The Ultimate Guide to Psychological Safety

The Ultimate Guide to Psychological Safety

In a rapidly evolving business landscape, understanding the nuances of psychological safety and integrating it into the employee lifecycle is crucial. This article delves into the core of workplace wellbeing, exploring what makes a workplace psychologically safe and the pivotal role of resilience and agility in fostering such an environment.  

In the lead-up to our Fruit for Thought webinar with Jim Kelly from Safework NSW, we asked hundreds of our customers what burning questions they had about psychological safety and we were floored by the immense response. We answered as many as we could in our live session (you can watch the full episode here) and for all the ones we couldn’t get to we have created the ultimate guide to Psych Safety and Psychosocial Risks and Hazards.

Three coworkers laughing around a table

How would you define psychological safety at work?

Psychological safety is the perception that it's safe to speak up at work, for people to be themselves and to fail without fear of reprisal. The term was popularised by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor.  

Psychosocial risks/hazards are risks/hazards in the workplace that may cause harm to someone's mental health. These may include job demands, conflict, lack of clarity, etc.  

Although these two concepts are different, they are absolutely related. For instance, if someone doesn't feel safe to speak up (indicating a lack of psych safety), they are unlikely to share if they are being bullied (a psychosocial risk/hazard). 

Although psychological safety isn’t a legal requirement (like psychosocial risks and hazards are), we believe it’s the foundation upon which you build a sturdy house!  We have also created a Psych Safety Handbook that has further information and is free to download!

How do you make psychological safety part of everyday conversations with your team, and how do we manage this with remote/hybrid work?

Embedding psychological safety and reducing psychosocial risks and hazards requires intentionality.  

As leaders, we set the tone—we can ask for input, actively listen, recognise our team for great work, and act on the feedback among many other things. This style of leadership creates a safe place for people to do their best work and is likely to positively contribute to the mitigation of psychosocial risks in your organisation.  

We can make psychological safety and reducing psychosocial risks and hazards part of our everyday conversations informally by normalising discussions about workload, stress, work-life balance and mental health. This sets the tone, or cultural expectation, that it’s ok to share. It starts with the leader – this vulnerability builds a sense of trust that creates the foundations of psychological safety. 

If there are leaders in your organisation that aren’t having these conversations with their people regularly, then you may want to educate them on what psychological safety and psychological risks and hazards are, and their legal duty to create a safe environment – both physically and mentally. You can do this one-on-one or you may like to deliver a workshop on the topic. We have two 2-hour Psych Health and Safety workshops that cover this very topic: Psychological Safety for Leaders and Managing Psychosocial Risks and Hazards.

From a more formal lens, a great tip is to add this as an agenda item of a regular meeting. Sharing a safety message at the start of a meeting is commonplace in many organisations these days, choosing a psychological risk/hazard to focus on is a great way to use what you already have in place. You can also add these to your agenda of your performance conversations or one-on-one check-ins.  

In terms of leading a hybrid team, there is no doubt it has its challenges. This is why building trusting relationships with your team is critically important – if your team trust you, they are more likely to share when things aren’t right for them. We’ve created a free Connection Cookbook that provides practical ideas on creating connections and building relationships at work.  

The following questions can also be a great starting point to lead any team, especially a hybrid team in fostering a psychologically safe work environment: 

  • What’s working well? 
  • What’s getting in your way? 
  • How can I best support you? 
  • How safe do you feel about speaking up or making mistakes? What would help you feel more comfortable to do so? 
  • If you were to change one thing about your job what would it be? 
  • What do you love about your job? 

Last, there are signs you can look out for if someone is struggling, you can spot these if you’re in the office or working virtually, you just need to be observant. For instance, if someone’s behaviour is out of character – maybe they are quieter than normal, or they have started to run late in the mornings when they are normally on time, or they stop coming into the office altogether. These are signs that someone might not be feeling psychologically safe or may be impacted by a risk or hazard at work which is when you can open a conversation with them.  

