by people who hold spiritual and religious beliefs (like me).

There is absolutely no doubt that what we think, and feel, is mediated by the brain. So even if you do not believe that the brain creates the mind, you can’t escape the evidence that at the very least, brain-mediated awareness dominates our notions of mind.

The metaphysical disputes between a materialistic and religious on the nature of the mind are pointless here. Unless there is mutually admitted empirical evidence such a dispute can go nowhere.

I want to make a carefully nuanced assertion. For the behaviour we are considering here, the ‘mind as brain’ model is sufficient in most instances. Where it is not sufficient there tends to be a shared acceptance of ‘higher’ attributes of our cognition and behaviour without splitting metaphysical hairs. There is an agreeable vagueness about the language and there is a shared sense of intended meaning.

So, is mental illness a physical condition?

It seems that some are either born with, or acquire, injuries to our brain such that impaired cognition or behaviour is stubbornly persistent. That doesn’t mean the impairment causes dysfunction at a level that it can be classified as a disability. Like anything, there is a spectrum of levels of impairment – from nothing very much to serious debilitating conditions.

Beyond that, we have experiences that cause our brains to respond in ways that can impair our cognition and behaviour for short or long periods. If severe and persistent, this may result in a disability. A short-term impairment might abate in time or through an intervention. This can range from situational stress to Post Traumatic Shock.

Here I am not attempting a comprehensive discussion of the brain. I want to simply make a point that under the mind is brain model we must be talking about physical brain states. There is no thing called the mind that can explored unless the term means brain. Mind is a cultural artefact that we need to talk about our cognition and behaviour. The moment we say the mind is created by the brain we are talking about brain states – physical states.

Why does this matter? It makes mental illness a gross misnomer. And this is very important.

The problems no understanding of psychiatry create

I must declare that I am not a huge fan of psychiatry as a discipline. I don’t want to explain why here, I just need to declare a bias. This bias, I hope, will not interfere with what I want to say here.

My experience in psychiatric hospitals has exposed me to extreme manifestations of cognitive and behavioural malfunctions. I have been on wards where I have feared for my safety. There are dangerous people – in psychiatric hospitals, in prisons and in the community. But few people who are diagnosed with a ‘mental illness’ are dangerous. 

The Blackdog Institute observes that. “Common mental illnesses in Australians are: anxiety disorders (14%), depressive disorders (6%) and substance use disorders (5%)”. Anxiety and/or depression is most likely what you will find in your workplace. And we all get anxious or depressed at some stage in our lives. People who are anxious or depressed are not scary.

But for most people their exposure to mental illness is via popular culture – stories and cultural traditions. Depicting mental illness in ways that do not trigger a threat response in a viewer or reader usually is a waste of a good narrative. 

We all are familiar with the language of psychiatry – schizophrenic, psychotic – and the language of popular culture – mad, troppo, demented, deranged, lunatic, looney, batshit crazy and so on. Some of the language in popular culture is a residue from the language of psychiatry from the past.

We are mostly primed to respond to this language (from both sources) with some level of threat. This is because when we encounter it, it is most commonly in a highly negative context – and one usually intended to generate a threat response for dramatic effect. This includes news reports and entertainment like movies.

The result is that many people are not in a position to respond to the idea of mental illnessin the best manner. This is the foundation of the idea of a stigma connected with the term. It implies a sick mind and hence the risk of disordered thought and behaviour.

Bias and behaving badly

Implicit bias is a bias that has been developed through exposure to cultural and historic attitudes, ideas, and values. An implicit bias is an unconscious conditioning that will be activated even when there is conscious intent to respond in a positive non-biased way. 

But let’s add to the implicit bias a more primed response that activates threat responses in the brain because exposure to ideas about mental illness has a current and active impact. We cannot know when an individual was last exposed to negative stereotypes. Between cultural conditioning and personal experience, the impact of bias is magnified.

If your exposure to mental illness is largely negative or sensationalistic (via movies or scary stories) you will likely have an implicit bias that is triggered when you hear the term. That could be a mild threat response, but it will move you away from, rather than toward the person to whom the term is applied. That’s the stigma at work.

There’s another level. An individual with a magnified level of bias against mental illnessmay also be experiencing any number of states triggered by stressors (work pressure, personal life stressors, psychological injury) that means an additional cognitive and emotional burden triggers an adverse response to an idea already distorted by bias.

