True workplace safety must embrace psychological safety as well as physical safety. It requires a positive workplace culture and holding leaders accountable for addressing factors that threaten employee mental health and psychological safety.
— By Malibu Kothari
Physical safety in the workplace is fairly easy to identify because most hazards can be visually identified and removed. As long as employees follow the safety rules, they are normally at low risk of incurring physical harm. Psychological safety and health in the workplace is more challenging to address because it concerns emotions, feelings, and ways of thinking.
A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks without fear of negative consequences. In a psychologically safe place, people are willing to share issues of mental health, bring their authentic self to work without fear of harassment or judgment, and even discuss workplace-related ethical issues without fear of reprisal.
Positive interpersonal relationships, social support, and organizational resources are at the core of a safe workplace, giving employers areas of focus for creating supportive organizational practices.
Actively and Intentionally Promoting Mental Health
The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, referred to as the Standard, defines a psychologically safe workplace as one that “promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.”
The key words are “actively works” because it takes intentional ongoing effort to create a positive workplace culture and ensure it remains safe and well. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recommends each employer develop and implement a Comprehensive Workplace Health and Safety Program (CWHS) that is based on the Standard.
The Standard offers tools and resources to help guide employers, but any process developed should include an assessment of current status, followed by implementation of practices and resources that embed psychological health and safety in the workplace, establish oversight by senior leaders, and measure outcomes. It is a process and not a beginning to end initiative.
Putting a Plan in Motion
Psychological health and safety is a broad topic because so much can harm mental health and make people feel unsafe. It includes harassment and bullying, lack of accommodation for people with disabilities, workplace stress and burnout, co-worker reactions and treatment, stressful organizational or job change, and conflict with coworkers or supervisors.
There are other factors that may develop in the workplace, or employees bring them into the workplace when they are able to bring their authentic selves. It could be family issues, grief, impending retirement, returning to work after a leave, depression or substance abuse.
The Standard recommends creating a health and safety committee first that is involved in the assessment of the baseline measure of psychological health and safety planning and establishes a process to monitor progress. Each company establishes aggregate baseline measures that may include turnover rates, numbers of complaints broken down by type (bullying, harassment, discrimination, conflict, etc.), accident and incident reports, data from benefits programs, substance use data, return-to-work and accommodation data, and employee engagement and other surveys.
The committee then analyzes the data and identifies areas of greatest concern for psychological safety. From that analysis, objectives and targets are set. For example, if data shows a high rate of complaints about stressful work conditions, it could be some frontline supervisors are making excessive demands on employees. To lower the number of these complaints, train the supervisors in employee engagement and communication.
Putting all the Pieces Together
Assessing progress against objectives and goals is important, but there also needs to be measures for accountability. The focus on psychological health should begin in the C-suite with organization-wide directives to consider the impact of psychological health when developing and implementing policies, procedures, strategies, programs, and initiatives. Include safety outcomes in manager and supervisor performance reviews, and recognize those who become role models.
The Mental Health Commission identified 13 factors concerning workplace mental health and psychological safety. Organizational culture tops the list. The others are psychological and social support, clear leadership and expectations, civility and respect, psychological demands, growth and development, recognition and reward, involvement and influence, workload management, engagement, balance, psychological protection, and protection of physical safety.
Employers can think in terms of three levels of health and safety: Social practices, management practices, and organizational practices.
Promoting social practices can include strategies like engagement of employees in cross-disciplinary work, creating networks or groups, enabling storytelling to address biases, and implementing reward and recognition systems.
The Mental Health Commission understands that organizations are different sizes and may have limited resources, but mental health is as important in a 25-employee workplace
as it is in a large corporation.
Management practices include, but are not limited to, strategies such as ensuring ethical and equitable treatment of employees, leadership training in employee engagement at every organizational level, open-door policies, developing a culture of trustworthiness and openness, being inclusive, and creating a strong communication system so all voices are heard.
Organizational practices include diversity and inclusion programs, mentoring and sponsorship programs, providing employees access to or guidance about available mental health resources, and developing an empathetic culture through leadership that has a high emotional intelligence level.
Treating People with Respect
It sounds very complex, but in truth much of this is common sense, so it is important to not be overwhelmed. Treat employees with respect, refuse to tolerate negative behaviors by anyone in the workplace, and give employees opportunities for open and private discussions around issues of mental health are some of the basic principles of creating a psychologically safe workplace.
The Mental Health Commission understands that organizations are different sizes and may have limited resources, but mental health is as important in a 25-employee workplace as it is in a large corporation.
The Standard implementation plan does not have a start and end date. Instead, it is a plan for continuous improvement that starts with careful planning, and in every organization, the planning must start with senior leadership. This is not a “problem” that frontline supervisors should be expected to tackle alone.