The role of psychological safety in workplace Health & Safety

Karen Rayner
Karen Rayner | September 15, 2020
Health & Safety
The role of psychological safety in workplace Health & Safety

For many, 'safety' means physical safety: PPE, hazard registers and accident prevention. But psychological safety at work is just as important.

"Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes." - Amy Edmondson

Psychological safety is what enables us to speak up, and to take calculated risks without the fear of reprimand. This matters to workplace Health & Safety initiatives for a number of reasons.

Empowerment

When people feel psychologically safe they are more comfortable making decisions for themselves. If there's no policy or procedure for the current situation, they are likely to use their own knowledge and experience to come up with a solution. If people feel unsafe, they will be unwilling to act and will wait for someone else to take the lead. People who feel safe are more resilient and can adapt better to changes or new events in their workplaces.

Growth

When people feel psychologically safe they feel able to ask for help or admit to mistakes, and are more likely to report accidents. The aim of a psychologically safe workplace is not to eliminate everything that could go wrong, but to make it OK for people to speak up and seek help when things do. The entire team can then learn from the situation and will be in a better position to respond next time something similar happens. Compare that to a workplace where accidents aren't readily reported or where nobody will admit to knowing the cause of a problem for fear of blame or punishment.

Engagement

When people know their well-being is important, they’re less likely to burn out and more likely to be engaged, happy in their work, and conduct their work safely. Leaders who are open and transparent about the things that can go wrong at work, and who have processes to deal with those events, play a critical role in building a safety culture.

Psychological safety is complex, but there are a few ways you can encourage it

Create a shared understanding of the nature and importance of your work. Explain why it's important to come forward - who's depending on you? What happens when you don't? Invite input and ideas. Ask people how they understand their work situations and what they would do to make them better, or safer.

Show appreciation when people come forward, and respond appropriately. Help solve problems rather than reprimanding people for causing them. Then debrief as a team to make sure everyone's on the same page for next time.

Create clear and transparent processes for reporting errors. Make sure everyone knows the steps to go through to report problems, and that leaders are able to tell process error from human error. Systems that people trust are more likely to be used.

Acknowledge feelings and emotions in the workplace - including your own. If people have worries, concerns or are afraid they may be making mistakes, don’t brush them off with “It’s OK” or “just get it done”. Take the time to hear people out - and model this behaviour by talking about your feelings as well. This is especially important now; many people are carrying a lot of emotional baggage and it’s important to know support is available.

The role of open feedback in psychological safety

"We've never been here before; we can't know what will happen. We've got to have everybody's brains - and voices - in the game." - Amy Edmondson

Open communication is critical to building a sense of psychological safety: creating the level of trust that makes people feel OK about asking for help. If you want your team to feel like they can speak up when things aren’t going well, you should build a culture that supports and encourages openness and honesty.

Anonymous feedback is secretive. It implies that speaking up is only safe if people don’t know you’re the one talking. In some cases that might be absolutely necessary: if you’re reporting on illegal or discriminatory practices for example. In most cases, especially in day to day business operations, you shouldn’t need to hide behind anonymous feedback. If your workplace has a culture of psychological safety and trust, this shouldn’t be a problem!

To find out how to have more productive conversations and build psychological safety at work, check out our Health & Safety Conversation Guide.

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Everything you need to start talking about health and safety at work

A complete guide to having open conversations with people about health, physical safety and psychological safety at work.