In this climate of overwhelming discourse regarding burnout, workplace harassment, discrimination, and employee engagement, I have frequently been asked about what creates and sustains a psychologically safe workplace. Although workplaces can provide employees with meaning, purpose, and connection, they can also be stressful environments that negatively impact our mental health. We spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else, so understanding and addressing mental health at work is crucial to sustaining long and fruitful careers.
Traditionally we have thought of workplace safety within physical confines: Do staff have all the necessary personal protective equipment necessary to get their job done safely? As a clinical psychologist, the patients I see typically work in physically safe office environments, who are paid in full and on time every couple of weeks.
We spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else, so understanding and addressing mental health at work is crucial to sustaining long and fruitful careers.
While my clients are usually accomplished high performers who draw great satisfaction in their work, they often tell me something is wrong in their workplace. Some share anxieties around company downsizing or being required to work overtime without being paid. Or they explain how their work contacts them by email or phone at all hours of the day and night. Some are even denied professional development and opportunities for advancement while their colleagues receive preferential treatment. Although these workplaces are physically safe, they certainly contribute to poor mental health as they feel psychologically unsafe.
Why should workplaces be psychologically safe?
For the first time in Canadian history, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) included psychological safety as part of a comprehensive health and safety workplace program in 2013. This means that employers are confronted with a duty to not only provide a physically safe workplace, but also a psychologically safe workplace. Ensuring a psychologically safe workplace is not only the right thing to do – it is now mandated by law. Workplace practices that create foreseeable risks of mental injury can lead to legal liability in cases of chronic stress caused by the workplace, excessive demands from management and supervisors, or unpaid overtime that can lead to mental harm.
According to a study conducted by the University of Toronto and the Canadian Mental Health Association, the key issues that affect mental health in the workplace are:
- Stress and burnout
- Stigma and discrimination
- Demands versus rewards
- Harassment and bullying
- Substance use and misuse at work
- Presenteeism (e.g., when employees show up to work despite being sick, exhausted, or distracted due to extreme family/life pressures or stress)
The underlying thread to most of these issues is people pushing themselves beyond reasonable limits, past what allows them to feel healthy enough to meet the perceived demands of their jobs. Over time, sustaining these conditions makes us unwell.
Imagine the type of workplace where people can cope with the normal stresses of life while remaining productive because they are given what they need to reach their own potential.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada has reported that Canadian courts and tribunals are increasingly less tolerant of workplace factors that threaten worker mental health. They are compelling management to change unhealthy habits that endanger workers, and financial punishments for transgressions have increased over recent years.
What is a psychologically safe workplace?
Some experts say a psychologically safe workplace makes “every practical effort . . . to avoid reasonably foreseeable injury to the mental health of employees.” In essence, a psychologically safe workplace makes every realistic effort it can to do no harm. Imagine the type of workplace where people can cope with the normal stresses of life while remaining productive because they are given what they need to reach their own potential.
Creating a psychologically safe work environment requires the organization to identify its own psychosocial risk factors. The CCOHS has identified 13 organizational factors that contribute to workplace health, psychological health of individual employees, and also the financial bottom line. To build and sustain psychological safety in the workplace, the CCOHS suggests employers assess themselves and take corrective action on the following factors when corrective action is required. They recommend:
- Considering organizational culture
- Setting clear expectations
- Providing psychological support
- Ensuring civility and respect
- Providing opportunities for growth and development
- Providing recognition and reward
- Encouraging staff influence
- Promoting balance
- Managing workloads
- Protecting staff from physical and psychological hazards
As a psychologist, it is reassuring to see that psychological safety is hitting the radar within the occupational health and safety sphere as a legitimate health and workplace issue that needs to be adequately addressed. In my experience, it is not only about having a policy and procedure in place, but also about accountability – how will we hold leaders in power accountable when there are clear breaches affecting those staff members who are most in need of our support? A perfect storm of liability for employers who fail to maintain a psychologically safe workplace is building strength in court proceedings and tribunals across a variety of Canadian legal contexts: human rights, labour law, employment contracts, employment standards, occupational health and safety, worker compensation, and torts and damages (common law).
This is a call to action for employers and policymakers to do the right thing, which is to create policies that comply with the law. More importantly, it’s to ensure the health and safety of those workers who have supported you and will continue to do so if provided with the appropriate conditions.
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