Psychological safety and its powerful role in wellbeing strategies

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As part of an employer’s efforts to support mental health, creating a culture of psychological safety in the workplace is often overlooked. Many employers neither fully understand the concept nor its role in mental health and how it can support organizational goals. But psychological safety can be a powerful tool in improving employee wellbeing, supporting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and driving productivity, innovation and other critical goals.

Amy Edmondson, Ph.D., who has done extensive research on psychological safety, provides the most widely adopted definition: Psychological safety is a shared belief among employees that they can take risks, share opinions and be themselves in the workplace without potential negative retribution, such as having their competence questioned, being criticized or becoming involved in non-constructive conflicts.

Such fear of retaliation or exclusion hurts businesses and individuals alike. Employees who don’t feel safe may conclude that their contributions are not valued, disengage from teams and productive work and isolate themselves. These reactions can compromise employees’ mental health, especially over long periods of time. And poor mental health can hurt productivity and innovation.

How does psychological safety impact workplace engagement and health?

Psychological safety is important in everyday, one-on-one and group interactions, including meetings, manager discussions and internal chat channels.

Employees who feel psychologically safe are more engaged and miss fewer days of work due to absenteeism or presenteeism. A lack of psychological safety in the workplace can exacerbate employees’ mental health symptoms and increase the likelihood of job-related errors, injuries, workplace violence and physical safety violations. It can also contribute to a lack of retention and an increase in turnover. This presents a risk to an employer’s financial performance, client relationships, reputation and brand, regardless of industry.

Psychological safety also affects employee wellbeing. It is critical for DEI initiatives to help foster diversity and courageous discussion among employee populations and leadership. By creating a psychologically safe culture, leaders can help alleviate mental health disparities across many dimensions, including gender, race, socioeconomic status, LGBTQ+ status and others. Wage and education gaps continue to exist in workplaces. Psychological safety can also help reduce career advancement disparities and increase equity across minority groups by supporting opportunities for individuals to take chances and speak up for their needs to learn and grow.

Regulatory and legal requirements for workplace psychological safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a safe working environment that is free from hazards that may lead to serious psychological harm. Further reinforcing psychological health as an integral part of total workplace safety, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 45003 provides guidance for managing psychological risk within an occupational health and safety management system. For those who have ISO 45001 certification, ISO 45003 provides guidance standards that roll up to ISO 45001. Companies may be audited on adherence to guidelines.

In California, Senate Bill No.553 Ch. 289 has expanded definitions of workplace violence to include psychological trauma or stress. The new bill requires companies to maintain a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan (WVPP) that includes alerting, training and supporting employees after workplace violence incidents.

See also: Are employers doing enough about employee mental health?

Spreading the word and gaining buy-in

While many articles address the importance of psychological safety, few have focused on how to socialize it, embed it in the organization’s culture, and develop meaningful, widespread buy-in and adoption. Many people are uncomfortable talking about difficult or uncomfortable topics like mental health.

As an HR leader, it is prudent to incorporate the fundamentals of psychological safety into your organization’s mental health strategy. And, based on different business areas, you may need to modify the messaging. Areas of focus may include:

  1. Occupational health/risk/safety: Speak to the risks, cite the facts and focus on safety as an overall outcome. Engage experts to draft the messaging and drive leadership unification around targeted campaigns. Reinforce that psychological safety is a core expectation of coming to work and cuts across demographics. Consider the value of embedding psychological safety into onboarding and yearly training.
  2. DEI leaders and employee/business resource groups: Share the concept and its benefits, and validate employee and business resource groups that are already supporting psychological safety. Encourage continued use, owning the term and creating spaces that foster constructive growth and diversity across all areas of the organization.
  3. Senior leaders and managers: Speak to culture, strategic vision and potential costs. Senior leaders are invested in meaningful growth, understanding blind spots and avoidable costs.
  4. Fellow HR colleagues: Lead by example. Use your core team as the starting point for implementing psychological safety at the department level. Track change and feedback and serve as an inter-company example of meaningful progress.

Psychological safety is not just a trendy concept. Studied for over two decades, it fosters innovation and growth, both at the individual and organizational levels. Regardless of where your organization is in creating a psychologically safe workplace, it is never too late to adopt or further advance the concept. It will support the emotional wellbeing and mental health of your employees and enhance productivity.


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