Psychological safety at work is a concept that has gained significant attention in the last few years, and rightly so.
Ensuring that employees feel safe is not only a moral and ethical responsibility but can also have huge performance implications, especially as physical safety goes hand in hand with psychological safety.
Failure to address psychological safety issues, just as safety as a whole can lead to legal liabilities in the event of accidents or incidents, from the perspective that a toxic negative culture and low team morale can lead to making wrong decisions and being afraid of stopping work despite the risks.
But what is psychological safety?
In a nutshell, this is the idea that employees feel safe, comfortable, and confident in taking risks, sharing their ideas, and expressing their thoughts and feelings without fear of negative consequences, such as retribution, ridicule, or even job loss.
It is not about being "nice" (though that’s not bad in itself) but rather about creating a culture where candor is valued.
So why is it important?
This sense of safety and trust within the workplace is being recognised as essential: it helps foster a healthy work environment, which in turn supports productivity and engagement from employees.
- Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization.
“For knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people feel able to share their knowledge! This means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and half-formed ideas.”
In fact, it is much more powerful than that and we thought we’d take a look into the fascinating world of psychological safety.
The true power of psychological safety
Trust and open communication
A cornerstone of a healthy workplace is the establishment of a feeling of trust, as well as an environment in which we feel confident to speak up and share.
When we trust our colleagues and leaders, we are more likely to express our opinions and share feedback without fear of repercussions. Trust is a foundational element of a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.
→ But beyond that, it will create an environment where taking risks, coming up with ideas, and pushing boundaries will be possible.
Innovation and Creativity
Taking risks isn’t always about physical risks; it can also be through sharing ideas or coming up with solutions, no matter how different or “crazy” they may be.
When we feel safe to share our ideas, it can really lead to increased creativity and innovation. People are more willing to think outside the box and propose new solutions when they know they won't face criticism or judgment.
As an organization, fostering a culture of creativity and innovation can lead to solution development both externally and internally, that can promote a sense of belonging and general workplace wellbeing.
And let’s be honest: a creative and innovative workplace can also be so fun!
fear and anxiety vs a sense of well being and belonging
It really is all connected.
Mental health issues and anxiety are major productivity hurdles. They hinder productivity, lower our sense of belonging, and our engagement and buy-in into the workplace. And it is becoming essential to address this issue.
A psychologically safe environment, full of creativity and that cultivates innovation is the perfect space within which employees can experience a positive impact on mental health. The way trust and empowerment work can lead to an overall sense of well-being.
And in perfect contradiction with the negative outcomes of fear and anxiety, a positive workplace will create the perfect ground for more efficient work and better performance.
Diversity and inclusion
Psychological safety is particularly important for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. When employees from different backgrounds and perspectives feel safe, they are more likely to contribute their unique insights and perspectives.
And we know how powerful different points of views and experiences can be, especially in the workplace.
Remember how we talked about open dialogue and a trusting workplace? This is another key positive impact from a workplace that takes steps towards promoting psychological safety.
Indeed, it encourages open dialogue about challenges and problems.
And being open about challenges and issues, when you can count on others’ ideas and have an innovative space to discuss, can lead to more effective problem-solving and decision-making as employees can discuss issues honestly and collaboratively.
In fact, high-performing teams have a heightened sense of psychological safety and the two are linked.
And as much as problems can cripple an organization, collaborative problem-solving can be transformative.
As a whole, it is becoming clear that safety leaders make for great leaders.
Specifically, leaders play a crucial role in creating and maintaining psychological safety; they should set the tone by being approachable, admitting their own mistakes, and encouraging open communication.
Amy Edmondson recognises in her book “the fearless organization” that “hierarchy (or, more specifically, the fear it creates when not handled well) reduces psychological safety.”
However, leaders who lead by example, actively listen, and respond empathetically to their employees contribute to a culture of trust and openness.
And people showing that level of leadership and empathy will be respected and followed; again participating in increased engagement and productivity.
We know how important feedback can be in improving skills, strengthening knowledge, processes, and productivity.
In a psychologically safe workplace, feedback is viewed as a tool for growth, not as a means of criticism. It is empowering.
Employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback to help each other improve; they also feel empowered to report errors and near-misses.
And this leads us into the very idea that mistakes are learning opportunities.
Learning from mistakes
“Finding out that you are wrong is even more valuable than being right, because you are learning.” says Amy Edmondson.
It is never easy to recognise our mistakes and even more to own them.
Often, we feel shame, fear, and anxiety when we make mistakes. But they are often an essential step on your learning journey and when you are building skills.
In psychologically safe workplaces, mistakes are not met with blame but are seen as valuable learning opportunities.
