While the benefits of being happy and content at work are well documented, recent legislative reforms have created a mandatory focus on psychological safety in the workplace by employers. Each state and territory now have their own regulations on how employers are to prevent, eliminate and respond to workplace psychological safety risks.
Safe Work Australia defines psychological safety as "a workplace environment where employees feel comfortable to speak up and voice their opinions and ideas, without fear of retaliation or negative consequences."
Unrealistic job demands, low job control, poor support, lack of role clarity, poor organisational change management, inadequate reward and recognition, poor organisational justice, traumatic events or material, remote or isolated work, poor physical environment, violence and aggression, bullying, harassment, conflict and poor workplace relationships are all considered factors employers and leaders need to be aware of when considering how psychologically safe their workplace really is.
The good news is that a psychologically safe workplace benefits the community, the organisation and the employees. The government's 2020 Productivity Commission Inquiry Report states that poor mental health costs the Australian economy around $70 billion every year. On the other hand, when employees are happy and secure, the benefits are immeasurable.
Many large organisations, such as Australia Post and the Commonwealth Bank, have appointed Chief Mental Health Officers, established robust measurement tools and developed a set of evolving interventions designed to help them prevent, eliminate and respond to risks. However, not all organisations have the scale and size to implement deep programs.
Yet, creating mentally healthy workplaces is everyone's responsibility and is led by business leaders - so how can you contribute to a culture where people feel safe and supported? What is your role as a leader? How do you create psychologically safe spaces? And how can you leverage the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace to increase creativity, innovation, productivity and better delivery to the bottom line?
Here, we share ten questions leaders can ask themselves to create psychologically safe workplaces and help their teams to thrive.
How demanding is the job?
There is a delicate balance in getting the demands of the job just right. Too dull, and the employee may find the work lacking purpose and too demanding, and the job can be stressful, which is why good work design is essential. Leaders can prevent unrealistic job demands by setting realistic and manageable expectations, providing adequate resources and support and sufficient stretch and challenge that promotes a sense of accomplishment.
Is your team in the driver's seat?
Low job control refers to the level of control that employees have over their work, including how and when they perform their duties. When employees are provided with a consistent, agreed work schedule, autonomy over how they prioritise and perform their work, opportunities for skill development, and clear expectations and goals, they are more likely to feel in control.
Do they have adequate support?
When team members feel unsupported by management or their team, it can create a stressful work environment. Leaders can create a positive and inclusive culture of collaboration, provide opportunities for training, make available resources for mental wellbeing and be open and available when needed.
Are your roles and responsibilities clear?
When there is ambiguity over roles and responsibilities at work, it can mean that expectations aren't met or that multiple team members are tripping over each other to deliver. In some cases, this can lead to conflict within the team as people point fingers or step on each other's toes. To counteract the issue, create clear role descriptions, communicate responsibilities, provide regular feedback, and manage any ambiguity that may arise.
How do you manage change?
Poor organisational change management means changes that are poorly planned, communicated, supported, or managed that become a hazard when they are severe, prolonged or frequent. Leaders can consult and engage workers in the change, communicate updates often and ensure changes are fair and reasonable. With any significant change, leaders should consider how long the process will take and provide practical support throughout, including being empathetic to any frustrations expressed.
When did you last say thank you?
When there is an imbalance between the efforts of workers and the reward and recognition they receive, it can become a psychological safety hazard. It may include unfair or biased rewards, a lack of feedback, unfair negative feedback and being micromanaged. Leaders should ensure remuneration matches the expectations of the job, be fair and transparent when they recognise or reward employees, provide prompt and fair feedback, prioritise improvement over blame and say thank you for a job well done.
Not only will you avoid a potential psychological hazard, but employees who feel valued and appreciated are far happier and more likely to stay in their roles. In fact, 79% of people who quit their job cite a lack of appreciation as their main reason for leaving.
Are you delivering justice?
When we think of poor organisational justice, we typically think of unfair decisions; however, organisational justice can also include informational fairness, where everyone is kept in the loop and interpersonal fairness, where everyone is treated with the same dignity and respect. Leaders need to be aware of treating everyone at work equally and fairly. Hiring should be based on merit, performance standards should be consistent for all employees, the confidentiality of employees should be respected, and processes and policies should be unbiased and transparent.
Is your team feeling connected?
Remote or isolated work means work that is isolated from the assistance of others because of the work's location, time, or nature. It often involves long travel times, poor access to resources, or limited communications. Leaders can work to improve the feeling of connectedness by creating effective communication systems, buddy systems, movement records (if workers are isolated), training, information and supervision.
How is the physical environment?
Employees who work in an office as small as a broom cupboard, with poor equipment, unbearable noise levels, extremes of temperature or poor lighting, are very unlikely to perform at their best. At the same time, Occupational Health and Safety Laws protect workers from unsafe physical environments, and workers in comfortable and aesthetically pleasing spaces are likelier to thrive. There are many low-cost ways to improve a space, including hanging photos, having a decorative challenge or a group event to create a more enjoyable workspace.
Is there bullying, harassment or conflict?
Violence, aggression, bullying, harassment, and discrimination are all no-no's in the workplace. This behaviour can come from within an organisation or from outside the organisation, especially in roles such as hospitality, retail, customer care and contact centres when dealing with customers.
When this behaviour is external, leaders can ensure adequate support mechanisms are in place for these types of behaviours, including ways team members can extract themselves from conflict and gain support post-incident.
When this behaviour is internal, it often goes unreported. Hence, leaders who build trust with their team and respect confidentiality are more likely to be having open conversations that help stop this behaviour in its tracks.
Leading with integrity and empathy
The buck stops (and starts) with leadership. Leaders need to model behaviours and attitudes that promote psychological safety. An empathetic and strong leader is essential for creating a psychologically safe workplace where employees feel comfortable expressing themselves, sharing their ideas and contributing their best work.
Practice active listening by giving your full attention to team members when they speak individually and as a group. Acknowledge their emotions and validate their perspectives to show that you value their input. Make yourself approachable and accessible to your team members by encouraging them to come to you with questions, concerns or ideas.
Employees who feel psychologically safe are more likely to collaborate and communicate effectively, increasing productivity. IPSOS' 2022 Workplace Belonging Survey revealed that 88% of employees agree that when they have a sense of belonging at work, they're more productive.
If you demonstrate a non-judgmental attitude towards employee feedback or input and then respond with care and consideration, you will build trust and respect and inspire them to be their best selves.
1 Recent legislative reforms have made psychological safety in the workplace mandatory by employers in each state and territory of Australia.
2 Psychological safety is a workplace environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up and expressing their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation or negative consequences.
3 Several factors, such as unrealistic job demands, low job control, poor support, lack of role clarity, poor organisational change management, inadequate reward and recognition, poor organisational justice, traumatic events or material, remote or isolated work, poor physical environment, violence and aggression, bullying, harassment, conflict, and poor workplace relationships are considered when assessing psychological safety.
4 Leaders need to model behaviours and attitudes that promote psychological safety, practice active listening, acknowledge employees' emotions, validate their perspectives, be approachable and accessible, respond to feedback with care and consideration, and demonstrate a non-judgmental attitude towards employee input.
5 When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to collaborate and communicate effectively, which can increase productivity, retention, innovation, creativity and ultimately deliver more to the bottom line.
If you are open to new opportunities, contact a recruitment agency like Trojan Recruitment Group and receive advice from the experts in labour-hire, permanent and contract staff.