Three people smiling and bumping fists

How do we work safely with a leader/employee with mental health issues?

The first step in creating a safe place for someone with mental health issues is eliminating the stigma. If someone is experiencing mental health issues, or any other health issue for that matter, the best thing you do is demonstrate care, compassion, and kindness!  

Just like a physical ailment, ask them what adjustments you need to make to support them. This might include flexible hours, more frequent breaks, adjusting their workload, or providing mental health support such as your EAP. The key is to consult with them. Ask them what they need, don’t presume, or make decisions on their behalf. 

Where possible, ensure the team member isn’t exposed to psychological risks or hazards that may exacerbate their illness - these could include bullying, high job demands, lack of clarity, etc. If it isn’t reasonably practical to completely eliminate the risks and or hazards, then reasonable practical steps should be taken to reduce the likelihood and/or severity of harm being caused.  

Lastly, confidentiality is critically important. If they don’t share their experience with other team members, you shouldn’t either. If you want support on how to lead them, you could contact your EAP or your people and culture team.  

How do you manage the unspoken tension and the impact this may have on others?

Don’t leave it unspoken. If you can feel it, it’s likely others can, and it may spread a negative emotional contagion across the team. Address it head-on, and in a compassionate way that encourages openness, not make people feel defensive. 

For instance, you may like to say to a team member ‘I haven’t had a coffee today, would you like to come with me.’ This informality can build trust that will enable you to have an open/and or challenging conversation. Another great statement to proceed with could include ‘Is everything ok, I’ve observed (include the observable actions) and ‘It seems like there’s tension between you and (insert name).’  

Obviously, allowing each party the space to share openly and confidentiality. Sometimes a middle person can ‘soften’ the tension by creating some ‘middle ground’. Ideally, where possible, the disputing parties will come together and discuss their challenge in a mature and professional way.  

However, if the tension persists you may need to have a performance-related discussion and/or bring in formal mediation. It's best to speak to your P&C team for advice. Remember, incivility/poor workplace relationships are a psychosocial risk/hazard that needs to be addressed in a manner that is deemed reasonably practical.  

Two men having a conversation and gesturing to a computer screen

How do you start the conversation with workers without crossing work boundaries?

If you noticed someone had a broken arm at the start of the week, you’d check to see if they are okay and how you can support them at work while they recover. This care and consideration shouldn’t be any different to psychological illness/injury. 

If you notice a team member seems particularly flat one morning, then check in on them, and see if they are ok. Obviously, it’s important to choose the moment and the place! You’re not going to ask them in front of others. You could use phrases like ‘I noticed you seem quieter than usual today, is everything ok?’ ‘Is there something you’d like to discuss or something that I can help with?’  

We’re not robots, we’re human. That’s why we often talk about non-work-related things at work - like what we did on the weekend, stuff the kids have on, or an exciting holiday we have coming up. So, it’s ok to have non-work-related conversations. The key is not to pry and to give permission for people not to share (obviously these conversations still need to be workplace-appropriate). For instance, a great statement might be ‘If you don’t feel comfortable sharing that’s totally ok, just know I’m here if you need anything.’  

Remember, our role as a leader isn’t to be a psychologist but to create the environment where our team thrive. This means referring them to your Employee Assistance Program or other clinical support where required.  

If you observe a manager/director not experiencing psychological safety in their higher-up team - what would you do?

First, resist the temptation to turn a blind eye. Psychological safety isn’t just for the frontline; it’s a C-Suite essential too. If you feel comfortable ‘managing up’, then doing so in a kind, compassionate and discreet manner is the way to go. 

However, many people may not feel comfortable with this, this is where your People and Culture team comes in. If you still don’t feel comfortable, some organisations have an anonymous feedback mechanism that you can use. However, behaviour is more likely to be addressed when people formally come forward, rather than through an anonymous tip-off.  

Two coworkers making notes over coffee

What are the likely impacts of the new legislation?

