HR In Focus Panel

Five key insights on psychological safety

Industry leaders weigh in at the HR In Focus: Psychological Safety Conference

Written by Emma Mason AIMM
7 minute read
HR In Focus Panel

Hayley Erceg, Chris Harris, Dr Jenny Brockis and Andrea Walters FAIM

With recent changes to the Work Health Safety Act 2020, it is now a legal requirement for leaders to identify hazards and manage risks to workers’ psychological health and safety.

The inaugural AIM WA HR In Focus: Psychological Safety Conference brought together industry experts to share insights into how organisations and their leaders can foster a psychologically safe environment, promote better mental health at work and inspire better workplaces.

Here are the five key takeaways from the event.

Psychological safety from a legal standpoint

Barrister and Sage Strategic Consulting Principal Consultant Kate Walawski opened the conference by addressing the recent amendments to the WHS regulations, particularly in Western Australia.

“Duty holders have obligations under the Act to ensure as far as reasonably practicable, that workers and other people are not exposed to risk of psychological harm,” she said.

She shared how the Model Work Health and Safety Regulations have been amended to ensure organisations identify and implement control measures to manage psychosocial risks.

“Courts are now far more willing to award significant damages to victims where an employer has failed to create and maintain a safe system of work that protects not only the physical health of its employees but also their psychological health.” 

Highlighting the penalties for non-compliance with the WA WHS Act, a category one offence can result in individual Officer fines of up to $680,000 and imprisonment of up to five years, with fines of up to $3.5 million for a body corporate.

Notably, Ms Walawski said individuals can no longer be insured or indemnified for penalties resulting from WHS breaches.

“The new legislation actually makes it an offence to provide or take out insurance,” she said.

The new penalties for industrial manslaughter in WA also impose a greater responsibility, with individual fines of up to $5 million and imprisonment of up to 20 years, along with fines of up to $10 million for a body corporate.

"Industrial manslaughter provisions can be used to prosecute a business or an Officer for the death of a worker in circumstances where the business, either by act or omission, caused the worker's death," Ms Walawski said.

Rights and responsibilities

Ms Walawski urged organisations to take proactive measures to ensure underlying risk remains at the forefront.

“Be aware of your duties, review and ensure your systems and processes are effective in managing risks and the health and safety of your workers,” she said.

She further advised ensuring all employees undertake a proper induction concerning psychological safety and assess psychological safety incidents to identify trends or areas of risk.

Go Higher Founder Linda O’Farrell FAIM recommended a holistic psychological safety approach involving good governance and a robust policy framework.

“Do you have policies in place? Are they up to date? How are you monitoring and reporting incidents?” she asked.

Ms Farrell also emphasised the importance of ensuring all external stakeholders, such as board members, are familiar with these policies.

“There is no point in having policies if no one knows about them,” she said.

However, she noted that while policies are required, it’s crucial for employees to actively stand up against any bad behaviour.

“Employers have legal obligations, but employees have the opportunity to influence the culture,” Ms Farrell said.

“… We have to take reasonable care of our own psychological health and safety and to not adversely affect others.”

Psychological safety and team performance

Director at Veraison WA and Co-Founder of Data Drives Insight Abby Hunt shared how a psychologically safe team can improve performance, reduce turnover rates and minimise safety incidents.

Yet for psychological safety to improve, team members must feel comfortable speaking up to raise issues and address conflicts.

“As individuals, we aren’t conditioned to speak up, as it’s uncomfortable,” she said.

“But when we have small conversations, rather than letting issues bubble, we catch it early.”

Ms Hunt said that even if teams exhibit high levels of diversity, a lack of psychological safety can stifle innovation as individuals don’t feel comfortable expressing ideas.

Yet when there are high levels of psychological safety, a team that isn’t diverse can lead to a lack of different perspectives.

“When we have high psychological safety and diverse opinions, high performance goes through the roof,” she emphasised.

Attendees at the 2024 HR In Focus: Psychological Safety Conference

Referring to a 2017 Gallup poll, Ms Hunt said that as an industry average, only three out of ten employees felt that their opinions mattered.

She said that this was often due to a lack of education on psychological safety, solely focusing on the work tasks at hand and artificial harmony.

“Artificial harmony refers to when you would rather keep the peace and fly under the radar,” Ms Hunt shared.

When the ratio is moved up to six, it is estimated that organisations experience a 27 per cent reduction in turnover, a 40 per cent reduction in safety incidents and a 12 per cent increase in productivity.

