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Improving Psychological Safety at Work: A Five-Point Plan

Many of us know someone who has hated their job. Sadly, you may have experienced that first-hand. But what we may not recognise is that workplace discontent rarely lies with the attitude of the employee. Rather, it is more likely to be a symptom of toxic workplace culture and a lack of psychological safety at work.

Degrees of workplace discontent may vary from early morning dread, to absenteeism, through to chronic mental health problems. Insights from EVERFI’s recent research study, Preventing Toxic Workplaces, reveals that workplace stress is a pervasive problem: more than half of participants (54%) agreed that negative stress is prevalent in their workplace.

Recently, there’s been a renewed focus on the concept of ‘psychological safety’ and its role in creating a healthy workplace culture. First coined in the 90s, the term psychological safety is defined as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’[1]

In his 2019 book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: The Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Dr Timothy Clark expanded upon this to describe psychological safety as ‘a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo  – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised or punished in some way.’


Improving Psychological Safety Involves the Whole Team

The following suggestions provide basic guidance on how to support a positive workplace culture, increase the wellbeing of your workforce community, and strengthen psychological safety across your organisation.


1. Find Out What is Hampering the Psychological Safety of Your Workforce

By the very nature of their role, senior leaders are often disconnected from the minutiae of their employees’ working day. Focused on the high-level, they may be oblivious to the personal challenges that impact the wellbeing of individual staff members – albeit unintentionally. Upward communications that collate employee experience information can help erode this barrier. Robust channels for feedback such as engagement surveys, workplace climate surveys and focus groups give employees a voice with which they can feel heard. In turn, managers are able to demonstrate visible access to leadership, and become better equipped to resolve obstacles to psychological safety in their workforce.


2. Promote Psychological Safety with Authentic Leadership

Many simple strategies exist to promote psychological safety in the workplace, but without exception, their success depends on engaged leadership. Leading by example, those in executive positions have greater opportunity than ever before to create an ethos that promotes psychological safety – particularly since recent global events have underlined our shared vulnerability. Leaders who display curiosity, who welcome ideas and engage in active listening, who seek feedback from all reports and, crucially, who admit mistakes, will invariably instil trust and confidence in others. In meetings, blame or conflict is resolved by recognising that others are ‘Just like me’ and ultimately seek just ‘to walk away happy.’[2] Face-to-face strategies can be supported with an online presence that touches on leisure time or mental health for example, demonstrating an interest in the whole person. By visibly challenging practices that minimise an employee’s sense of belonging, and actively promoting those that contribute to a culture of inclusion and self-care, today’s leaders can set a new standard.


3. Identify and Leverage Employee Strengths to Create a Positive Work Culture

As humans, we crave approbation: we love to be told we are good at something. In addition, knowing what our strengths are makes us feel worthy, that we belong, and that we are needed – all core features of psychological safety.

As a result, people thrive when they feel that the work they undertake is aligned to their strengths and that their input is valuable. It can be particularly effective to speak to staff initially to hear where they believe their own strengths lie – although this may already be known to leadership. Encouraging staff to describe these strengths and then explaining why they have then been chosen for a specific task invests the employee in leadership decision-making, affording a sense of empowerment. When employees understand not only the goals of a task, but their specific role within it, and how that contributes to a broader strategy, they can better harness their strengths to succeed. When putting teams together, consider using strength assessments and 360-degree feedback. When employees understand their own and others’ strengths, they are better equipped to use them in complementary pursuit of project goals.

Recognising employees’ strengths like this has wider benefits, too. It not only promotes psychological safety, but can have a direct impact on business productivity, work quality, and even staff retention.[3]


4. Realign Workplace Culture to Improve Psychological Safety

The culture of an organisation is defined by much more than its motivational artwork and the quality of its vending machines. Everything has an impact – from the company mission statement, to the décor, to the tone of ongoing staff communications – building incrementally to a whole that either underlines or promotes employee wellbeing. This also includes the organisation’s support of activity outside of the office ; flexible working, parental leave arrangements, health insurance or provision of Employee Assistance Programmes. Such support systems demonstrate that leadership are as interested in the impact of issues outside of the office as inside. That they are concerned for the wellbeing of the whole employee, both on- and off-duty.


5. Improve Psychological Safety Through Training

Workplace training can have a profound effect on improving psychological safety in the workplace. Although often overlooked or undervalued, good quality training that incorporates culture-building topics can reach employees in large numbers, providing a succinct and robust influence on cultural change in the workforce. Research on toxic workplaces is also compelling: respondents from organisations that include culture-building topics in their training are more likely to say that their workplace is positive and non-toxic. Training that includes culture building is also viewed by employees as more effective than that which focuses only on compliance.

When collecting employee data through such training, consider the surveys used and whether the demographics section reflects all identities within the workforce. Training opportunities that focus on maximising the health beliefs of employees and creating a positive culture — rather than simply reducing unwanted behaviours — can be a powerful step towards demonstrating a community of care.


Next Steps

At a time in which most employees spend around 39 hours a week working, whether at home or in the office, it’s critical that employers make safety and wellbeing a key priority. Recent global events have only underlined this importance. The most progressive and inclusive organisations are those that recognise this, and take deliberate steps to develop psychological safety through cultural investigation and training.

Providing employees with engaging, online workplace training is a key step towards strengthening the culture of your workforce. Learn how EVERFI can help you manage employee training, even across a dispersed workforce, that provides valuable insights into your workplace culture.


Sources and Further Reading:


[1] Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School.
[3] Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268-279.