​Mental Health at Work – The Importance of Psychological Safety

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The mental health of employees across Australian workplaces as become a major concern in recent times, not only due to the negative impact on the individual employee but also the significant costs and implications this can have for businesses.

An individual’s mental health can be negatively impacted by many factors in the workplace: poor support, poor workplace relationships, poor role clarity and either high or low job demand. One key aspect that can also negatively impact one’s mental health is low levels of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the idea that we can feel safe bringing our whole selves to work, that we can take risks, make mistakes and be vulnerable without the fear of being judged, shamed, humiliated or punished.

Conversely, a psychologically unsafe work environment is characterised by a fear of sharing information, a reluctance to stand out and a need to fit in or go with the ‘status quo’, whereas the hallmarks of a psychologically safe environment are a sense of courage to speak the truth, a confidence reporting problems or mistakes, and a sense of freedom to express themselves authentically.

Given this, it is not surprising that employees’ who do not feel psychologically safe may be much less willing to reveal their concerns, and in some cases, their mental health conditions may be a direct result of a psychologically unsafe culture.

Having meaningful conversations around mental health at work is crucial in encouraging people to get the support and resources that they need, and initiatives like R U OK Day? go a long way in building awareness of the importance of these conversations. This may become more and more important with the impending return-to-work following the uncertainty, isolation and anxiety brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, and we may find our colleagues returning a little more vulnerable and fragile then when they left.

But with all this said, how can we have these important conversations if our colleagues and team-members do not feel psychologically safe to reveal their concerns and mental health conditions? And, how can we foster an environment that provides our colleagues and team-members with the necessary levels of psychological safety?

Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace

So, how do we go about building a workplace that can provide others with an inherent feeling of safety and support?

  • Take Accountability

Though every member of the team contributes to a workplace culture, leaders need to recognise their ultimate responsibility in encouraging and deterring certain behaviours and setting the benchmark for what is acceptable. Leaders will struggle to resolve problems associated with a psychologically unsafe work environment without taking responsibility and exploring how their own conduct may have influenced situations, whether directly or indirectly. This demonstration of compassion, humility and openness to owning our own mistakes can send a powerful message to the team. Further, leaders can encourage their own team-members to examine their contribution to the culture and identifying ways that they can change.

  • Use your Active Listening Skills to Listen with Compassion (and Remember to Take Action!)

We all want to feel that we are valued members of a team, whose views are heard and respected. But how can we actually do this in our current virtual world? Simple actions such as turning phones off (or on silent), repeating the salient points of what was shared with you, encourage others to continue speaking by asking open-ended questions can help. Remember to also invite those who may be reluctant or less likely to speak in a group forum to share their ideas too. When using your active listening skills, ensure that you are also listening to understand, not listening to respond. Taking the time to understand and really listening to others’ concerns in a non-judgmental manner can go a long way to ensuring other’s feel heard and understood and can present us with an opportunity to demonstrate compassion and empathy for others feelings. Be mindful not to minimise or downplay the concerns of your team-members or colleagues – even if you don’t understand where they are coming from, acknowledge that this is their experience – otherwise, you may create or exacerbate feelings of disconnect or discontent.

But sometimes, empathy and compassion are not enough, and whilst these traits are significant for leaders to build a connection and influence others, your team-member may want to see you take action. Whilst some employees may not wish for you to take action on their concerns (which should be respected if possible), others may become disheartened to feel that they have opened up, only for nothing to materially change; if you don’t act, others may lose faith in your desire to support them.

  • Encourage Questions and Feedback

An important part of a psychologically safe environment is the feeling of being able to contribute openly and honestly without fear of reprisal, being judged or interrupted. No one wants to provide feedback or ask a question and be faced with a defensive or aggressive response. Although these reactions can be natural, they may deter others from willingly speaking up in the future; ultimately stifling the growth of individuals and the team and detract from feelings of psychological safety. It may also find them less willing to discuss their concerns one-on-one with a leader or team-member. Inviting feedback, being receptive to this feedback and being seen to do something with this feedback is important. You may also wish to consider asking for upward feedback, acknowledging your mistakes (progress over perfection!) and being open to an opinion that differs from your own.

  • Don’t play the Blame Game

Sometimes, when a mistake occurs, it can be easy to fall into the trap of blaming or punishing others for their role in the error or misstep. But, how comfortable will our colleagues and employees be to owning up and learning from their mistakes next time if they feel they will be disciplined or humiliated for these mistakes? Or, will they be more likely to want to brush it under the rug or direct the blame upon others? Instead of placing blame, explore mistakes and errors, frame them as a learning opportunity and work as a team to examine what could be done differently next time. Not only will this leave the team feeling that they can openly admit to their mistakes, but this may also provide a good road map for the next time the situation occurs.

*If an employee or colleague does reach out to you around their mental health, please see the below resources for support, and ensure that you are also looking after your own mental health when having these conversations:

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