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While many Canadians feel valued, comfortable and psychologically safe at work, workplace experiences can differ significantly for minority communities.

According to a recent study conducted by ADP Canada, nearly 90 per cent of Canadian workers feel comfortable being themselves at work; 80 per cent feel comfortable bringing concerns to their manager or leadership team; and 82 per cent say they feel valued for their unique skills and talents.

Each of these elements is a core component of psychological safety, which is correlated with lower absenteeism and turnover, fewer mental health-related disability claims and greater productivity. In addition, research shows psychologically safe workplaces are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity and adapt well to change.

However, the ADP study also found that more than a third of racialized and Indigenous Canadian workers feel like they are deliberately undermined at work, nearly twice the proportion of white responses. Furthermore, nearly half felt that their mistakes would be held against them and more than a third aren’t comfortable asking colleagues and managers for help.

“When you’re in an environment where you feel your work is being undermined, that if you make a mistake you’ll be penalized and you can’t raise concerns, that’s concerning,” says ADP’s vice-president of marketing, Heather Haslam.

“If I don’t feel like I’m in an environment where I’m safe, where I can make a mistake, where I can raise concerns, where I can have [difficult] conversations, then I’m not going to feel included – and you don’t get the benefit of my unique strengths and perspective.”

Often issues related to workplace culture and norms fall to leaders, managers and human resources professionals.

According to Ms. Haslam, each group has a specific role in facilitating psychological safety, but so does the staff of all departments and levels of seniority.

“It’s clear that the survey results present a call to action for Canadian organizations to ensure that there is that ongoing education, training, ally-ship and discussion,” she says. “We all have a role in it – it’s not going to work when it’s sitting on human resources or the leader of the business’s shoulders alone – we all need to be leaders in this.”

The concept of facilitating a psychologically safe workplace isn’t new – organizational scholars pioneered it in the 1960s – but the term has received renewed focus in recent years due to the pandemic and the mental health crisis that accompanied it.

“If we can take a silver lining from the pandemic, it’s that there is widespread belief and early data to indicate that we are now more openly talking about our mental health, which is a key part of moving the needle on this,” says Michael Cooper, vice-president of development and strategic partnerships for Mental Health Research Canada.

He notes that mental health-related issues impact individuals, businesses and the economy as a whole. For example, Mr. Cooper cites Mental Health Canada research showing 8 per cent of employees are missing work due to mental health-related issues, and about one in five working Canadians are struggling with their mental health at work.

“And their productivity has significantly declined as a result,” he says. “There are the moral arguments, but from a purely fiscal standpoint [the Canadian economy is] losing billions.”

Leaders looking to reduce mental health-related losses and improve psychological safety can implement different policies and programs to address it, such as support groups, counselling and training.

Still, these programs should be accompanied by a broader change in organizational culture when addressing mental health concerns, according to Mary Ann Baynton, the director of collaboration and strategy for Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, which provides workplace mental health training and resources.

“For senior leaders, start with asking the question ‘what is the potential impact on the psychological health and safety of our stakeholders?’ when talking about this policy, this decision, this change, this process, this interaction, this meeting, this event,” she says.

“If you do nothing but add that question, you’re going to open up a dialogue, you’re going to focus on risk mitigation, you’re going to avoid some of the unintended consequences, and it really costs you nothing other than a bit of time and mental energy.”

Ms. Baynton, who has implemented such strategies with organizations like Starbucks, Google, Wal-Mart and Bell, adds that employees and managers can make a big difference by asking themselves similar questions about their own choices.

“We say to employees that everything you say or don’t say, everything you do or don’t do, has the potential to raise people up or knock them down and we’d like to agree that, in this workplace, we will choose to do and say things that will raise people up,” she says.

“So we start to have each other’s backs, to help each other, to have the kind of environment we want, without pointing fingers and slamming people down.”