Boss and employee talking at work

What is psychological safety at work?

Creating safe spaces within traditional and remote workplaces

4 minute read
Boss and employee talking at work

The inclusion of responsibilities around the psychological health of employees in the WHS Act 2020 and COVID-19 have each brought to the forefront a range of issues, which leaders need to adapt to for the betterment of their organisations and employees.

One such consideration is how psychological safety can be implemented in both the traditional office and the new remote-work setup employees are embracing.

AIM WA Facilitator and Management Consultant Geraldine Dolan AFAIM said an important component to creating a happy and safe organisation, psychological safety constitutes a space where employees feel heard, safe and encouraged to put forward their personalities and ideas.

“It’s the belief that it is okay for an employee to express their ideas and their concerns at work, to raise questions and to admit mistakes without a fear of negative consequences such as being seen as a troublemaker or as being negative,” she said.

“It’s about feeling that it’s okay for an employee to speak and that it’s safe for them to speak.”

Ms Dolan said psychological safety is crucial to a healthy workplace.

“It’s a key aspect of an organisation’s efforts to build an environment that is supportive of people’s well-being and mental health,” she said.

“Psychological safety should be deeply entrenched in the culture of an organisation – without the culture being right, the organisation isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Beginning from the top down

An ever-evolving mission, psychological safety is something that needs to be continually worked on from the top down.

“An organisation’s culture is shaped very slowly over time – it’s one interaction, one conversation at a time,” Ms Dolan said.

“Every single day, every single interaction has to be about building trust, confidence and psychological safety."

“Leaders need to show the way and show they are committed to it.

“It’s really important for leaders to make sure all their interactions nurture the level of psychological safety that is appropriate for the situation.

"However, this doesn’t mean they need to create a really soft space – they are not running a day spa; they are an organisation that needs to produce results, so it doesn’t mean they need to dial back on accountability.

“What leaders need to do when building psychological safety is make it easy for employees to raise their concerns and question the status quo in a way that also holds them accountable.

“It’s essentially about broadening the application of their existing organisational risk management methodologies to include psychological safety.”

Ms Dolan said there was a range of different strategies leaders could implement when it came to creating psychological safety for their employees – the first being to look within.

“It starts with challenging one’s concept about what leadership actually is and, therefore, what their role is as a leader,” she said.

“Today, we understand that the most effective leaders are the people who know how to bring out the best in their teams and their people, and they trust the collective knowledge of their team.

“I would ask leaders to try very hard to model the openness, curiosity, acceptance and vulnerability they expect from everybody else.”

Psychological safety in the office

Ms Dolan said within the four walls of the office, leaders could be clear on what some of the risks to psychological safety could be.

“Some risks can be leadership styles that inhibit open communication or adverse behaviours and poor organisational justice – for example, where policies and procedures are inconsistent or unfairly applied,” she said.

“There might be low levels of autonomy or freedom in how you do your job, as well as low levels of resources and support from supervisors.

“When you are talking about an office environment and face-to-face, physical presence when everyone is in the office, leaders can have a lot of that under control – there is a lot they can do about it.”

Psychological safety in the home office

For employees working from home, psychological safety is not as clear-cut, with many aspects unable to be controlled by the executive team.

“Working in a remote or a virtual team environment has been identified by SafeWork and WorkSafe Australia as high risk for low, or poor, psychological safety,” Ms Dolan said.

“Employees working from home or remotely feel there are fewer opportunities for casual conversations.

“They find it harder to pick up on the non-verbal cues in conversations and they can be much more prone to feeling isolated or anxious.

“It’s helpful to adopt a hybrid working arrangement so that the team can have the opportunity to meet face-to-face, have some of those positive, spontaneous interactions and keep an eye on each other.”

Ms Dolan said it was about having all the tools possible to accommodate multi-channel communications.

“In team meetings, there may be four or five people on a video conference call. It’s really helpful to follow it up with a one-on-one phone call if you can so that you are not relying on a virtual meeting where people are in a group,” she said.

“You still have to have the one-on-one catch-up, which can create an opportunity for people to speak more privately with their leaders.”

Other articles in the series:

Changing the face of health and safety in Western Australia
WHS Act 2020 - Key terms and definitions
What is a 'person conducting a business or undertaking?
How to prepare for the WHS Act 2020
Mental Health and the WHS Act 2020

Where to from here?

Take a look at AIM WA's Shaping Your Organisational WHS Culture course and develop an excellent WHS performance for the ongoing viability of your business.