Put simply, some people cannot respond to the idea of mental illness in a way that is respectful or compassionate, even if they want to at a deeper level.

Let’s get rid of mental illness and talk about psychological wellbeing and safety

We all have times when we struggle to keep an even keel in the midst of an existential storm. Such a storm can be short lived, or it can endure for months, or longer. 

Our ability to rebound (resilience) depends on a range of factors – the nature and severity of the storm, our health (physical and emotional), and whether there are other storms around. If we are not constitutionally resilient, our ability to handle the cognitive and emotional stress triggered by responding to the idea of mental illness can be impaired.

For example, a parent whose marriage is on the rocks is advised one of their parents is dying in a problematic nursing home. This triggers issues with siblings. One of their children is being bullied at school. And a restructure at work has led to an increase in work demands. That’s a massive stress load. Normal life can do that.

I am not talking any disability here. The emotional demand on the parent may be so severe that their work performance is impacted. There’s nothing here to trigger a diagnosis of a mental illness, but the accumulated impact might be similar.

A person born with a brain state that makes a heightened sense of threat their normal state – with no functioning on/off switch – is no more ill than a person born without a left foot. Either condition will impact behaviour; and may impact cognition to some degree. True, a brain state disability may require more intentional effort to maintain effective cognition for longer than a person undergoing an existential storm, or two. But is the effort fundamentally different – or just extended in time? 

A clue might be the number of people with diagnosed psychological conditions who perform perfectly well – without anybody aware of their diagnosis, or the fact that they have one – or that they are undertaking therapeutic treatment or are using medication. Now and then they may need an accommodation or an adjustment – just like anybody else. 

Asking for that an accommodation or an adjustment, and having to give a detailed reason is where the problems start.


Being born with, or acquiring, a brain state that does not have an off switch for normal processes like feeling anxious or depressed isn’t an illness. It is a physical disability.  I know I can get into a serious argument on this point with some. But it’s not going to be here.

We must move to thinking in terms of psychological wellbeing and the psychological safety at work to ask for an adjustment or accommodation when the need arises. There can be no justification based on the reason or cause, only the self-assessed and expressed need. Some may wish to say why there is a need. Others may not.

The modern workplace must be a place where a perceived need for time out can be assumed to be genuinely self-assessed. There will be some who will disagree and that there may be staff who will use this freedom to wrongly seek time out when there is no need. Leaving aside the psychological condition that motivates deception and exploitation of good intent, there are effective ways of managing the conduct of the minority whose approach is demonstrably inappropriate. 

In many ways this has nothing to do with disability. A universal capacity to accommodate the psychological health needs of all will benefit people with disability who need accommodations and adjustments. It’s about treating adults at work as rational agents capable of assessing their own needs. It is not about medicalising going through a tough time to satisfy a need for ‘evidence’ beyond self-reporting. 

The NSW public sector allows for a certain number of days on sick leave without a medical certificate as it is. This is legacy thinking, belonging to times when there was a presumption that staff would ‘bunk off’ whenever the opportunity arose. In fact, current research suggests that this isn’t the case – unless the workplace is toxic and unsafe. Also, its commonplace to refer to a ‘sickie’ as a ‘mental health day’.

We need to rethink how we address the need of people who have periods of emotional and cognitive overload because of a stressful situation and need time out. The culture we have created discourages open discussion. Diagnosed conditions like anxiety and depression are manageable in the normal run of things for many people. But now and then not so much. How is that different to a person balancing a bunch of stresses and needing a ‘mental health day?’

The Blackdog Institute notes that “54% of people with mental illness do not access any treatment.” But does it mean 54% of people diagnosed with mental illness? So, about half are into handling out themselves. And what about those who haven’t a diagnosis? If you take the earlier figures, that’s around 13% of the population who have a diagnosis and are doing it for themselves. That’s around 1 million people in NSW. Yeah. I had to go back to my calculator. That’s over 50,000 NSW public servants. Why aren’t we responding to their needs?

By creating and maintaining a culture which offers psychological safety and values psychological wellbeing, the stigma connected with mental illness can be eliminated because that term is no longer in use. That may create a culture of safety and trust, in which discussing one’s needs happens without fear.