Any workplace knows to follow certain physical safety guidelines. If you're handling biological waste, you wear protective gear and wash your hands. If you're working with power tools, you know to use ear and eye protection. And even if everyone ends up okay after breaking a safety regulation, you can still receive a fine.1
But what many workplaces know less about is how to protect workers' less visible psychological well-being. Yet, it's just as vital as protecting their physical safety—which is, itself, directly influenced by psychological safety.
Below, you'll find a more detailed definition of psychological safety, why it matters, and what workplaces can do to improve it.
Defining Psychological Safety
Fundamentally, psychological safety means you feel like the people around you have your back. In the workplace, this means that you feel like your contributions matter and that you're safe from retaliation for bringing up uncomfortable yet urgent topics or suggestions.
But it also means feeling safe when you feel different than others in a group and feeling safe when you are having a very difficult time in your life.
The Canadian Standards Association defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as a workplace "that promotes employees' psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways."
Paul B. Williams—a licensed clinical social worker, author, psychotherapist, and owner of Hearts in Mind Counseling—emphasizes that psychological safety means "valuing staff and team members. It's allowing everyone to be seen and heard. Where people are seen as an asset [and] contributions are validated and seen as valuable."
"In general, I see it as the ability to feel safe being your genuine self," adds Dr. Patsy Evans, PhD, a traumatologist, lecturer, and advocate. "It is the ability to be oneself without fear of negative consequences for self-image, status, or otherwise."
Psychological safety, then, encompasses a sense of perceived security and respect in interpersonal relationships between coworkers, leadership, and the organization as a whole.
Why Psychological Safety Matters
Everyone understands the ethics and economics of why physical safety matters in the workplace. However, where psychological safety fits in can be less clear.
In "How To Create a Culture of Psychological Safety," Gallup (December 7, 2017), Jake Herway says it comes down to three major factors: One, psychologically safe workers are more productive. Two, psychologically unsafe workplaces increase the risk of errors and poor health outcomes. Three, more psychologically safe and productive workplaces cost less to maintain.
Psychologically Safe Workers Work Better
Calvin Beyer, vice president for Workforce Risk & Worker Well-Being at Holmes Murphy Ins., summarizes it like this: "Workplaces with a high degree of psychological safety [are] characterized by greater engagement, reduced turnover, higher productivity … and improved collaboration and innovation."
By promoting healthy discourse and a sentiment that everyone's contribution matters, workers feel it's worthwhile to put in the effort to collaborate and innovate, and they also feel safe to dissent.
"Psychological safety," reiterates Mr. Williams, "helps boost staff morale. Staff tends to be more innovative, open to learning, not afraid of making mistakes, [and] open to help from a supportive organization."
Dr. Evans agrees. "When team members feel safe at work, it's easier for them to engage and connect," she says. "Connected peers build better teams where there is less conflict and more productivity."
Less conflict and getting more done—who wouldn't want that?
Psychosocial Hazards Impede Productivity and Safety
An unsupportive work environment isn't just some minor stressor.
Dr. Evans summarizes the stakes: "I have seen people get suicidal and develop PTSD from psychologically toxic work environments" that, she says, are often akin to "abusive relationships."
"Poor psychological safety in the workplace can be fatal," adds Jorgen Gullestrup—a plumber, suicidologist, and leader in several suicide prevention organizations—citing the 2019 case in which bosses at the company France Télécom were prosecuted for creating an environment so rampant with systemic harassment that dozens of workers died by suicide.
Yet suicide, while probably the most devastating outcome, certainly isn't the only one. Toxic workplaces—that is, those with many psychosocial hazards and few ways to limit them—substantially increase the risk of burnout.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory characterizes burnout as exhaustion, cynicism, and low professional efficacy. In essence, you're too tired to work, you feel like work is meaningless, and you feel powerless to change it, none of which bode well for productivity and well-being.
One study by the Institute for Work & Health in Canada found that the 10 percent of workers they examined who reported "poor conditions all around" had a "7- to 9-fold" increased risk of burnout.
Increased productivity and minimized burnout prove economically advantageous for a couple of reasons.
First, the increased productivity and lower turnover save on costs from presenteeism, absenteeism, and other lost productivity from mental ill health.
Voluntary turnover alone costs businesses across the United States around $1 trillion annually, according to Gallup. And the price of replacing a worker can be 33 percent percent higher than keeping them, thanks to training, time spent interviewing, and even hiring fees if you use a firm to find candidates.
Second, workers have become less tolerant of environments rife with bullying, mismanagement, and undue stress.
"Workers have been demonstrating self-care and psychological safety by voting with their feet and leaving toxic cultures in droves," says Mr. Beyer. This view aligns with an MIT Sloan Management Review article about how toxic workplaces have driven the Great Resignation.
How To Create Psychological Safety in Your Workplace
What you do to foster psychological safety in your workplace depends, in part, on your field. People in health care, sales, construction, and more all have distinct legal, ethical, and pragmatic considerations. However, there are some strategies that almost any workplace can try.
What Leadership Can Do
It starts, says Dr. Evans, by "[making] psychological safety an explicit priority. Facilitate everyone speaking up. Give everyone a space to have a voice and be open to staff influence."
Prioritizing worker well-being is not only the right thing to do—it's the frugal thing to do, making it a double-win.
So, what specific actions can leadership take to make their workplace psychologically safer?
Create safe spaces. In these spaces, workers can express concerns and share suggestions without worrying about ridicule or retaliation.
Take issues such as bullying and harassment seriously. Bullying doesn't just happen in the schoolyard—in some workplaces, disrespect and unhealthy competition between coworkers are rampant, sabotaging productivity and well-being. Conducting neutral third-party investigations is a good first step, which builds trust between leadership and employees.
Establish or alter norms for how workers engage with the workplace. For example, in how failure is handled, the policies affecting work-life balance, and perceptions of self-care. "Effective systems being put into place allows for reduction[s] in stress and leads to improved well-being," says Johanna Louie, founder of Suicide Is Different. "Self-care should not only be about relaxing and recharging but creating a system where one can thrive."
And finally, keep in mind that comprehensive strategies work better than compartmentalized or fractured strategies. "The trend," says Mr. Gullestrup, "is towards integrated approaches—protect against hazards, promote the good in work, [and] support the injured to return to work."
What Employees Can Do
Sometimes, change starts from the ground up. If you're an employee and your workplace lacks in psychological safety, you don't have to wait for management to notice. Instead, you can start building psychological safety yourself.
Be there for your coworkers. Regardless of whether management does—or doesn't—promote a psychologically safe environment, you can create one with your peers by demonstrating sincerity, concern, and active listening.
Pay attention to signs of burnout. In yourself and others, burnout can creep up on people, so being able to notice when someone is burning out can help prevent worse burnout in the future. Read more about the signs of burnout.
Seek out resources.
Advocate for yourself and your coworkers. Management might not be pursuing psychological safety on their own, but that doesn't mean they won't do it with some nudging. "Workers can advocate for psychological safety by learning how to ask for what they need in a way that leaders can hear," says Mary Ann Baynton, director of Collaboration and Strategy at Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.
Recognizing that workers are whole people isn't only the compassionate thing to do but the pragmatic thing to do, saving employers—and workers—time, stress, and money.
"We should be able to bring our entire selves to work," says Michelle Dickinson, a workplace mental health strategist, resilience coach, speaker, and author.
"Empathy is the secret sauce for building psychological safety in the workplace," she adds.
No matter your role in the workplace, you can enjoy psychological safety's demonstrable benefits by changing up norms, paying attention to the people around you, and advocating for what you and others need in order to work your best.
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