This article, co-authored by Well at Work and Regina Public Schools employees, explores some of the many connections between wellbeing and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). We begin with identifying the strong links between psychological health and safety, inclusion and workplace wellbeing. Learning from the experience and insight of Regina Public Schools staff, we highlight their overall commitment to creating equitable and safe environments, and share their statements about what psychological health and safe is – and is not. Building a solid foundation for psychological safety and inclusion supports the building blocks for more caring, inclusive and, ultimately, successful learning and working experiences.
An important part of psychological safety is valuing diversity, equity and inclusion. In education, we agree that creating inclusive, welcoming, and safe physical and social learning and working environments must begin with a focus on psychological health and safety.
Psychological safety and inclusion are interdependent and often require shared efforts, with inclusion often identified as an element of psychological health and safety and vice versa. For example, Timothy Clark’s Four Stages of Psychological Safety7 identifies inclusion as the first step. Similarly, measures of psychological safety in the workplace (e.g., Guarding Minds at Work) often include indicators for inclusion.
Psychological Safety at Work
When we experience psychological safety, we feel safe to take interpersonal risks, to speak up, to disagree openly and to raise concerns without fear of negative repercussions.
Inclusion at Work
Inclusion is the degree to which employees feel a sense of belonging at work and the safety to share their suggestions and concerns. It also includes the ability to influence inclusive policies, procedures and learning environments.
The Wellbeing Perspective: Well at Work
At Well at Work, we support school divisions across the country to take a comprehensive, systemic approach to workplace wellbeing. Our experience working with school divisions suggests that when we begin with a focus on psychological health and safety, we create a foundation for workplace wellbeing.
When we ask education employees at all levels what supports their wellbeing at work, the most common responses include having senses of community, connection and belonging at work. As human beings, we have an innate need for social connection.8 Experiencing a sense of belonging and inclusion promotes both physical and mental health, while feeling excluded has a negative effect on overall health and wellbeing. The impact of social exclusion on our overall wellbeing is potentially greater than that of well-known risks such as smoking and physical (in)activity.9, 10
Wellbeing is firmly established as a predictor of employee engagement and performance – and of student learning. When employees feel their best, they can do their best work.11 They can show up as their most creative, caring, compassionate and collaborative selves and nurture the environments where students can thrive. On the other hand, when staff are struggling or when their window of tolerance is narrowed, they are more likely to become overwhelmed and reactive.
Figure 1: The Build Up. (Source: The Awkward Yeti)
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Perspective: Regina Public Schools
Regina Public Schools is a large, diverse urban school division in Saskatchewan, with over 26,000 students and 3000+ employees from very different backgrounds. Regina Public Schools includes 57 schools with families from over 100 different countries. We believe that diversity is a strength, and this belief is reflected in our 2023-2027 strategic plan that prioritizes mental health; inclusive, welcoming and safe environments; and unwavering support for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Regina Public Schools Strategic Priority 2: Equitable and Safe Environments
Provide inclusive, safe and welcoming environments, informed by trauma sensitive practices committed to principles of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Goal 2.1: Enrich, strengthen and promote mental health and well-being in students and staff.
Goal 2.2: Deepen awareness, understanding and commitment for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Goal 2.3: Create accepting, safe, inclusive and accountable learning and working spaces.
Recognizing that all RPS staff have a role to play in creating safe and equitable environments, our recent work has focused on building a shared understanding and priority of psychological safety among our entire staff team – from head facility technicians to Registered Psychologists. This work included facilitating a series of discussions with all RPS staff and with smaller employee groups to define what psychological safety is, what it looks and feels like when we experience psychological safety, and what psychological safety is not. Some of the notable discussion points are highlighted below.
- While psychological safety is about creating a safe space for employees to speak up, it does not mean disagreements/conflicts should be avoided.
- While psychological safety is about creating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up, it does not mean that criticism is not allowed. Constructive feedback is still essential for growth and development.
- While psychological safety is about creating an environment where all ideas can be shared without fear of ridicule or punishment, it includes the understanding that this does not mean that all ideas will be accepted.
- While psychological safety is important for fostering a healthy work environment, it does not replace the need for additional policies and procedures such as anti-discrimination, harassment and safety protocols.
- While leaders play a crucial role in creating a psychologically safe work environment, it is not exclusively their responsibility. Every employee has a role in contributing to a healthy work culture.
- While psychological safety does not mean inappropriate behaviour or actions are excused or ignored, it does hold employees accountable for their actions while creating a safe space to learn from their mistakes and grow.