The legislative changes across Australia differ state-by-state, so it’s best to refer to your relevant regulator for more information.  

In general terms, however, reducing psychological risks/hazards is explicitly written into law. This means that organisations are required to take explicate actions to mitigate risks and hazards in a way deemed reasonable and practical.  

Proactive actions that organisations can take include the development of comprehensive risk assessments relating to psychosocial risk & hazards, mandatory training and comprehensive reporting that is addressed at the board level. Organisations that get ahead of these legislations not only mitigate legal risks but also enhance their brand as a “safe space” to work. 

Practical tools to manage and measure psychological risks.

Let's cut to the chase—what you can't measure, you can't manage. Tools like regular surveys and pulse checks to gauge employee sentiment, confidential reporting channels, and well-being dashboards are helpful. There are also specifically designed psychosocial risk management surveys.  

We recommend using SafeWork Australia’s People at Work risk assessment survey. It’s a freely available resource and was created by the safety regulator. Before choosing the measure, ensure that it’s fit for purpose for your organisation. 

How to talk to managers and up-skill them in this area.

Managers play an integral role in mitigating risks and hazards in the workplace. Providing them with training on what their legal responsibilities are and the practical strategies they can employ is essential. Ideally, the training will be workshop style, rather than informational, so that it’s a meaningful learning experience. You may like to view our Psych Health and Safety for Leaders program.  

We also recommend that if you include a safety message/toolbox talks, you include psychosocial safety messages and include psychosocial risk management reporting in performance reviews, monthly meetings, etc that filter upward directly to the executive leadership team.  

Coworkers with their head in their hands feeling stressed

What are some of the signs of psychological hazards at the workplace and how can HR address them?

The first tell-tale sign is psychological workers comp claims, for factors such as workplace stress, bullying, harassment, etc. There are so many other data points you can be mindful of including high turnover and absenteeism, decreased productivity, and general disengagement. Other signs may also include constantly emailing out of hours or while team members are on leave, KPI’s or goals that don’t seem to be progressing, ‘a blame culture’, in/out groups or incivility, as well as formal, or informal, reports about others conduct.  

Depending on your organisation, the role of HR, and or the safety team, may vary. The HR function serves as a business enabler, meaning they support an organisation to do ‘business well’. HR may collect or collate data, develop risk assessments, and educate leaders and employees relevant to the organisation's needs.  

  

What are the leading drivers and trends of psychosocial risk right now?

In our workshops, by far the biggest stand out is high job demands! This probably wouldn’t surprise many in our ‘hustle culture.’ This is increasingly important to factor in given the rise of workplace burnout.  

The other most common drivers in our workshops include that 97% of our workshop participants don’t feel confident in their understanding of what Psychological Safety and Psychosocial Risks and Hazards are, which is confronting as the mitigation of these risks and hazards is now a legal requirement. The saving grace is that 100% of them say feel confident in their understanding once they complete our leadership program and learn how to manage psychosocial risks and hazards.

Lastly, every organisation is different, so we suggest you spend time understanding your organisation's context, rather than what the drivers are in other organisations.  

What are some common features of workplaces that have low incidences of psychosocial injuries?

Workplaces with low incidents of psychosocial injuries tend to be organisations that have a strong people-first culture. Meaning there is a genuine care for the welfare of their people – they manage the fine balance between profit and people. Their managers understand the unique skills, abilities and limitations of their employees based on a strengths framework and adjust their leadership accordingly.  

Not only do they take a human-centred approach to the way they lead, but the organisation takes a pragmatic and intentional approach to reducing risks and hazards – both physical and psychological. Meaning all levels of the business are cognisant of the factors that may cause their team harm.   

This doesn’t happen by chance, it takes a systematic and deliberate approach.  

What are some of the strategies associated with managing information overload, constant context switching and associated stress?

