How psychologically safe is your workplace?

Woman sitting with back to wall, head in hands

This article was originally published by The Globe and Mail on July 9, 2019, and is written by Dr. Bill Howatt of The Conference Board of Canada.


The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: employeerecommended.com.

Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2018 at this link.


Do you feel psychologically safe in your workplace?

“Psychological safety” in this case refers to the degree of risk that an average employee is or could be exposed to in the workplace that can result in mental harms. These include exposure to traumatic events, bullying, harassment and workplace violence.

Exposure to these kinds of workplace factors can result in mental distress. The degree of severity, duration and intensity of mental distress as a result of workplace related stress will ultimately determine a person’s risk for developing a diagnosable mental illness. Employees can’t self-diagnose; only medical professionals and psychologists can properly diagnose mental illness and verify that the root cause is work-related.

The term psychological safety is being used by more human resources and occupational health and safety (OHS) leaders. One driver is changes in some provincial OHS legislation (in Ontario and Saskatchewan, for example) that puts the duty on employers to create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. One identified behaviour is bullying, which can put employees’ physical or psychological health at risk, along with the actions that can be taken to prevent it.

The amount of harassment in Canadian workplaces is significant. It’s estimated that, on average, 19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men have experienced harassment in their workplace in the past 12 months, according to Statistics Canada.

Mental health is a personal experience. Even if five employees are exposed to the same workplace factors, it doesn’t mean all five will be affected to the same degree. The most prudent approach employers can take to mitigate workplace risk factors is to act with intention and purpose to eliminate them, not just hope that all will be fine.

Awareness

Small, medium and large employers all will be held accountable to the same standard for employees’ psychological safety.

One action employees can take is to self-evaluate their experience by completing the Employee Experience Review for a Respectful Workplace. This review, devised by Howatt HR Consulting, enables employees to recognize the kind of factors they have observed and experienced in the workplace.

The findings from this review will be reported in a future article to educate employees and employers on what factors can predict employees’ psychological safety and risk.

Encouraging employees to self-evaluate their workplace experience doesn’t make the problem bigger. It creates purpose and insight to stop behaviours that negatively affect employees’ health and productivity.

Accountability

Employers are encouraged to develop respectful workplace policies to prevent violations and to train their managers and employees on the policy. While this step may appear prudent, it presupposes all employees can self-advocate.

Self-advocacy is the ability to stand up for one’s rights, and is tied to their overall resiliency. Employees who self-report high levels of resiliency are less likely to experience respectful workplace concerns than those with lower resiliency. They also report higher levels of productivity and lower levels of “presenteeism,” the term for those working while sick.

Those who complete the Employee Experience Review for a Respectful Workplace receive a resiliency score and report. The data collected in this review will assist in verifying the role resiliency plays in reducing a person’s risk of being affected by workplace violations.

Key tenets for employers to stop respectful workplace violations include ensuring employees understand the respectful workplace policy, committing to measuring and monitoring employees’ experiences, and training employees on what is and is not acceptable behaviour. They also need to support employees to develop their resiliency skills so they can push through personal adversity to be able to report a respectful workplace violation.

Action

Each organization’s culture sets the social norms for what’s acceptable.

Encourage self-awareness—Encourage peers and leaders to increase their self-awareness on the degree of respect and potential risk within the workplace. The goal is to facilitate open and honest conversations on what’s working well and opportunities for improvement. The questions in this review can help identify the kinds of issues that shape a psychologically safe culture.

Be an “upstander”—One of the most effective ways to stop respectful workplace violations is for managers and employees to be “upstanders.” When they see evidence of bullying, harassment (including domestic violence), sexual harassment and violence in the workplace they act to stop it by reporting it.

Self-advocating—Employers have a responsibility to prevent workplace violence. However, to stop it and other kinds of respectful workplace violations requires employees to be upstanders. Employees who have questions about their ability to self-advocate may consider taking a coping skills and resiliency program. Those are trainable skills.

Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting, chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

Dr. Bill Howatt

Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity

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