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Reducing Risk, Protecting People

Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems | 20th Jul 2020


Historically, the health and safety of workers is framed by identifying risk factors for injuries and illnesses and taking steps to eliminate or mitigate them. Yet, an integrated or holistic approach to managing workplace safety means going beyond just these more physical aspects. Psychological safety plays a crucial role in ensuring employee wellbeing. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to blur the workplace-based and work-from-home environments, employers increasingly need to examine safety culture beyond the physical limitations of the workplace itself. It’s critical in keeping employees engaged, alert and healthy.

What Is Psychological Safety in the Workplace?
The mental health side of safety addresses environmental factors that can affect employees’ abilities to do their work and do it well. Some of these factors might only inhibit efficiency, such as distractions caused by louder open floor setups. Others might cause direct harm, such as how the company addresses accidents, discrimination claims and work-life balance opportunities.

The spread of COVID-19 has many organizations considering new and better ways to address worker well-being. It’s important to note, though, that psychological safety is not a new factor that arose with the current pandemic. Mental health in the workplace has steadily gained attention over the years, becoming more and more of a focus point. In fact, in our recent Clarion Safety blogs on reviewing top workplace safety trends of 2019 and on looking forward to trends in 2020 and beyond, proactively addressing worker wellness, including emotional and environmental support, were among the short lists of top issues.

The Benefits of Psychological Safety
It goes without saying that when employees are mentally and physically healthy at work, everyone benefits, including customers – and even a company’s efficiency and bottom line. Some of the many benefits employers can look forward to when a well-rounded approach to safety is prioritized include:

  • High Quality Workforce: Believe it or not, some companies worry about attracting people with high levels of qualifications because they do not have opportunities in place to retain them. To attract and retain top-tier talent, companies need to provide opportunities for growth and make work a pleasant place to be. Turnover is expensive, so not only do companies build a better workforce, but they can save money on retaining talent and need fewer recruiting resources.
  • Better Collaboration: Companies often worry that when they have a team of strong performers, it might become too competitive. Building a work culture that prioritizes teamwork over individual achievement tempers this. People then become focused on accomplishing tasks together and working as a group instead of looking for opportunities to outdo their peers. This creates less stress, fewer toxic relationships and better opportunities for collaboration across the board.
  • Improved Customer Satisfaction: When employees feel empowered to go above and beyond while serving customers, customers do notice. This helps companies to retain customers as well. Attrition, like employee turnover, is expensive. Current estimates cite that it costs five times as much to attract a new customer than to keep one you already have.
  • Increased Productivity: The CDC reports that when people suffer from depression, which is the most common mental health problem, 80 percent of them might face impairment. This means that even when they show up to work, they might work more slowly or make mistakes. In some professions, mistakes can cost millions of dollars or even lives. Because of this, more employers now provide access to counseling.

How to Boost Psychological Safety
When developing a holistic safety program, if you’re unsure where to start, turning to professionals – like organizational psychologists – who are well-versed in mental health can be a good way to establish a foundation for your workplace. These are the professionals that can assess your workplace culture, determine its shortcomings and devise a customized plan to address your specific needs. Here are four additional, fundamental tips to keep in mind:

1. Start With an Assessment
Most proper solutions begin with a thorough understanding of the issues. This is true for product safety (such as with equipment risk assessments – and even safety label assessments) and physical workplace safety (such as with workplace risk assessments or job hazard analysis), as well as for psychological safety. Even if your internal professionals decide to tackle the issue, they need to complete thorough assessments to get a deeper understanding of the obstacles ahead and the root causes that lead to them.

2. Consider Personal Preferences
Not everyone handles their issues the same way or seeks out the same solutions. For instance, some people might appreciate having an on-site counselor they can speak to at any time. Others prefer access to something more anonymous, so no one can see them enter or exit the office. Similarly, some people might want napping pods while others want a games room. You probably can’t cater to everyone, but provide options for people to choose from.

3. Encourage Everyone to Get Involved – and Ask Questions
When employees feel they cannot challenge policies or question the status quo, it stifles creativity. Some people become accustomed to merely doing their work and heading home to the rest of their lives. Others eventually want something more fulfilling and leave to find employment with a company that values their input. Create a company that values what employees have to say. Even if you don’t agree with them, it is important to provide a safe space for people to air disagreements and have healthy conflicts.

4. Keep in Mind the Value of More ‘Physical’ Safety Programs
Addressing common ‘physical’ workplace safety issues, like those in OSHA’s annual top violations list, is important to keeping workers out of harm’s way, but the very method that employers use to proactively develop mitigation efforts can go a long way in boosting some of the more abstract factors in employee wellness, like morale. When the global standard for occupational health and safety management systems, ISO 45001, was developed, it was heralded not only for its ability to reduce work-related injuries and fatalities, but to create opportunities for organizations to add value, integrating safety, health, quality, environmental and asset maintenance. In a very tangible way, the overall safety program in place, from safety training to the use of PPE, can help employers to demonstrate their level of care for their workplace, and for employees to feel valued. Interesting to note here is the importance of safety labels and signs in risk communication and risk reduction strategies; not only can they help to reinforce important safety messages – they’re one of the most visible and apparent aspects of a safety program.

Building a culture that sufficiently tackles psychological safety requires input from all parties involved, ongoing assessments and continual tweaking. Companies might make mistakes along the way, but these provide learning opportunities to move forward, in the safest way possible. 

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