Operating an organisation in today’s fast-paced world can be challenging. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report found that employee stress remained at a record high. Organisations, and their people, are required to be agile and adjust to the changing market to stay ahead. There are several practical ways to manage this, here are a few ideas: 

  • Obviously avoiding unnecessary context changing is the first step! Well-planned and executed strategic plans and change management processes are critical in this. It helps you understand what is achievable.  
  • Remember, change is not just intellectual, we have an emotional response. Some people will take longer to ‘come around’ to certain changes than other people. That’s completely natural! You may find our Embracing Change eBook interesting. 
  • When context shifting occurs, communicate the “why” of any decision.
  • Communication is not one way – provide opportunities for people to ask questions and provide feedback. Ideally, provide opportunities for your people to contribute to decision-making where possible. Consultation isn’t just a good practice, it’s also highlighted as an important part of the legal requirement for organisations when aiming to reduce risks/hazards.
  • Communication is key – however, try to keep the platform switching to a minimum.

What do we do as internal professionals when our senior leaders absolutely won't get on board with psychosocial risk management?

Managing psychosocial risks is no longer just for the forward-thinking executive teams and organisations. Given that most states and territories have/are updating their legislation to explicitly include managing psychosocial risks and hazards, senior leaders and boards have a legal and financial imperative to ensure that they mitigate risks/hazards in the workplace.  

Safety is not a stand-alone function, we recommend cowriting a business case with the safety, people and culture, and compliance/legal team within your organisation (or using this one we’ve done for you). A great place to start is reading SafeWork’s model Code of Practice, it’s full of great content that will be helpful to include. 

It’s also important to tell a compelling story about the why – use your own organisation's data such as employee surveys, exit interviews, workers comp claims, etc. Make it real to them in terms of dollars and compliance! 

You could also cite organisations that have been fined previously, for instance, Court Services Australia was recently (Oct 2023) convicted and fined just under $380k in 2023 for a toxic workplace culture that contributed to the suicide of a worker and many others taking stress leave.  

A group staff meeting held on zoom

What suggestions do you have for managers as we expect employees to return to work (post-COVID) full-time?

Returning to the office post-COVID isn’t just a physical transition; it's a mental one too. It’s important to keep this in mind. It may be the case that for some employees returning to the office may induce feelings of anxiousness or worry, especially if they have an underlying mental health condition. Some may also perceive this decision as unwarranted, which may result in them finding an alternative employer who offers a more flexible arrangement.  

Remember, consultation plays an important role in mitigating risks and hazards. So, ask questions, listen, and understand people’s individual needs.  

A few tips to support the return to the office: 

  • Understand people’s individual needs and emotional responses to this change. Validating, not minimising, their experience.
  • Create an environment where they want to come to work – a positive culture, opportunities to meaningfully connect, and a welcoming physical space.
  • Continue to make provisions for flexible arrangements based on individual needs.
  • Introduce a phased return-to-work plan, so people ‘get used’ to the change.
  • Communicate the why of the decision.

How do you see this playing out over the next 5 to 10 years?

Given that managing psychosocial risks and hazards is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’, but a legal requirement, we expect to see seismic cultural shifts in the way organisations operate. Some organisations will catch on quickly, others may be slower to act. The good news is that we’re already seeing senior executive teams and boards actively reporting on psychological risks and hazards in the workplace.  

It is almost certain that there will be high-profile organisations that will be prosecuted for not creating a psychologically safe place to work. The publicity from these cases will put further pressure on employers to take further action to safeguard their people.  

In terms of what next – expect more sophisticated measurement tools, industry awards for workplaces demonstrating excellence in psychological risk management, and training programs to support leaders among a few (such as our Psychological Safety Leadership program).  

Most importantly, psychological risk management will become the commonplace language in organisations. When these terms become commonplace and psychological risk management is embedded within the systems we operate in, we will see a shift away from this being a safety/compliance initiative towards a cultural development and employee value proposition standpoint. 

If you would like to ensure your team is psychologically safe and your leaders can confidently mitigate psychosocial risks and hazards, then get in touch to lock in your training session today.

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