Our experience at Regina Public Schools shows that effective diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies begin with a focus on belonging and inclusion. For example, we continue to deepen the understanding that diversity hiring is hiring based on merit with special care taken to ensure procedures have reduced biases related to a candidate’s age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other personal characteristics unrelated to their job performance. Diversity retention requires that all employees feel valued and respected. Beginning with a focus on psychological safety enables employees to bring their whole selves (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, background, religion, family status and all other parts of their identity) to work, without judgement.
Figure 2: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. (Source: DIA Diversity Equity and Inclusion Statement)
Each dimension of a person’s identity (e.g., race, gender, ability, language) provides varying degrees of privilege and marginalization, a concept known as intersectionality. The term intersectionality comes from the work of Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw and was originally intended to describe discrimination experienced by Black women on the basis of race and gender.12 Dr. Crenshaw reminds us that those who are marginalized based on one or more dimensions of identity are more likely to experience microaggressions, discrimination or harassment that create challenges in navigating physical and social environments.
Understanding that an individual’s identity is broad and not singularly focused is important in creating psychological safety in the workplace. When we say a space is inclusive or is psychologically safe, we must ask the question, “For whom?” A space that is deemed psychologically safe for one person does not necessarily mean it is safe for all. This means that the specific realities or experiences of, for example, a transgender staff member or a racialized woman require that intentional consideration be given to the multiple dimensions of individuals’ identity, and intentional planning be put in place to create and support inclusionary practices.
Creating inclusive and psychologically safe working teams has significant impacts on educational outcomes. Research showing that collective teacher efficacy is the number one influence on student achievement highlights the importance of collaboration and of effective teamwork in schools.13 In addition to fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion, psychological safety has also been identified as the most important characteristic of high-performing teams.14 With higher levels of psychological safety, teams become more adept at expressing diverse ideas and contrarian perspectives. This leads to better decision making, better performance and, ultimately, better outcomes for students and staff alike.
Building on the Foundation of Psychological Safety and Inclusion
Whether we start with a lens of workplace wellbeing or begin with questions about diversity, equity and inclusion, we find that a focus on psychological safety and inclusion lays the foundation for our work. Psychological safety and inclusion allow for important and courageous conversations about privilege and identity while supporting other shared goals in education such as supporting diversity, enhancing learning and wellbeing, and fostering student success.
The diagram below shows the many pathways through which a foundation of psychological safety and inclusion supports diversity, learning and wellbeing – all of which support positive staff and student outcomes.
Figure 3: Psychological Safety and Inclusion as the Foundation for Wellbeing, Diversity, Learning – and Improved Outcomes (Adapted from Tom Gehraghty – psychsafety.co.uk)
Across the country, school divisions such as Regina Public Schools are finding ways to build solid foundations for psychological safety and inclusion. In doing so, they are supporting the building blocks for more caring, inclusive and, ultimately, successful learning and working experiences.
Both Well at Work and Regina Public Schools are committed to an ongoing process of learning and unpacking the connections between workplace wellbeing and diversity, equity and inclusion. If you or your school division are working to connect the dots between psychological safety and inclusion, reach out to Kathleen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Microsoft Office Stock
First published in Education Canada, September 2023
DOES THIS ARTICLE SPARK AN IDEA, SUGGESTION, OR STORY OF SUCCESS? WE’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU! YOU CAN REACH KATHLEEN AT KLANE@EDCAN.CA.
1 Dixon-Fyle, S., Dolan, K., Hunt, D.V., & Prince, S. (2020). Diversity Wins. McKinsey. Retrieved January 11, 2024 from: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters
2 Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved January 11, 2024 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html
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6 Dix, K., Ahmed, S.K., Carslake, T., Sniedze-Gregory, S., O’Grady, E, & Trevitt, J. (2020). Student health and wellbeing: A systematic review of intervention research examining effective student wellbeing in schools and their academic outcomes. Main report and executive summary. Evidence for Learning. Retrieved 11 December 2023 from: https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/education-evidence/evidence-reviews/student-health-and-wellbeing
8 Office of the US Surgeon General. (2022)
9 Hamfelt, A. (2019).
10 World Health Organization. (2023). WHO launches commission to foster social connection. Retrieved January 11, 2024 from: https://www.who.int/news/item/15-11-2023-who-launches-commission-to-foster-social-connection
11 National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (2018) Healthy Schools, Healthy Staff, Healthy Students
12 Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum. Retrieved January 11, 2024 from: https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf
13 Visible Learning. (2018). Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE) according to John Hattie. Retrieved January 11, 2024 from: https://visible-learning.org/2018/03/collective-teacher-efficacy-hattie/
14 Duhigg, C. (2016).