What Is Psychological Safety at Work?

General Safety By Matthew Coombes

What is Psychological Safety at Work?
And why is it important for H&S professionals?

Not to be confused with ISO 45003, Psychological Risk Management

Psychological safety is feeling comfortable to speak up, share concerns at work, ask challenging questions and make your own contributions to the organisations without fear of negative reactions and undue criticism.

In a sense, it’s a freedom to make reasonable decisions, observations and comments.

It’s a team thing

Psychological safety is typically a shared belief across a whole team or organisation, and feeling like you won’t be punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes is part of the culture of the organisation.

It’s important to have a positive psychological safety at work for both ensuring that the organisation continues to develop and for catching mistakes before they escalate and become problematic.

In relation to safety culture

If a worker makes a mistake, and feels that they can’t report their error to their team or their manager, it can escalate. They may even try to hide their mistake to ‘cover their own back’ but in the context of health and safety, this can easily snowball into a lost time incident or accident.

Accountability without prejudice and undue criticism is essential to effective management of risk including risks to health and safety. If workers aren’t able to put their hand up and say “we’ve done something wrong” because they’re worried that they may get treated unreasonably, it’s just a matter of time before a preventable accident occurs.

Reasonable criticism

It’s worth noting that psychological safety isn’t acting with immunity. You can’t drive a forklift through a wall, wilfully ignore procedures or destroy property and say “yeah that was me, whoops” and expect no consequences at all. In these situations, it may be reasonable under the circumstances for you to be criticised or held to account for your own actions.

A strong psychological safety culture would be demonstrated in these situations by your manager or supervisor not immediately chewing you out in front of everyone, but rather taking a tempered approach and reserving their judgement for when they have all of the facts of the incident.

Effect on your employees

Instilling a positive and strong psychological safety culture in your workplace can help you to ensure your staff remain safe when they’re visiting another workplace. If your staff work on other organisation’s sites as contractors, consultants or visitors, a strong psychological safety culture will help them to say no and to speak up about bad practices.

Picture this: one of your staff is working on another site, they need to access part of a roof to make a repair, and the team on site haven’t got suitable working at height controls in place.

There’s no scaffolding, and they’re expecting your worker to climb up a ladder and work on the edge of the roof with nothing to stop them falling.

If your staff member is used to ‘keeping their mouth shut and getting on with the job’, they may put themselves at risk unnecessarily. In addition to this, if they are worried to call you and ask for advice, they’re likely to listen to the next closest authority figure, regardless of their competence.

How psychological safety encourages innovation

Having lots of different backgrounds of experience when encountering a problem can help with problem solving. If staff feel psychologically comfortable at work, they will be able to make their own suggestions and being able to say to someone, ‘have you considered trying that another way’ without being worried about getting their head ripped off is the bare minimum.

How to achieve psychological safety

Due to the fact that psychological safety is a cultural shift from blame culture to accountability, the only way to properly achieve a strong psychological safety culture is to ensure that your leadership are having a positive influence on the workplace.

Positive health and safety leadership in managerial, team leader, supervisory and directorial positions is essential for any organisation to operate successfully and reduce lost time incidents. A good leader can hold staff to account in a reasonable manner that is free from undue criticism and will install positive working practices within their team.

You will also need effective procedures in place for staff to raise concerns in a way that is effective. What this will look like depends entirely on the scope of your organisation.

For example, you may have the resources to have a dedicated member of staff for team members to call when they have concerns, in order to report them anonymously and have them dealt with effectively. Or you may provide team leaders, managers and directors with leadership training, and produce standardised procedures that can be followed by any member of staff to report concerns effectively.

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