And more specifically, feeling safe and empowered to recognise and discuss mistakes or incidents early on can help prevent bigger issues or even risky situations from arising.
Indeed, psychological safety is directly linked to physical safety. In fact, this is probably one of the most profound reasons to build and sustain it.
It can not only encourage employees to take risks, learn from their experiences, and continuously improve, but it can also prevent major incidents or harmful accidents.
Building and sustaining psychological safety
It is important to foster a culture of respect, empathy, and open communication.
Leaders and employees must work together to establish and maintain an environment where everyone feels valued, heard, and supported in their professional growth and mental well-being.
Building and sustaining psychological safety is an ongoing process that involves training, empowerment, communication, and a continuous feedback loop.
It is not easy to achieve; but it is essential to put processes in place to create it.
Organizations with high levels of psychological safety tend to be more innovative, have better employee retention, and perform better overall.
In fact, companies with increased processes and support around mental health, burnout and who actively work to reduce toxic work environments are some of the key considerations for many Gen Z and Millennials when it comes to choosing or staying where to work.
It has to be one of the core considerations within a workplace as well an integral part of any safety training solution. And creating a culture of safety will require periodic assessments and adjustments.
It’s an on-going process and it’s always a work in progress. But it is one fascinating part of safety considerations in the workplace overall.
Psychological safety and high risk industries
We touched on the idea that psychological safety and physical safety were interconnected;
A culture of trust and open communication can drive employees to take safety protocols seriously, leading to better compliance and adherence to safety procedures.
It is also evident that feeling safe and empowered to report incidents is key in preventing serious incidents and harm.
Islam Adra, HSE leader and advocate and Pixaera’s Director of Content
"You cannot fix a problem you don't know exists so it's imperative that people feel comfortable and empowered to report accidents and near misses".
But it goes well beyond that.
The importance of psychological safety in high-risk industries (think oil and gas, construction, etc.) cannot be overstated. Indeed, employees face potential physical dangers and work with complex, high-stakes operations; ensuring psychological safety is just as critical as physical safety.
In high-risk industries, there are strict rules and regulations to follow and promoting psychological safety is often an integral part of complying with those regulations.
Yet, it has to become a part of the general work safety psyche.
Here is why!
Enhanced Risk Management
We need to encourage employees to speak up about safety
concerns, potential hazards, and unsafe practices. When we feel safe to
report issues without fear of reprisal, it allows organizations to identify and address risks proactively, reducing the likelihood of accidents or incidents.
Furthermore, the ability to learn from errors and near-misses is crucial. If employees feel empowered to admit their mistakes and share their experiences, it promotes a culture of continuous improvement and helps prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.
Open communication and innovation
High-risk industries require clear and open communication to prevent accidents and ensure the safe execution of tasks. Psychological safety fosters an environment where employees are more likely to communicate effectively, share critical information, and collaborate.
These industries also often require innovative solutions to complex problems. Psychological safety is a catalyst for innovation. Employees who feel safe to propose new ideas and suggest improvements are more likely to contribute to finding safer and more efficient ways of working.
Resilience and stress management is attractive
Working in high-risk settings can be mentally demanding and trigger anxiety and stress. Promoting an organization’s culture embedded in psychological safety can help employees cope with the stress associated with their jobs.
When we feel supported and can talk about the challenges we face, it can reduce burnout and enhance overall mental well-being.
And a safe and positive workplace is as much of a drawing card to new recruits as it is a powerful way to retain talent; an organization that demonstrates a commitment to employee well-being and professional growth is indeed attractive.
In summary, psychological safety should be an integral part of overall safety training in high-risk industries. It goes beyond physical safety by fostering a culture of open communication, learning from mistakes, and proactive risk management.
A psychologically safe workplace not only reduces the likelihood of accidents but also enhances employee well-being, innovation, and overall organizational performance.
As a company that aims to facilitate the improvement of safety training within high risk industries as a whole, Pixaera takes its mission of creating powerful gamified training tools very seriously; and psychological safety is an integral part of that.
In fact, though it is hard to put a definite measure on the level of psychological safety (or lack thereof), by integrating that “stop work” button throughout each module (which can be pressed at any point during an experience), we have the possibility to promote the concept of psychological safety by putting the user in situations which warrant a job stoppage.
And managers can then use the resulting data to dig deeper and understand why a certain employee isn’t stopping work and help improve the situation: could it be the user didn’t recognize the risk or was it they didn’t feel safe to do so?
The “stop work” feature can certainly facilitate the discussions and provide support if needed around feeling safe and empowered to stop when something doesn’t feel right!