- Organizations are increasingly expected to provide a holistic approach to employee well-being, with psychological safety as an integral component, McLean & Co. emphasized in a May 3 report.
- A psychologically safe work environment builds on three pillars, the report said: preventing harm, which involves ensuring that employees feel protected from physical, emotional and psychological harm; promoting health, where employees feel physically, emotionally and psychologically healthy; and resolving incidents and concerns in a responsible manner.
- “Psychological safety is not a checklist item or quick fix,” Grace Ewles, McLean’s manager of HR Research & Advisory Services, stated in a media release announcing the report. “Rather, it is an ongoing effort that requires commitment from key stakeholders and strong alignment between the organization’s norms, leadership and day-to-day processes,” Ewles said.
One of the biggest misconceptions about psychological safety is that it is a superficial concept, Ewles told HR Dive in an email.
Rather, psychological safety goes “far beyond being ‘nice’ in the workplace,” she said. “It ensures employees feel safe to speak up, take risks and be themselves without fear of negative consequences.”
The benefits of high psychological safety are great; the risks of low psychological safety are significant, Ewles added. The former helps increase employee engagement and innovation. The latter can have a direct, negative impact on the bottom line.
Those issues aren’t lost on employees. More than eight in 10 global knowledge workers who responded to a recent survey by employment platform Oyster said they considered psychological safety one of the most valued aspects of the workplace. The survey also indicated that employees with a low sense of well-being at work have difficulty focusing, which is consistent with McLean’s finding that engagement and psychological safety are closely tied.
Benefit planners have taken note of employee well-being as well, particularly employee mental health. According to a survey published in February by Lyra Health, employees say they’re not getting help treating mental health conditions, and industry analysts previously told HR Dive that investing in mental health is one of the few reasons employee benefits may not see cost cuts during an economic downturn.
Yet, while psychological safety is an integral part of employee well-being, it doesn’t mean employees can say or do anything without consequences, Ewles said.
“Psychological safety is founded on trust and mutual respect between employees, with a goal of helping individuals feel comfortable challenging the status quo or voicing different concerns or viewpoints,” she explained. However, “those who knowingly or intentionally do wrong are held accountable.”
Another misconception is that when psychological safety is high, there is minimal disagreement or conflict between employees. To the contrary, “creative problem-solving and innovation are founded on healthy disagreement. Psychological safety creates an environment that helps employees respectfully challenge one another or provide differing perspectives,” Ewles pointed out.
She offered five best practices for cultivating and maintaining psychological safety:
First, make it a priority by discussing its importance with your team. Work on role model communication practices for “approaching different points of view with curiosity by listening and asking questions (e.g., Tell me more. What could this look like in practice? What would be the benefits over other approaches?),” Ewles suggested.
Second, build and reinforce team norms that support psychological safety by encouraging team members to ask for help and feedback and to respectfully challenge one another, regardless of their position. Also, monitor team dynamics for negative or detrimental behaviors and timely address them.
Third, demonstrate courage by being vulnerable. “Admitting personal mistakes and sharing challenges or constraints can go a long way in building trust with employees,” Ewles said. In addition, be open to taking risks and receiving constructive feedback.
Fourth, treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Innovation doesn’t happen without trial and error. Instead of looking at mistakes as failures and responding with punishment and blame, focus the conversation on identifying the underlying cause and future courses of action.
Fifth, engage employees in the conversation about psychological safety. Silence indicates they don’t feel safe to contribute. Leverage one-on-one conversations to build rapport and gain an understanding of what needs improvement (e.g., Do you feel your voice is being heard? If not, what needs to change?).