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Chronicle Herald : What is Psychological Safety?

By: Bill Howatt


This Op-Ed was originally published by Chronicle Herald on December 17, 2019. It was written by Bill Howatt of the Conference Board of Canada.

I recently asked a group of occupational health and safety (OHS) and human resources leaders to define psychological safety as if they were talking to a five-year-old.

I made some interesting observations. Most leaders didn’t appear clear, or perhaps confident, to put in their own words a simple definition that the average employee could grasp and would understand the benefit to them.

My simple definition is, “A culture where everyone feels welcomed and safe.” The word “safe” is a key construct in the world of occupational health and safety that’s been developed to put in controls that mitigate employees’ risk of exposure to hazards. Hazards can include slips, falls, vibration, crushing, electric shock, toxins, burns and ear and eye damage, all of which can create physical damage and cause lost time at work.

“Safe” is now becoming a key word in psychological safety, as some provinces are taking proactive steps to prevent mental injuries. One example is mandating that employers put in place respectful workplace policies and training to prevent risk for employees to be exposed to harassment that could cause a mental injury.

The object of OHS management systems is to prevent physical risk or injury, not necessarily to make an employee physically stronger. However, as workplaces evolve into psychologically safe environments, the CSA Standard on Psychological Safety highlights two key objectives to prevent mental harms and to promote mental health.

Like traditional physical safety programs that use education to promote physical safety, so do activities such as anti-stigma campaigns to support mental health.

There’s also a movement to encourage employees to develop their mental health by engaging in mental fitness activities such as resiliency. As well, employers are learning how the workplace culture and environment, including quality manager-employee relationships, can have a positive or negative impact on employees’ resiliency. The goal is not only to protect but also to help employees and employers discover what’s within their control to improve and protect employees’ mental health.

OHS uses a hierarchy of control to manage physical hazards. For example, if a chemical is dangerous to humans and is not needed for processes, the hazard can be controlled by eliminating the chemical. If the hazard can’t be eliminated, a safer substitute for the chemical can be sought. The next level is engineering controls (e.g., technology warning system), administrative controls (procedure) and, as a last resort, personal protection equipment (gloves).

Within the world of psychological safety, we can’t eliminate the need for people. One of the biggest psychological hazards in the workplace is dealing with other people. So, a hierarchy of control likely doesn’t make sense.

What I propose to organizations is much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where needs lower down in the hierarchy assist in creating the opportunity for the higher needs to be met. To maximize the opportunity for all employees to be psychologically safe, an organization can increase the probability of being successful by building on a strong foundation of five levels. My key observation is that impacting psychological health is not a program; it’s a process that will never end. Like all management systems, it requires a constant plan-do-check-act. A program done once won’t have the desired impact unless it’s a step in an ongoing, well-thought-out process, one I call a psychological safety road map — a clearly marked journey with milestones.

I’m noticing that too many organizations are jumping to level four without having levels one to three in place. This can be akin to putting a sticker on a vehicle saying that it’s new and improved, rather than upgrading it to have some real transformational impact.

Levels for Impacting Psychological Safety in the Workplace

  • Level 5 — Proactive psychological protection. The last level of defence for an employee is their mental fitness. Their resiliency and coping skills can influence their level of risk if exposed to a critical incident event, as well as their ability to manage work demand and to self-advocate if being bullied. Like practicing good physical health, the more proactive and prepared an employee is for the unexpected, the better they will be able to manage psychologically-heavy demands. But keep in mind that regardless of preparation, like a safety glove, human beings have psychological limits.
  • Level 4 — Programs for prevention, early intervention and treatment. These are the programs intended to impact the employee experience. They’re measured and audited on a regular basis for impact, perceived value and return on investment.
  • Encourages Innovation: Leaders encourage their teams to explore new ideas, embracing risk, failure and continual learning
  • Level 3 — Strategy and policies. These are clearly-defined, integrated and align human resources and OHS activities to maximize the employee experience. The purpose of any strategy or policy is to create a place where employees want to come to work, are physically and psychologically safe, are clear of their expectations, and understand their responsibilities.
  • Level 2 — Shaping culture. A culture where differences, diversity and inclusion are welcomed. This creates an atmosphere of psychological safety for people to take risks, work without fear, share their concerns, ask questions and be authentic.
  • Level 1 — Leadership philosophy. This starts at the top, where senior leaders role model and expect all other leaders to make people important and to demonstrate through actions that employees matter. The test is the average employee believing their senior leadership and direct manager care for their well-being.