Let’s just face the facts, safety is a concern in workplaces across the United States. In 2020 alone, there were over 4,700 work fatalities, and 2.7 million injuries and illnesses (4 million consultations) which cost the economy nearly $644 billion.  Finances continue to be a serious motive for leadership to prioritize safety, and it is no surprise that companies have risen to meet that need. The workplace safety market is projected to grow from $12.1 billion in 2020 to $19.9 billion by 2025.  With all this attention on keeping workers safe, it may surprise some to find out that a major facet of safety in the workplace has spent decades largely ignored—psychological safety.
Huge disclaimer here: physical safety in the workplace is a huge issue that can cost companies dearly. We talk about it at length on this blog, and we have even built a tool with OSHA data to help companies estimate the potential costs of their safety incidents. But this month is Mental Health awareness month, and we are dedicated to taking a closer look at how the workplace can improve around mental health issues and keep people psychologically safe and empowered to do their best work.
While the changing circumstances of the pandemic have contributed to renewed discussions on mental health and safety in the workplace, there is still a long path ahead of us. The reality is that mental health has spent far too long as a taboo topic that was “better left at home” and this has left lasting effects on how we approach it as a society. Many leaders and colleagues may not feel equipped to support someone through a mental health issue. In fact they often don’t even know what to say in times that we all have in common, such as grief or loss.
While some companies have put support systems in place (up to 53% since the pandemic), the reality is that many employees still feel unsafe opening up about their challenges. While 50% of employees will likely struggle with a mental health lapse, only a third will reach out to their employer, and 68% worry that their mental health issue could negatively impact their job security.  A common retort heard from business leaders is that people just don’t want to talk about their struggles with these issues. However, research by the American Psychiatric Association indicates that workers are keen to open up, especially millennials, 62% of whom say they are comfortable discussing their mental health. These statistics paint a picture of an environment that fails to make employees feel safe to address their mental health (which happens to be protected by law under the Americans with Disabilities Act). The reality is that half of your employees will struggle with a mental health issue over this year, and if they aren’t talking about it, it doesn’t mean you beat the odds, it means your people probably don’t feel safe to open up.
Before driving a culture, it is important to understand what psychological safety is. Safety is a foundational need of all humans whether you are looking at historical or modern need theory. For your people to excel and engage in their work, they first need to feel safe (among other things). Psychological safety is a term that was first coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, who defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for inter-personal risk taking.”
Safe to speak up and share their ideas, safe to tell people how they made them feel, safe to share their ideas without fear of ridicule, safe to admit they are struggling with anything from grief to depression without fear of feeling isolated or looked down on.
There are 4 main stages of psychological safety that your employees will journey through in a healthy work culture.
1. Inclusion Safety
The basic safety to connect and belong as your authentic self. Employees feel that they can be themselves without hiding quirks and idiosyncrasies.
2. Learner Safety
This stage is reached when employees feel safe to experiment, ask questions, and learn new skills. They need to feel safe both giving and receiving feedback, and especially to make mistakes.
3. Contributor Safety
This stage is reached when employees feel that their gifts and talents enable them to be a meaningful contributor within their team and organization, and feel safe doing so.
4. Challenger Safety
This stage is reached when employees feel safe to challenge the norms and status quos of your organization when they see there is room for improvement.
How does a psychologically safe culture impact employees?
It is more engaging. From participation in meetings to project collaboration, employees will be more likely to show up and perform with excellence.
It is more inclusive. Safety enhances diversity. Team members can flourish in their roles regardless of their differences across demographic categories and feel connected in pursuing the company mission.
It is healthier. Psychological safety reduces stress levels and creates an environment that is more supportive of mental health, allowing employees to be at their best.
It drives creativity. Apart from being free to talk about their stressors and struggles, psychologically safe cultures allow employees to feel safe expressing that bold new idea that a different environment might have crushed.
Leadership matters. At the end of the day, culture starts with leadership. A poor leader drives a culture that damages their people, and a strong leader sets the example for their culture. Case in point is a company called Buffer, that makes social media management products. In a work environment that is mostly remote, and conducted via Slack and Zoom calls, CEO Joel Gascoine has taken the lead on creating a culture of openness and safety. He openly discusses the fact that he is in therapy, and encourages discourse on all facets of life. Employees have responded positively, sharing their own stressors and challenges  Besides leading the conversation on mental health topics, there are a several steps leaders can take to drive a culture that promotes psychological safety:
Respect is the foundation for healthy discourse and psychological safety. Team members must avoid any shaming, undermining, or actions that make others feel like they can't speak up. Intervention in these situations should be swift, and training should be conducted to make sure team members understand how these actions undermine creativity and the team as a whole.
Starting from the top, vulnerability is a vital component of a safe environment. Leaders can set the tone by being open about their own vulnerabilities and fallibility. As employees follow suit, a space is created that empowers employees to admit their own mistakes and seek opportunities for growth.
Curiosity and active listening
Create a culture that values curiosity. Give your employees avenues to contribute their thoughts and expertise and challenge you on your thinking. Ask for feedback, and don’t treat people with the assumption they are wrong just because it contradicts your thinking. This can create an environment in which everyone can bring their contribution and learn as much as others learn from them.
If you have privilege, empower others
The reality of psychological safety and mental health discourse is that oftentimes, those who are underrepresented or at a disadvantage have the least power to make a change. An example of this is that certain teams that may be vital for a project's success may have low visibility when it comes to the final product. A leader could ensure they are recognized for their efforts publicly. You can also create dedicated resources and support groups for those who need them.
Psychological safety is a foundation from which your employees can be at their best. From creating less stress on the psyche to driving innovation and creativity, safe employees will be more engaged and drive real transformation within your organization. It is a great place to start, but psychological safety can’t stand alone. A healthy culture requires intentionality across several dimensions. Maybe your company is great at making employees feel valued, but struggles with building to trust or creating meaningful work and organizational pride. Start by identifying the dimensions of your culture that you can build on, as well as those that need some work.
If you have any questions about psychological safety, how to identify cultural pain points, or anything else, we would love to connect, just head to www.ledgestone.com/contact to get in touch!