Is your workplace psychologically safe?

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In the era of the Great Resignation, HR teams are looking for new ways to attract and retain talent. One theory is gaining traction fast: psychological safety. But what is it? How can you achieve it? And how 'psychologically safe' is your workplace already?

Where does “psychological safety” come from?

The theory of psychological safety has been around since the 1960s but became more prominent in the 1990s. In 1999, Dr Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School defined psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. 

Interestingly, as part of her research, Dr Edmondson discovered that teams that admitted their mistakes were likely to perform better than those that covered them up. Her work helped to establish that psychological safety improves organisational outcomes. What’s more, it encourages people to do the right thing by speaking out to raise concerns.

Dr Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth, is a great go-to guide if you’re new to the subject.

Why is psychological safety so important right now?

Why has the idea of psychological safety come to the forefront just as firms are grappling with the Great Resignation?

“One reason is that people’s psychological safety is quite fragile and vulnerable at the minute because of the pandemic,” says Dr Hannah Wilson, Head of Clinical Governance and Clinical Psychology Lead at Kooth.

“We’ve essentially been pickling in psychological threats for nearly two years now. Because of COVID-19, many of us feel personally under threat, as well as being highly aware of national and international levels of threat. There’s no escaping it.”

This has clear implications for organisations. “At any time, people’s psychological safety at work is important,” says Dr Wilson. “But the mental health of the nation has been impacted, and this is having an additional effect on levels of sickness, productivity, and commitment.”

She adds: “Anything we can do to reduce and mitigate the impact of these feelings of being under psychological threat will have a positive effect both on individuals and workplaces.”

Priorities have changed

Another factor that has come into play during the pandemic is that many people’s work priorities have changed. “Employees are realising the importance of things like wellbeing, feeling valued, and feeling safe,” says Dr Wilson. “Before COVID-19, they might have put up with feeling miserable. Now, they expect workplaces to step up and take action, or they’ll move to another workplace that offers more support.”

5 questions to ask

Drawing on our experience of supporting employees’ wellbeing, here are five questions to ask that will help you determine whether your organisation is a place of psychological safety.

1) Is employees’ mental health and wellbeing at the heart of your company’s values? 

A commitment to psychological safety must run through the whole organisation and be backed up with action. To do this:

  • Create a “psychological safety” contract, where employees are clear on how you will support their mental health and what you expect from them in return.
  • Have Ambassadors of Change and key figureheads around the business who champion mental health and wellbeing.
  • Make wellbeing conversations part of performance reviews.
2) Do people feel free to ask questions and talk about their ideas, concerns, or mistakes?

If your organisation lacks a sense of psychological safety, people will be inhibited about speaking up, fearing a backlash if they share their ideas or concerns freely.

This can have various repercussions. First, you miss out on potentially valuable contributions and on ideas that could stop you from going down the wrong road. From an employee satisfaction perspective, you miss out on the chance to empower people to speak their mind and feel that they are a valued member of the team.

“Leaders have an important role in helping to create a culture where people feel free to speak up,” says Dr Wilson. “They need to lead by example by admitting mistakes and sharing concerns. Ensure that everyone feels able to contribute by offering people different ways to raise concerns and give feedback. If you have a transparent process in place, people will feel more confident to speak their mind.”

3) Are people encouraged to learn from their mistakes?

One of the key principles of psychological safety is that everything is a learning opportunity. If something goes wrong, what can you learn from it, and how can you make sure that you do it better next time?

“This approach applies to how mistakes are managed, including HR processes,” says Dr Wilson. “Within reason, people shouldn’t be fired for putting one foot wrong. In a workplace that demonstrates psychological safety, people should feel able to make a mistake, own it, and learn from it.”

She continues: “This links to giving people the confidence to take risks. Successful teams take risks, but you have to feel it’s okay to make a mistake, too. There is a caveat, though: risks must be reasonable and appropriate, not foolhardy.”

4) Do people engage in constructive conflict?

In any workplace, people will sometimes disagree. But in an organisation that values psychological safety, people will engage with each other openly and constructively in order to resolve their differences.

This translates into a work environment where people bring up points of conflict straight away, rather than letting them fester. It means that people speak out in team meetings, rather than sitting on their feelings and only venting afterwards once the meeting is over.

“So many people are afraid of conflict and just stay quiet,” says Dr Wilson. “But it’s an important part of psychological safety to acknowledge that we don’t have to agree all the time and are free to voice a difference of opinion. Either we will have a conversation about it and reach a compromise, or we will make an effort to understand why a particular decision has been made and agree to disagree.”

5) Do you offer practical psychological support to employees?

In this time of great change and uncertainty, organisations can help improve employees’ sense of psychological safety by offering access to mental health and wellbeing support.

A small organisation might identify a Wellbeing Lead who’s on hand to offer support to employees. Larger organisations might have the resources to employ Wellbeing Officers or to train people as Mental Health First Aiders who will have the skills and confidence to step in and support people in distress.

Alternatively, you might decide to offer your employees confidential online support through a service such as Kooth Work. This BACP-accredited anonymous service is there for employees 24/7, giving access to a wide range of mental health tools, advice, and professional support when they need it.

Psychological safety: a fast track to standing out

The good news for HR teams is that providing a sense of psychological safety is now a good way to stand out in the marketplace. “We know that employees are not simply looking for the best salary,” says Dr Wilson. “They want the whole package. They want to feel nurtured, listened to, and appreciated. It follows that psychological safety could be a way of giving your organisation an edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent.”

For more information on how to structure mental health support in your business to help attract and retain key talent, read our Guide to Beating the Great Resignation.

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