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Do you feel psychologically safe in your workplace?

Not sure? Try this question: Do you feel welcomed, comfortable sharing ideas and speaking up when you need to, and confident in how you’re coping with work demands and expectations in your workplace?

Many organizations are increasing their focus on psychological health and safety. But what’s often missed by employers before implementing policies and programs is checking in with the average employee to ensure they have a basic understanding of psychological health and safety. A good starting point is ensuring employees understand the benefits of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace and the consequences when psychological health and safety are ignored by employees or employers.

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Awareness

Psychological safety is much more than a respectful-workplace policy and training.

Think about psychological safety in the same way as physical safety. There are things that, if ignored, can predict whether an employee could be physically hurt. Water allowed to remain on a floor, for example, may result in an employee slipping and falling.

To positively impact psychological health and safety, it’s important to understand the primary goal: reducing risk for mental injuries and strain.

Proactive attention to psychological safety reduces employees’ risk for mental harm and can promote mental health by curbing risk for mental illness.

The end goal of a psychologically healthy and safe culture is to be proactive in mitigating the risk for psychological injuries, promote employees’ mental health, create a caring and trusted culture that’s reinforced by caring senior leadership and ensuring managers understand how their day-to-day interactions can positively impact employees’ psychological safety.

Accountability

Creating a psychologically safe workplace requires two-way accountability action by employers and their employees.

  • Employers: Some employers are focusing on mitigating the negative impacts of work factors such as incivility, workload, blame culture and lack of psychological protection as defined by the 13 PHS Factors of Psychological Health and Safety. The theory is that reducing the impact of these factors through policies, leadership and programs has the potential to facilitate and create a psychologically safe culture that reduces employees’ risk for mental harms. It also promotes mental health. The primary goal is to influence desirable behaviours that support a psychologically healthy and safe culture.
  • Employees: While employees’ experience within the workplace is critically important, so also are their personal habits, lifestyle choices and attention to mental fitness. Much like physical health, if attention to mental health is lacking, there’s greater risk for chronic disease. An employee who doesn’t take responsibility for their mental health and care for it can be edgy, stressed, argumentative, grumpy and short-fused. Mental health is influenced by one’s view of the world.

One key criterion for creating psychologically healthy and safe workplaces is being clear on what employees perceive, value, learn and take responsibility for.

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An employer can have 100 programs that are of little value if employees don’t embrace them, don’t know about them, aren’t clear on when they can have time to access them, and don’t see a direct benefit for participating in them.

Psychological health and safety is dependent on both employer and employees taking accountability for what they can directly influence in a proactive way.

Action

Every employee needs to become aware of the relationship between perceived psychological safety and psychological risk load and how this can impact and predict vulnerability.

  • Perceived psychological safety: All employees, based on their experience in the workplace, will form a point of view on psychological health and safety. High concern about psychological safety is often followed by high levels of perceived psychological stress.
  • Introduction to human factors: In the world of physical safety, human factors are studied to assist in predicting when and how humans may be more at risk for making mistakes that can result in incidents and near-misses. This science can help reduce risk by early identification. This same logic can be applied to psychological health and safety with respect to vulnerability. Psychological stress, for instance, may result in an employee not sleeping, leading to feeling fatigued at work. When ignored, fatigue can result in a person being more vulnerable to errors that could be avoided (choosing to drive themselves versus getting a ride home with a colleague) or engaging in less-effective behaviours (drinking) to cope with stress.
  • Connecting the dots: Employees being aware of psychological safety and its impact on human factors increases their opportunity to work with their employer to reduce risk for vulnerability, with the goal of lessening risk for mental harms and strain on mental health.

To gain more context and insight on this important conversation, complete the Employees’ Perceived Psychological Health & Safety Risk Screen. This educational tool can increase your level of awareness on how psychological safety, human factors and vulnerability are related.

The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: employeerecommended.com. This series of articles supports the award.

Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners here. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2019 at this link.

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Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

You can find other stories like these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward.

Download our e-books: Inch by Inch, Make Life a Cinch; Little Steps to Big Change; Staying Afloat.

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