Why diversity and inclusion is important for mental health

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 10 March, 2022 - 12:15
Industry news
National News

Diversity and inclusion practices are a part of creating and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace, according to an expert in the area.

Factors such as the way work is designed, the load and demand of work, how much autonomy or flexibility we have over work, the level of support or engagement in the work environment, and how we interact with others and in our work environment all impact mental health and psychological safety at work, said Dr Katrina Norris, psychologist and director of Actuate Health.

“For people from diverse backgrounds, this includes issues of lack of representation, microaggressions, unconscious bias etc. This makes fostering a positive psychosocial safety climate and effectively identifying and managing psychosocial hazards essential to creating inclusive workplaces and vice versa,” said Norris, who recently spoke at an AIHS Women in Safety and Health network (WISH) online event on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Norris explained psychosocial safety climate is the shared perceptions and beliefs of the policies, practices and procedures protecting psychological health and wellbeing in the workplace.

“A positive psychosocial safety climate is essentially an environment in which people feel they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions, concerns and even mistakes, and that their input is valued,” she said.

“This is fostered through members of the organisation at all levels (but particularly at the top), walking the walk, in terms of psychological health and wellbeing. What I mean by this, is people actively engaging with input from others and being seen to genuinely act in accordance with the policies and procedures put in place.”

With regards to how psychosocial safety links to diversity and inclusion, Norris said inclusive organisations are ones that empower their people to thrive as their whole selves through creating environments that recognise and value diverse perspectives, skills, experiences and abilities.

“Inclusion is more likely to be experienced as real when there is a higher level of psychological safety because people are more likely to feel safe in expressing themselves, and diverse perspectives are more likely to be heard as a result.

“When one feels unsafe, psychologically, in their workplace, then they are less likely to speak up and offer feedback or their perspective,” said Norris, who explained there are a number of important elements in creating a psychologically safe environment:

  • Promoting wellbeing and breaking down the stigma around mental health and diversity
  • Working collaboratively and actively engaging with employees to develop the right attitudes, resources and initiatives to best respond to their needs – essentially creating a sense of security, control and autonomy of how work is designed and the environment is interacted with
  • Leading by example and providing leaders with support to be able to have genuine conversations with their staff about wellbeing as well as individual needs and perspectives;
  • Learning how to listen and engage, and
  • Working to identify and manage the covert acts of discrimination that may arise within the workplace.

“What can be difficult for diversity and inclusion and OHS practitioners in linking both disciplines to psychological safety and wellbeing, is how we make wellbeing a part of the dialogue between organisations and workers in a genuine and authentic way,” said Norris. Flexibility and flexible work arrangements are one way to address wellbeing through inclusive practices as she said flexible work arrangements are about optimising employee engagement, satisfaction and productivity through supporting a balance between their working and non-working commitments or interests.

Such arrangements create a dialogue between employers and employees about individual interests, values and needs while creating opportunities for greater workplace participation of those with differing needs (e.g. working parents, workers with study, community, volunteer, sporting, or religious commitments etc, or older workers wishing to maintain a level of employment).

Norris said conversations about flexibility and flexible working arrangements, foster a well-being culture as they demonstrate an organisation’s capacity to understand and support workers having lives outside of work that are important to them and of benefit.