Health and Wellness, Personnel Safety, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

As health and safety professionals, our main goal is consistent across the board: keep our employees safe and send them home the same way they came to work. Often, we are referring to the physical safety and wellbeing of our employees. As leaders, we must remember the human factors associated with the workplace and how they can make or break personal safety. Creating a psychologically safe work environment is imperative when pursing our goals as safety professionals and organizational leaders.

Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present in a workplace, employees can speak up about work-related content without the fear of embarrassment, punishment, or disciplinary action. It is important to build psychological safety in the workplace regardless of your role or level of management. So what can we do to build and promote a culture of psychological safety throughout our organizations?

Practice giving and receiving feedback. In a workplace environment, sharing information and collaboration to achieve a common goal is a must. In practice though, team members may be nervous to speak up and offer valuable ideas or solutions because they feel their opinions may not be valued or taken seriously. One way to combat this fear is to practice giving feedback, to ensure that when others are vulnerable and present a differing or minority opinion, you can hear them out and provide feedback in a respectful and encouraging way. The key to giving valuable feedback is to be respectful and never leave an employee feeling like they are unheard. A great way to get employees comfortable speaking up and collaborating is to conduct brainstorming exercises. During this period, employees can work on both giving and receiving feedback in an open environment. On the other hand, when receiving feedback, you must channel your learner mindset. Having an open mind and a willingness to learn is paramount when it comes to receiving feedback.

Work on your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is one of the most critical leadership skills a leader can have. This means having the awareness and understanding of their own emotions while dealing with employees and situations in the workplace. Learning how to manage your emotions in stressful or uneasy times will go a long way. An employee who loses their cool quickly or breaks down in stressful situations is a good indication of a person with a low level of emotional intelligence. To improve your level of emotional intelligence, put an emphasis on self-awareness. Self-awareness involves the ability to recognize one’s feelings and emotions. People with high self-awareness pay close attention to how they are feeling at any given moment. They understand that their emotions have a close impact on how they respond to certain situations. They know that making a sudden decision during a highly emotional moment might lead to negative consequences down the road. Self-awareness also involves noting what a person’s particular strengths and weaknesses are. Perhaps someone knows they struggle to communicate with others, which makes them aware of what needs to change.

Stop negativity in its tracks! Nobody responds well to a “Debbie Downer” or to negative energy in general. Anytime there is drama, negative conversations, or animosity within the workplace, there is a good chance employees will become uncomfortable. It is important to nip any negative or unkind energy in the bud. Set the expectation with your peers that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. For leaders, if you allow this type of activity to occur, you are enabling your other employees to continue to act in this manner. This is a psychological safety killer! Negativity can be contagious and spread like wildfire. Build positivity and care for people in your organization and your safety culture will thank you later.

Celebrate the success of your peers. Success can attract success and celebrating wins in the workplace can help build momentum, improve morale, and make the everyday grind feel worth it. Sharing success will show our employees that we care, and that their hard work is not going unnoticed. In the United States, 79% of employees who leave their job do so because of feeling undervalued and appreciated. When employees feel valued and cared for, they are more likely to speak up and voice their opinions which will all lead to a better sense of psychological safety in your work environment.

Psychological safety will allow for inclusion which will create diversity and will facilitate performance. There are many benefits of a psychologically safe workplace, including:

  • Improved innovation
  • Enhances trust
  • Better communication and information sharing
  • Proper reporting
  • Better problem solving
  • Improved employee retention
  • Better workplace morale
  • Inclusion and diversity
  • Fewer safety incidents
  • A happier, more stress-free workplace

A few questions that will help you gauge your team’s level of psychological safety are:

  • Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for support?
  • If you make a mistake, will it be held against you?
  • Does it seem difficult to bring up problems or issues in the workplace?
  • Does anyone’s opinion ever get rejected due to diversity? (Ethnicity, age, gender)

If this topic has already been introduced to your organization, it would be of value to facilitate a refresher on the core idea of psychological safety. If this has not yet been addressed within your organization, it would be highly beneficial to introduce this vital component to safety. Your companies’ employees, safety culture, and morale will be greatly enhanced.

Rocco Martini, CSP, OHST, MBA, is a Safety Specialist at Shell Polymers in Monaca, Pennsylvania, and a winner of a 2022 EHS Daily Advisor Safety Standout Award.