I recently heard someone refer to Psychological Safety as the icing on the cake when it comes to meeting psychological health and safety obligations. Whereas prevention of psychosocial risk is a must-have (the foundation of the cake), psychological safety – the belief that it is safe to speak up without fear of retaliation – is just the icing. Put this way, it would seem that mitigation of psychosocial risk must come first, and only then can psychological safety be added into the mix.
With all the concept confusion getting around, it is nice to see the two terms differentiated and appropriately applied, but I couldn’t disagree more with the analogy!
It has been fantastic to see a real uptick in the focus on prevention for mental health at work. With the WHO releasing the Mental Health at Work guidelines and the release of ISO 45003 it appears that the concept of psychosocial risk has gone mainstream. As a social psychologist, it is great to see that we are coming around to the idea that the environment matters and is often where the cause of mental ill-health resides – if your pond is toxic, you treat the water, not the fish.
The big question, however, is what are the risks and where are they? We know that poor job design, excessive workloads and high job demands, low levels of job control, organisational culture, poor interpersonal relationships, organisational injustice, and low levels of reward and recognition, to name a few, are examples of psychosocial hazards that can lead to harm. There are frameworks, benchmarking tools, and surveys that can be utilized to measure these risks and mitigate them. While this activity is critical (part of the foundation of the cake), relying on formal processes to identify organisational risk through top-down analysis of the data is never sufficient.
The other consideration is that mitigating psychosocial risk is not the same as removing it. Risk of all kinds are a part of life, and that means even in the best run organisations work stress will still, at times, be a factor, and will have the potential to impact on people’s mental health. Engaging in activities like work redesign to ensure that people have the resources they need to meet the demands of their roles is hugely important, but we must not assume we can create a nirvana where people will no longer be impacted by work-related factors.
That is why Psychological Safety cannot be viewed as the icing on the cake. The only way to manage risk within an organisation – and here I am referring to all kinds of risks – is to have a culture where people feel safe to be able to raise issues, report concerns, and speak up when those issues or concerns are impacting on them personally. This might mean they need to speak up to their leaders when it comes to role design concerns, job control, or reward and recognition related concerns. It means they feel safe to put their hand up when peak work periods or high job demands are impacting on them, when they may have mental health concerns or other vulnerabilities that require support, or when they are experiencing inappropriate workplace behaviour such as bullying or sexual harassment.
It also means they need to feel they can speak up directly to other people in their team when it comes to managing interpersonal conflict and incivility at work. Interpersonal conflict and some elements of incivility (think of those thoughtless acts we are all capable of committing) is normal when it comes to working with other people, especially when peak workload periods hit and when stress levels are high. Sometimes people will feel offended or excluded without us intending that they do, or we might misinterpret others communication or actions. When people don’t feel they can speak up and address these issues directly, they fester and become worse, often leading to claims of inappropriate conduct, and bullying and harassment downstream.
In order to mitigate psychosocial risk, psychological safety is an essential ingredient. In fact, I would argue that it needs to come first. This is because it enables the eyes and ears of the organisation – its people on the front line – to identify what risks exist and where they are occurring….and I would also add, for whom! There is no objective standard against which to judge that people won’t be impacted by work-related factors – stress is a subjective response after all, and the only way to really know if people are experiencing stress is to ask them: Better still, is for them to feel safe to tell you. Trying to predict how job demands, stress associated with peak workloads, or interpersonal conflict will impact on people is like reading a crystal ball unless we are inviting people to speak up about their personal experiences at work and listening to their individual needs.
Beyond providing a conduit for critical risk-related information to travel up through an organisations’ hierarchy, psychological safety also empowers people to manage their own risk, speaking up directly to others when they need to. Of course, these conversations can be exceedingly tricky, and both people and their managers need advanced skills in how to provide and respond to feedback, but luckily these are skills that we can all learn. This also means that if organisations are serious about prevention, they need to get serious about training their people with the skills that are required to build a psychologically safe workplace environment. This means building a workplace that is characterised by open, honest, candid, but extremely valuable communication, which is occurring downwards, across, and upwards throughout the organisational structure.
Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, speaker, who has spent the last 20 years seeking to understand the various social and cultural factors that impact on mental health, wellbeing, and decision-making.
Are you looking to move beyond just compliance with your workplace mental health and wellbeing initiatives? Does your organisation equip people to raise issues that impact on their mental health early? Do you have the right tools to understand and prevent problematic workplace behaviour? Join us to find out why Psychological Safety is the critical enabler in optimising your psychological health and safety activities.
The term “toxic positivity” has received a good deal of attention lately. Coming off the back of the “positivity movement” we are beginning to recognise while feeling happy is a good thing, overemphasising the importance of a positive attitude can backfire, ironically leading to more unhappiness.
‘Psychological Safety’ is not new, but it has recently become the ‘next big thing’ for many organisations. It is a great concept, and when properly brought to life can have an enormous positive impact on people and organisations. However, it seems to be increasingly subject to concept confusion and erroneously used as a proxy for things like Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S), psychosocial climate and what constitutes a ‘mentally healthy workplace’. So, what is Psychological Safety, and in a practical sense, how does it apply in the corporate domain?