How companies can bolster employees’ psychological safety

Read on to learn how to create an open, empathetic and understanding climate that values feedback and assures employees that they can safely ask questions, make mistakes or take risks.

Bolstering psychological safety

 The pandemic our world has endured over the past year and a half has dramatically transformed our lives.

Not surprisingly, people are experiencing emotions such as outrage, anger, sadness, depression, emptiness, frustration, helplessness, and fear. The emotional stress caused by this reality has, without any doubt, played a role in bringing mental health and psychological well-being to the forefront of the conversation.

The fact that world-class athletes such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have recently stepped away from competition to focus on their well-being has further increased the country’s awareness of the importance of mental health. Following the actions taken by Osaka and Biles, some organizations supported their decision and applauded them for their courage. Although this nice gesture is certainly valuable, it is not enough.

Mental health issues are not only affecting athletes and famous people. We have all seen how nurses and doctors struggle to preserve their mental health as they face seemingly unending spikes of COVID-19 cases. Restaurant workers deal with anxiety and often perceive that their concerns are being overlooked. Employees working from home feel isolated and work more as they struggle to delineate between work and home.

Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that 80% of workers would consider quitting their current position for a job that paid more attention to their mental health. Given the turbulent times we are experiencing, it has become more important than ever for organizations to gauge the psychological well-being of their employees and confirm that their concerns are being addressed.

There are numerous variables that organizations can measure to make sure that their employees are not experiencing psychological well-being issues or mental health problems. Given its importance in increasing employees’ engagement and willingness to express their personal selves at the workplace, the variable we’ll focus on here is psychological safety.

What is psychological safety, and how can organizations encourage this feeling among employees?

When employees experience psychological safety, they perceive that they can express their thoughts and views without fear of negatively affecting their career, status or self-image.

Scholars have suggested that psychological safety comprises four separate stages:

  • inclusion safety
  • learner safety
  • contributor safety
  • challenger safety

According to this perspective, feeling included acts as a starting point that satisfies humans’ basic needs of connecting and belonging. When employees feel invited by the organization and its members, it gives them the confidence to interact without fear of rejection. It also boosts their confidence and helps them develop a sense of shared identity.

Feeling included reassures employees that they are in a safe learning environment where asking questions and even making mistakes is safe. This reality will subsequently increase employees’ perceptions that they can contribute their ideas and challenge the organization when necessary.

Organizations that seek to bolster perceptions of psychological safety among employees will create an environment where people are comfortable being themselves. These organizations encourage workers to open up to others and facilitate the development of high-quality relationships among employees. They also pay special attention to developing a feedback-seeking climate that assures employees that they can safely ask questions, voice their thoughts, make mistakes or take risks.

Employees are currently experiencing numerous stressful situations that go beyond their lives at work. Taking the time to foster psychological safety will improve the performance of teams and organizations. More importantly, it can play a significant role in improving the psychological well-being of employees.

Organizations can no longer evade mental health issues. Taking several different approaches, such as boosting psychological safety to help people feel better at work, will benefit both organizations and their employees in the long run.

Patrick Thelen, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of public relations at San Diego State University and the chief research officer for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter, and read more of his work on IPR’s blog.

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