OHS Canada Magazine

A leader’s introduction to the intersection of inclusion, psychological safety

April 3, 2023
By Bill Howatt and Dayna Lee-Baggley
Health & Safety Human Resources editor pick Inclusion Psychological Safety

An image showing the concept of inclusion. Photo: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Many employers are investing resources and energy into the inclusion, diversity, equity, and accommodations (IDEA) framework to ensure all workers’ differences and individual needs are considered. What is expected of IDEA is clear. However, the meaning and accountability to bring each element to life vary, based on an employer’s commitment and competency.

Many decision-makers accountable for facilitating the IDEA mission do not understand the details required to implement its elements. For example, accommodations guidelines are driven by provincial human rights legislation regarding leaders’ responsibility to remove barriers that discriminate against workers.

Physical accommodations like making buildings accessible and providing aids for visual- and hearing-impaired employees are clear for most employers, but they are just starting to understand how they can better protect and support employees working with a mental illness.

Many employers likely feel challenged by HOW to facilitate IDEA cultures rather than WHAT they should be doing. With the increased social movement to be more sensitive to gender identification requirements, neurodivergence population expectations, and massive changes in workforce diversity through immigration profiles, IDEA is no longer a “nice-to-have”. It is a must for an organization to achieve its full potential and attract and retain workers.

Why the IDEA mission may be failing in some organizations

For the IDEA framework to achieve its full potential, it needs to be clear on the behaviours and habits required to live by its core values, like all humans should be treated with respect, feel valued, and have equal opportunities, regardless of their differences. Some Boards mandate their organizations to invest in inclusion training for all employees annually.


One risk is this mandatory training may lack clarity on the key performance behaviours (KPBs) needed to promote each letter in the IDEA framework.

Typically such training lacks any effort to change behaviour and only offers insight into behaviour. Insight alone does not change behaviour.

As more boards and CEOs push for ESG reporting, there is an opportunity to put more accountability on leaders to focus on employees’ social experience. This includes psychological and physical safety, inclusiveness, and the employer’s effectiveness in promoting and protecting employees’ mental health through initiatives that mitigate disability claims and turnover.

There is value in many inclusion training initiatives that allow employees to share and learn new information that can reduce oppression and implicit bias. Our research brief, The Inclusion Imperative, now in the public domain, provides a framework for employers to facilitate inclusion. We used this brief to develop training for employees and leaders to facilitate explicit, tacit, and applied learning.

The capstone activities in this short course leverage case studies to challenge learners to apply the course’s knowledge and skills to take risks, be curious, uncover bias, and obtain context about how others experience the workplace and how they can support an inclusive workplace.

Our training includes creating and maintaining psychologically safe workplaces because, without that foundation, there is little opportunity to facilitate an IDEA culture. Integrating psychological safety and inclusion initiatives to facilitate a culture that promotes accountability and learning is beneficial.

To have a meaningful impact, initiatives to promote inclusion and psychological safety cannot be check-the-box activities.

They must be adopted as core values promoting habits that drive an IDEA framework.

The HOW begins when an employer demonstrates they care about all employees’ experiences by committing to a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach. Too often, the “Check” is not performed to ensure what is being done to protect and support employees is working.

Until all employees feel psychologically safe to challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation, there is no chance to create an inclusive culture where all feel welcomed, valued, respected, and included.

The Workplace Psychological Safety Assessment (WPSA) came from our research to measure an inclusive and psychologically safe workplace. We found the benefit of understanding workforce experience through an intersectional inclusion lens. Employees who scored low on our inclusion scale were likely at risk of disability and experience incivility, bullying, and harassment.

How a leader can engage their teams to explore inclusion

Leaders can help their teams create conversations around inclusion in the workplace. It will be challenging to foster inclusion if employees feel unsafe sharing or speaking up. Leaders do not need to be experts. They need to be curious and open to learn, and demonstrate they care by talking about inclusion.

Action: Block 10 minutes near the end of a team meeting and ask the following questions. Listen and learn. The purpose is to create space for a conversation to increase the team’s awareness:

  • How do you know you feel included in the workplace?
  • Why is it important for everyone on this team to feel included?

Allow team members to discover their inclusion experience — how they feel today. You can read or adapt the following script. The goal is to allow workers to complete a confidential, 10-item survey that creates an opportunity for more conversations and discovery about inclusion.

  • “I would like each of you to take five minutes after this meeting to complete the Perception of Workplace Inclusion Quick Survey. It is not a company initiative; it is our team’s. The survey is confidential, and you can print your results. If you score in the red or yellow zone, I can work with you to plan to close gaps. We may have resources that can help. It would help if you felt psychologically safe to chat with me. I will work hard to earn that right if you do not.”

Note: We use the above survey in our WPSA advanced analytics package to help employers understand through an intersectional lens how different groups feel included. The survey shows how inclusion impacts groups’ workplace experience regarding psychological safety. We encourage all employers to look at the whole employee and be mindful that all are much more than what you see.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the founder and president of Ottawa-based Howatt HR Consulting. He is also chair of the CSA Standard on Substance Impairment Z1008, former chief of research and development at lifeworks, and former chief of research and workforce productivity at the Conference Board of Canada. He is the author of the Globe and Mail best seller The Cure for Loneliness

Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley specializes in behaviour change, both to encourage better health in individuals and to create healthier workplaces inorganizations. She uses evidence-based practices to provide practical and applicable skills to improve behavioural effectiveness both in the workplace and at home. She also specializes in interventions for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. As a bi-racial daughter of a Chinese immigrant, she also brings the lived experience a visible minority and the immigrant experience to her work.


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