To improve team performance, Ms Hunt recommended organisations utilise the Psychological Safety and Inclusivity (PSI) tool. This diagnostic anonymously measures an individual’s sense of psychological safety within their team.

“The PSI tool allows organisations to demonstrate care daily by putting control back into those on the frontline,” she said, adding that it opens communication to discuss what needs improving.

“It’s not realistic that PSI results are going to be high all the time. But we need to measure it more to move it,” she advised.

Mental health and wellbeing programs

A panel featuring MPA Skills Human Resources Manager Hayley Erceg, Brain Fit Director and Founder Dr Jenny Brockis and Mineral Resources Head of Mental Health Chris Harris shed light on the essential strategies for enhancing mental health in the workplace.

“Leaders must recognise stress factors within their organisations and regularly seek and modify their behaviours accordingly,” Dr Brockis said.

Ms Erceg agreed, sharing that leaders can mitigate psychological safety by setting clear expectations for project roles and encouraging open communication.

When discussing emerging trends in mental health and wellbeing initiatives, Mr Harris said there has been a rise in mindfulness and meditation within workplaces.

“We're seeing many more workplaces encouraging their staff to interact more with nature, and going outside for meetings,” Dr Brockis added.

Addressing the role of mental health programs and why some may fail, the panellists advised that resonating with employees’ needs and tailoring mental health strategies is key.

“You’ve got to know your people, identify what is going to be useful and then form the strategies,” Ms Erceg recommended.

Working in an often male-dominated industry, Mr Harris conveyed how men often preferred informal settings and responded better to a reframed language when discussing mental health.

“[For example] if you say, ‘you need help with a problem’ and especially to a male, you'll reduce the likelihood of them accessing help,” he explained.

“Instead, if you say, ‘Would you like to have more energy?’ or ‘Do you want to feel good to see your kids?’ this doesn’t increase help-seeking, but increases people’s capacity to be the person they want to be.”

Ms Erceg said that while leaders must support their employees, demonstrating authenticity and a culture of care is crucial.

“Our brain has a mechanism to determine lack of authenticity … people look for ‘Do you really care, are you investing in me?’” Mr Harris added.

Embedding psychological safety

Expert panellists Lifeline WA Chief Executive Officer Lorna MacGregor FAIM, WorkSafe Commissioner Sally North and Crucial Dimensions General Manager Josh Marshall spoke on the importance of a speak-up culture within organisations.

Ms North noted that familiarity with psychological safety varies significantly across industries, which can become a safety issue for those who don’t know how to raise risks.

From a managerial perspective, Mr Marshall mentioned the challenge for leaders in fostering psychological safety if they lack the confidence to handle risks suitably.

To address this, Ms MacGregor urged utilising staff engagement surveys and evidence-based tools to identify risks.

“Make sure your Officers understand their duties and risk management initiatives while monitoring them as they evolve,” Ms North said.

“Using consistent communication tools is very beneficial," Mr Marshall added, noting that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach across industries.

The panellists also suggested normalising feedback with multiple touchpoints to improve communication between leaders and their teams.

“[When employees join an organisation] make it clear that it is management's role to have that regular feedback,” Ms North said.

Self-awareness and empathy are critical for initiating difficult conversations, such as during feedback regarding an employee’s performance management.

“Learn to manage your assumptions. You don’t know why someone is underperforming, people have different stresses going on in their lives,” Ms MacGregor warned.

She advised working with the individual, rather than viewing performance management as a tick-the-box exercise.

“... Look at the legal requirements, but make sure you consider the individual and their needs as the approach can vary in how you deliver the message,” she said.

For organisations experiencing increased incident reporting regarding psychological safety, Ms MacGregor emphasised viewing this as an opportunity for continuous improvement.

Ms Farrell agreed, adding that you never want reporting to diminish as this can lead to complacency.

"If incident reporting goes up, thank them, as long as the incidents are not more severe,” she said.

Ms Farrell acknowledged that while psychological safety starts at the top, leaders must be supported and kept informed of up-to-date policies and procedures.

She encouraged conducting educational sessions for understanding and promoting psychological safety, while regularly reviewing the effectiveness of workplace initiatives to ensure they are meeting desired outcomes.

For human resource professionals and their leaders, prioritising and actively managing psychological safety is crucial. However, building a psychologically safe culture requires an ongoing commitment from all levels of an organisation.

By integrating the tools and insights from this conference, organisations can help ensure they are meeting compliance, fostering a psychologically safe working environment and promoting wellbeing.