Making Workplaces Psychologically Safe
Companies have moved heaven and earth to make their workplaces as safe as possible from COVID-19. Mask requirements, vaccine mandates, social distancing, redesigned workspaces, and physical barriers are now ubiquitous at many offices and businesses.
But as we all struggle to live — and work — with COVID-19, it’s important we create workplaces that are not just physically safe, but psychologically safe as well.
What is a psychologically safe workplace? It means employees feel comfortable being their authentic selves without fear of stigma among peers. A place where people can share their mental health challenges with a manager without negative career consequences. Where strong support systems are available when people need them most.
A psychologically safe workplace requires leaders to take concrete actions within their organization. The American Heart Association CEO Roundtable offers some key protective factors leaders, and their organizations, can follow to support a psychologically safe workplace. These include giving employees the power to choose both their “work content” and “work context”.
Examples of tangible and actionable “work content” protective factors include — making sure employees have a manageable workload, are able to participate in decision making, and are able to choose how to complete their work.
Examples of ways leaders can offer “work context” protective factors include — rewarding employees for performance, clearly defining roles and responsibilities, creating a safe physical environment, and creating a culture that supports equity and fairness.
Unless leaders prioritize a mentally healthy workplace, even the most prestigious organizations can become toxic work environments.
A recent Bloomberg report highlighted members of a site reliability team at Google who described a workplace culture “where discrimination and termination threats were tolerated, if not encouraged.” An engineer described how a once-collegial workplace suffered under “an abusive” culture that “will drain you, burn you out and not give a damn.”
Just this week, the White House’s top science advisor resigned after staff members reported they were bullied and treated disrespectfully. President Biden’s spokeswoman used the opportunity to reinforce the administration’s commitment to “creating a respectful work environment.”
The point here is not to single out these organizations. Many others could be cited. It’s simply to emphasize that even the most successful, high-profile workplaces must remain vigilant about protecting the psychological safety of their employees.
Creating a workspace that values employee mental health isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business. According to a Gallup survey, organizations where a majority of employees felt their opinions mattered saw a 27 percent reduction in turnover and a 12 percent increase in productivity.
The psychological impact of COVID-19 has only made this challenge more urgent. The sooner organizations make psychological safety as big a priority as physical safety, the sooner we can all figure out what a “new normal” looks like in the workplace.