Psychological safety in the workplace is important for a healthy corporate culture, and can help boost mental health and profit. Dr Nicola Davies talks to Professor Maureen Dollard, an expert in the field, about how to create the right climate.
Professor Maureen Dollard, director and head of the Asia Pacific Centre for Work Health and Safety (a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre), says a psychological safety climate (PSC) is the “organisational climate for worker psychological health and safety that reflects a management balance of productivity and worker health concerns.”
PSC is about guidelines, methods and other practices that seek to protect a wage earner’s overall well-being. The premise of PSC is to combine elements of psychology and sociology in order to shed more light on the complex aspects of how a group perceives safety.
Does your workplace have a healthy psychological safety culture?
The more “yes” answers employees give to the following questions, the better the PSC within the workplace.
- Are policies on discrimination, harassment, bullying, and related issues actively implemented?
- Do you feel that you are receiving fair pay and benefits, in relation to your workload and your company’s profit?
- To whom should you discuss your work-related issues? Is there a clear protocol?
- Do you perceive your supervisor as significantly concerned with your well-being as an employee?
- Do you feel free to share suggestions and concerns with your colleagues?
- Is the physical structure of your workspace safe and conducive to productivity?
- Are you given fair opportunities for training, promotion?
- Are you offered flexible working arrangements?
Although this concept is not new, Dollard explains that her focus is on the “health and well-being of employees versus profit.” Her studies delve into how the PSC model intricately examines the neglect of employees’ psychological demands and job-related dictates, as well as financial and training resources.
Key elements of psychological safety in the workplace
Dollard explains that for a PSC to exist there must be “management commitment to prevent stress, promote psychological health, and set-up a communication system.” A worker’s optimal PSC is realised when the following components are among the executives’ highest priorities.
Management commitment: Top management commitment is characterised by the direct participation of high-level administrators in:
- Creating and monitoring quality teams
- Enabling goals and policies
- Facilitating pertinent training
- Monitoring resources.
Leaders promptly act to implement solutions or interventions to support their subordinates’ psychological health. On the other hand, managers who downplay employees’ welfare are failing to recognise the risks of situations that put high demands on employees.
A safe psychosocial climate is achieved when employees are aware of a company’s commitment to safety policies. For instance, an organisation’s programme to alleviate work stress can have a positive influence on employee productivity.
Communication system: An effective communication process needs to be straightforward in order to prevent risks, identify threats, and address workplace issues. Many concerns will be more manageable if people have a clear idea of how to report their concerns to appropriate department. This also allows workers to report work-related health issues so they are given due attention.
Leaders who consistently utilise open communication have workers who are more engaged. When employees feel that they are being listened to, they will also feel valued, which will improve quality and performance. Conversely, those who fear various forms of resistance to any concerns they express are less productive and show lower team-oriented behaviour.
Involvement: All levels of the organisation should be active participants in enhancing a PSC. Involvement encompasses knowing both a worker’s natural talents, and the ideal setting for their personal development. When employees understand that management genuinely cares, leaders and managers have more opportunities to offer support, personal time or contribute ideas.
Dollard says there is research showing that managers of call centre companies requiring agents who excel in cold calling will select staff with the right traits and cultivate them in ways that lead to psychosocially satisfied employees. She says “extroverts are good at this kind of job because they naturally thrive on interpersonal activities.”
Flexibility: Employees working nine to five need flexibility to manage their work-life demands. This may include more manageable office hours and working locations. Employers should evaluate the pros and cons of telecommuting, scheduled flexibility and the hiring of freelancers.
A company can reduce miscellaneous costs while improving team members’ work-life balance. One study showed that 100% of respondents believed that a flexible schedule would make life less stressful. Other respondents also volunteered that working away from the office would help them become more productive, by reducing colleague distractions and a toxic office environment. As many as 82% of respondents said they were more loyal to companies that offer more flexible work choices.
Fair financial compensation: Dollard says: “One of the symptoms of an unhealthy PSC is a disparity between the executive salary and the average worker…This is a moral outrage… people talk about it, but nothing is happening. We should have an agreed upon ratio.”
Some industries pay higher salaries to male workers as compared to their female counterparts who have similar workloads, resulting in dissatisfaction and lowered productivity. Internal pay equity, which means that employees perceive that they are being justly rewarded according to the efforts that they put into their tasks, must be practiced in all organisations wishing to offer psychosocial safety.
When team members feel they are being compensated unfairly, they may become demotivated and eventually resign. It is also most beneficial for employers to fully explain the compensation system and avenues for improvement. One effective technique is to distribute individual annual salary and benefit reports.
What are the benefits of a healthy PSC?
There are many rewards to be reaped from taking the time and effort to create a workplace that offers psychosocial safety.
Ideal risk-taking behaviour: A working environment that emanates psychological safety encourages a repertoire of healthy risk-taking actions that are necessary for growth. Team members feel they can explore diverse options, share ideas, and express support towards their colleagues. Innovation, a key ingredient of organisational development, is encouraged by team members’ ability to embrace risk.
With a healthy PSC, effective risk-takers may be encouraged to pursue achievements, as well as solicit help when needed. Furthermore, they are more inclined to take responsibility for their decisions, and the consequences of their risks. This comes from having the confidence that comes with transforming an inventive concept into a concrete reality. If workers fail, they need to understand that they had to learn from the process, and devise other ways to engage in more worthy uncertainties.
More engaged workers: Employee engagement scores show how subordinates feel about their professional relationship with their superiors. Social exchange theory posits that people who feel cared about are highly motivated and display significant engagement. Workers who feel they are given ample resources will commit more of their efforts to the organisation’s ideals. Ultimately, engaged people will demonstrate more drive and focus in achieving tasks.
Overall increased performance: Over time high levels of psychosocial safety can improve a company’s productivity as it relates to workers’ overall health and morale. Employees who experience negative psychosocial states usually under-deliver, or worse, do not deliver at all. In addition, an efficient PSC can substantially enhance general health, as a happy employee has fewer sick days and makes fewer mistakes.
What needs to be in place to achieve psychological safety in the workplace?
Three basic requirements need to be in place to achieve the adoption psychological safety in the workplace.
- Re-examination of Values
An organisation that highlights ideal humanistic values has PSC at its core. With the executives’ drive for employee wellbeing, employees’ interests will be well served, which in turn will benefit productivity. Examples of how an organisation can show it values employees include offering training and or a way to share ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
Together with policies on work harassment, national legislators should consider introducing r laws addressing work-related stress. Regulations should provide specific directions on designing, executing, and maintaining programmes aimed at enhancing a PSC
Employers must take steps to ensure the psychological health of their workers by identifying possible risk factors, such as overwork or scant support.
Occupational hazards can cost millions in lost income and attrition of staff. Levels of psychosocial safety can be a prime indicator of organisational bullying, mental health problems and employee engagement. Just as physical safety is taken seriously in the workplace, so too should psychosocial safety.
Dr Nicola Davies is a health psychology consultant, medical writer, author and counsellor.