Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Hands down, one of the most important aspects of my work is helping organizations and individuals create psychological safety in the workplace.

A psychologically safe workplace is a work environment where employees feel safe to speak up, take risks, and make mistakes without fear of negative consequences. It’s a workplace culture where individuals feel valued, respected, and supported, and are able to fully engage in their work and collaborate with their colleagues. Employees are able to express their opinions and ideas, even if they differ from others, without fear of retaliation or judgment.

A psychologically safe workplace is essential for creating a culture of trust, openness, and innovation, and for helping teams to work effectively and collaboratively.

On the flip side, a psychologically unsafe workplace is a work environment where employees feel threatened, unsupported, and vulnerable. We call this kind of workplace TOXIC because it’s poisonous to our wellbeing. It’s where people may experience bullying, harassment, discrimination, or other forms of mistreatment. All of this leads to feelings of anxiety, stress, and disengagement, and has a negative impact on the mental and emotional well-being of employees. It results in high levels of employee turnover and decreased productivity, as employees disengage and lose motivation.

And the toxic workplace isn’t just a buzzword. It’s an almost chronic condition. Consider:

  • A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 47% of employees had experienced workplace bullying at some point in their career. (Source: Society for Human Resource Management, “The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture”)
  • A study by the American Psychological Association found that workplace stress costs U.S. companies an estimated $500 billion per year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. (Source: American Psychological Association, “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation”)
  • A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that exposure to workplace bullying was associated with increased levels of psychological distress, anxiety, and depression. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know to Protect Themselves and Their Organizations”)
  • According to a study by Google, psychological safety is the most important factor in high-performing teams. Teams that felt psychologically safe were more likely to be innovative, and more likely to deliver high-quality results. (Source: Google, “Re:Work”)

So while all of these statistics highlight both the importance of creating a psychologically safe workplace and the negative impact of a psychologically unsafe workplace on employee well-being, productivity, and organizational success, it’s crucial to put this information into a framework of action steps for both organizations and employees.

Creating Psychological Safety as an Employer

  • Lead by Example: As an employer or leader, it’s essential to model the behavior you want to see in your team. This means being open and transparent, admitting mistakes, and encouraging others to do the same. When leaders model vulnerability and openness, it helps to create a culture where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.
  • Encourage and Reward Collaboration: Collaboration is essential for creating psychological safety in the workplace. Encourage your team members to work together, share ideas, and provide feedback to each other. Reward collaboration and teamwork, and make it clear that working together is valued and encouraged.
  • Provide Opportunities for Feedback: One of the most important aspects of psychological safety is the ability to provide and receive feedback. As an employer, provide opportunities for your team members to give and receive feedback in a safe and supportive environment. Encourage them to be open and honest, and make it clear that feedback is valued and appreciated.

Protecting Your Mental and Emotional Wellbeing as an Employee/Team Member

  • Practice Self-Care: It’s essential to prioritize your own mental and emotional wellbeing in the workplace. Take breaks when you need them, practice mindfulness or meditation, and find activities that help you relax and recharge.
  • Build Relationships: Building strong relationships with your colleagues can help create a sense of psychological safety in the workplace. Take time to get to know your colleagues, build trust, and communicate openly and honestly.
  • Speak Up: It can be difficult to speak up in the workplace, especially if you’re afraid of negative consequences. However, it’s essential to advocate for yourself and speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Remember, you have a right to a safe and supportive workplace, and speaking up can help create change and improve the culture for everyone.

How Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace Helps the Organization

Here’s the amazing thing about creating psychological safety in the workplace: it’s a WIN-WIN (just like mentoring!) because not only is it essential for the wellbeing of employees, it’s also critical for productivity, cooperation, teamwork, and employee retention. Here’s why:

  • Productivity: When employees feel safe and supported in the workplace, they’re more likely to take risks, make decisions, and share their ideas. This creates a culture of innovation and creativity, which can lead to improved productivity and better results. In addition, when employees don’t have to worry about negative consequences for mistakes or failures, they’re more likely to experiment and learn from their experiences, leading to continuous improvement.
  • Cooperation and Teamwork: Psychological safety is essential for effective collaboration and teamwork. When employees feel safe to share their opinions and ideas, they’re more likely to collaborate and work together towards common goals. This leads to better communication, increased trust, and improved problem-solving abilities. When employees feel valued and respected, they’re more likely to be invested in the success of the team and work together to achieve it.
  • Employee Retention: Psychological safety is also important for employee retention. When employees feel supported and valued in the workplace, they’re more likely to stay with the organization. On the other hand, when employees don’t feel psychologically safe, they may feel disengaged, stressed, and burnt out, leading to high turnover rates. When employees feel psychologically safe, they’re more likely to be satisfied with their job, be committed to the organization’s goals, and feel a sense of belonging.

Psychological Safety and Trauma Survivors in the Workplace

Creating psychologically safe workplaces is especially critical for team members and employees who may be trauma survivors. Trauma can impact an individual’s ability to feel safe and secure in the workplace, leading more easily to feelings of anxiety, stress, and disengagement. Trauma can also cause triggers and flashbacks, making it difficult for individuals to fully engage in their work and collaborate with their colleagues.

It’s important to remember that we never truly know the personal stories of our coworkers, subordinates, and bosses unless they choose to share them with us. Many people may be struggling with past trauma or mental health issues that are not readily apparent in the workplace. As a result, it’s important to create a workplace environment that is supportive and understanding of all employees, regardless of their background or experiences.

When creating a psychologically safe workplace for trauma survivors, there are several strategies that can be helpful:

  • Create Clear Guidelines and Policies: It’s important to have clear guidelines and policies in place that address issues related to trauma, such as harassment, discrimination, and accommodations for mental health. By having clear policies in place, it can help employees feel more secure and less vulnerable to potential triggers or flashbacks.
  • Provide Training and Resources: Training and resources can be helpful for all employees, but especially for trauma survivors. Providing education on trauma-informed practices, mental health awareness, and conflict resolution can help create a culture of understanding and empathy in the workplace.
  • Foster Open Communication: Encouraging open communication and feedback can help create a sense of trust and support in the workplace. This can include regular check-ins with employees, anonymous feedback systems, and open-door policies. When employees feel like they can speak openly and honestly about their experiences, they’re more likely to feel heard and supported.

I think it’s safe to say that, for most of us, the idea of psychologically safe workplace as a “good” place to be – certainly better than a toxic one – can be filed under No Brainer. However, figuring out what to do when you feel trapped in a psychologically unsafe work environment, how to rectify one, and how to navigate it if the issues are compounded as a trauma survivor – all of this can be more difficult and confusing. I hope this article has helped bridge the gap between knowing you need and want psychological safety in the workplace and actually creating it.

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