05 Mar

Beyond rules: mastering psychological safety and healthy work

Amy C. Edmonson, a leading voice in this space, describes psychological safety as being “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

The concept of psychological safety in the workplace is not new. Back in 2012, Google created Project Aristotle as part of its quest to understand what made the ‘perfect’ team. What Google discovered, after undertaking extensive research and analysing 100 teams for more than a year, was that while it was difficult to pinpoint any ‘patterns’ that made up great teams, it was clear that psychological safety was the most critical factor in a successful team.

In 2021, WorkSafe Victoria launched its Mental Health Strategy 2021-2024, which outlines the regulator’s “commitment to playing a lead role in helping employers and workers create mentally healthy workplaces” to prevent workplace mental health injury and to better protect workers from workplace mental injury. There are five stages in the WorkSafe strategy, and we are rapidly approaching the final stage – compliance and enforcement.

Organisational leaders – particularly those in the regulator’s nominated priority industries of healthcare and social assistance, public administration and safety and education and training – can expect WorkSafe’s strengthened policies and regulations soon. There are also likely to be associated rises in insurance premiums and liabilities.

WorkSafe’s statistics show the need for change is critical:

  • over a four week period, nearly one in six Australian workers experienced a significant level of mental ill health
  • 3,518 mental injury claims were reported to WorkSafe between December 2019 and December 2020
  • the estimated cost of absenteeism and presenteeism in Australia each year is $17 billion, and
  • mental injury claims in the next 10 years are expected to grow to 33 per cent of workers’ compensation claims.

There’s plenty more data on the extent of this issue, including 2023 research by the Australian Psychological Society that shows “a quarter of employees feel either slightly unsafe or neutral at
their workplace”.

In thinking about this issue, there are three things worth understanding about psychologically
safe workplaces.

Symptoms and causes

Sometimes it is easier to spot the symptoms of poor psychological safety than the causes of it. Common symptoms include highly avoidant behaviours by employees (often talked about as “lying low” or “staying under the radar”), defensive behaviours and decision-making (described as “protecting my/your back” and “covering my arse”), smiling in silence (toxic positivity), and overt or covert threatening behaviour (such as leaders using authority as a ‘stick’ to achieve organisational objectives, inadvertently fuelling a culture of fear and anxiety).

People instinctively engage in these behaviours when they feel there is a threat to their safety, professional standing, reputation, job security or career opportunities.

Common psychological safety hazards include:

  • low levels of job control, recognition and reward and role clarity
  • poor organisational support, change management, justice, workplace relationships and environmental conditions
  • job demands that are too high or low
  • remote or isolated work, and
  • violent or traumatic events.

The consequences of poor psychological safety in the workplace

Beyond the obvious mental health consequences for individuals, poor psychological safety can result in organisations missing out on contributions, ideas, suggestions, innovations and effort. This results in dampened performance and productivity.

There are also significant risks for leaders. As there is a clear intersection between bullying and poor psychological safety, leaders need to be mindful of their impact on employees. Leaders also need to be aware of the likely strengthening of the regulatory environment in this space, both in terms of their own directors’ and officers’ exposures, and corporate insurance liabilities. As reviewing the data on mental health in an organisation can be confronting, leaders may benefit from third-party guidance on this complex issue.

The benefits of a psychologically safe workplace

Psychologically safe workplaces provide employees with purpose, fulfilment and community connections. They are safe spaces in which to take risks, be collaborative and innovate. Psychological safety is also one of the key levers in improving mental health at work.

While Google discovered psychological safety was the most important factor in high-functioning teams,
it is worth noting that team dynamics can vary from the organisation’s cultural baseline for
psychological safety.

For example, a long-standing team with an ongoing function may have a very different threshold for psychological safety than a new team that’s been established to meet a short-term objective, such as responding to a crisis, or creating a strategic change, product or service. If a team is focussed on addressing a short-term need, psychological safety will be less of a success factor than it is for an established team where it is critical people feel comfortable sharing information, building trust and recovering from failures.

How JOST&Co can help

To help companies create and maintain psychologically safe workplaces, we can develop metrics to explore and discover organisational and team levels of psychological safety. By understanding the current state, we can then recommend practical solutions on how psychological safety can be improved and developed to become a cultural strength. We can also work with leadership teams to help them understand their impact on their employees and the regulatory accountabilities that are likely to be established.