Psychosocial Safety: unpacking the opportunities and risks

Psychosocial Safety – What it is and Why it matters 

What does it take to feel safe at work?  Who is responsible for ensuring our safety in workplaces, and how do organisations, leaders and individuals ensure that we are creating work environments that are safe? Workplace health and safety is serious business and while organisations are now adept at ensuring physical safety, there is now a concerted effort to understand what is required to create psychosocial safety. 

Psychosocial safety refers to the the whole work ecosystem;  the ways in which workplaces manage and address the psychological and social well-being of their employees. A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees feel valued, respected, and supported in their work; they are free from discrimination, harassment, and other more subtle forms of negative behaviour that undermines self-esteem.

According to Safe Work Australia, there are many situations that could be psychosocial hazards. When these issues are repeated, or more than one is experienced, this may lead to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression or sleep disorders. Issues or situations cited on the Safe Work Australia webpage:

  • Job demands 
  • Low job control
  • Poor support
  • Poor organisational change management
  • Inadequate reward and recognition
  • Poor organisational justice
  • Traumatic events or material
  • Poor physical work environment
  • Violence and aggression
  • Bullying
  • Harassment, including sexual harassment
  • Conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions

Legal Obligations

We’ve long focused on the importance of protecting the physical safety of employees in workplaces; many organisations have ‘zero tolerance’ for practices which risk physical safety. 

While the Work Health and Safety legislation itself hasn’t undergone major changes, the recognition of psychological injuries caused by harassment, sexual harassment, and bullying as a work health and safety issues is a significant development. This shift emphasises the responsibility of employers and ultimately directors (as part of their obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011) to address and prevent psychosocial hazards, ensuring psychologically safe workplaces for their employees.

Merriam-Webster provides clarity of the relationship between psychosocial and psychological. Psychosocial refers to the relationships between humans in terms of their thoughts, behaviours, and social environment. It refers to how mental health, or psychological factors, work with social factors and how they can affect a person. On the other hand, the term “psychological” refers to being concerned with a person’s mind and thoughts. 

It can be said then that psychological factors are an aspect of one’s psychosocial state and managing it can be very beneficial. 

Watch Kate and Fiona’s recent FB Live on this topic here.

Benefits of Psychological Safety

In addition to meeting legislative requirements, fostering a thriving culture that includes psychosocial safety improves the workplace experience. Torin Monet, Principal Director – Accenture Strategy, Talent & Organization has written a great article ‘Why psychological safety at work matters to business’ that talks to the many benefits:

  • 27% reduction in turnover
  • 76% more engagement
  • 50% more productivity
  • 74% less stress
  • 29% more life satisfaction
  • 57% workers more likely to collaborate
  • 26% greater skills preparedness since workers learn at a faster rate when they feel psychologically safe
  • 67% higher probability that workers will apply a newly learned skill on the job

Engagement and Productivity

Employees who are struggling with bullying, harassment or other negative workplace behaviours find it hard to stay focused and deliver to expectations, this inevitably leads to reduced productivity which is detrimental to their team and the organisation more broadly. When employees feel valued, respected, and supported, their motivation and commitment to their work increases. It’s a win-win situation for both employees and employers.

Work health safety

The reported incidences of workplace mental health issues along with reports of bullying and harassment have been increasing. In 2019 Psychology Today reported that a 2019 survey found over the prior 11 years a 19 percent rise in reports of workplace bullying had occurred. The legal obligation of the organisation to address and prevent psychosocial hazards combined with the increased cost of providing employee support services, productivity costs associated with absenteeism and increased employee turnover flowing through to recruitment costs means that taking a holistic approach to employee work health safety across all facets is now crucial.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Diversity, Equity and inclusion has been a hot topic of conversation as organisations realise the benefits of having diverse and often underrepresented voices present at all levels of decision making. The more organisations encourage and support diverse voices and address systemic sexism, racism, ableism and homophobia, the easier it is for all employees to authentically bring all their strengths to work, speak their truth and thrive in their careers. By focusing on psychosocial safety an organisation is fostering the conditions necessary for a vibrant and inclusive culture. 

Innovation and collaboration

When individuals and teams feel empowered and supported, they are more likely to go the extra mile, innovate, and deliver exceptional results. Creating an innovative culture, including a healthy approach to risk, is only possible when employees feel safe to experiment, try new approaches and learn from failure. One of the most quoted studies on the value of a psychologically safe environment is Google’s Project Aristotle which evidenced psychological safety as the #1 element to unlocking team potential.

Attraction and retention

All the benefits of psychosocial safety discussed so far talk to the immense value that is created collectively for organisations. Beyond employees choosing  to stay working for longer periods of their career it also attracts top talent. Companies that prioritise their employees’ well-being and create a supportive work environment build a reputation as ethical and responsible employers. Additionally, This reputation appeals to customers and stakeholders who value organisations that prioritise people.

Watch Kate and Fiona’s recent FB Live on this topic here.

What gets in the way of achieving psychosocial safety?

Lack of clarity and confusion

When employees are unclear regarding their role, tasks, timeframes, expectations and outcomes, there is likely to be uncertainty and disagreements regarding performance and standards. We have seen hundreds of examples of clients who have procrastinated about taking action because they are unclear about their roles or worse, have been in significant states of stress because they have been carrying the burden of responsibility for projects far above their role (and pay grade).

The more clarity leaders provide, the easier it is for employees to with certainty take action, measure and achieve progress and ultimately minimise risks associated with miscommunication and lack of alignment between expectations and delivery. While it is easy for organisations to make assumptions that their employees have strong or high levels of clarity, our experience has proven that this is often the #1 driver of underperformance for employees and a major source of procrastination.

Poor visibility – when bad behaviour is invisible

The more subtle forms of negative behaviour specifically referenced in the Safe Workplace legislation (eg taking the credit for someone else’s work, being excluded from meetings and emails, deliberately withholding information necessary to do the job and calling someone hypersensitive if they report or try to address negative behaviour) are often difficult for those not directly involved in the day to day to observe first hand. Increased remote working conditions has made it even harder for colleagues and leaders to witness interactions between colleagues making it more challenging to detect potential issues and intervene promptly.

Fear of speaking up and retribution

Many people worry about saying no to heavy workloads or don’t call out bad behaviour out of fear they will be judged for being over sensitive, complaining or not being seen to be a team player. Whether part of an organisation’s cultural norms or linked to an individual’s past experience where speaking up has led to negative consequences such as being overlooked for career opportunities. Or not having the conditions present that make it easy for an employee to speak up and be heard is far more prevalent than most organisations would like to admit.  Many individuals would rather leave an organisation and /or a leader that creates a psychologically unsafe environment than have what feels like a risky conversation that confronts the culture perpetuating the issue.

Dismissing or protecting poor behaviour

Check in with most middle management across organisations and you will find more than a few examples of leaders or individuals that have managed to survive for longer than they should, often because of their commercial value, in organisations that purport to live and breathe values that hold an expectation contrary to what has become accepted behaviour.  An informal culture that protects, dismisses or ignores problematic behaviour is common and can stem from a lack of awareness by management or an unwillingness to address uncomfortable situations.

Lack of time and skills

One significant challenge that leaders often reference in our leadership development conversations is the time and skills it takes to create psychosocial safety. Many leaders fear that discussions may go awry or have had bad experiences in the past where they or a colleague attempted to deal with a negative behaviour and it became an even bigger problem as they did not have either the interpersonal skills or support to navigate the situation.

Competition over collaboration

Common across organisations is a desire to foster collaboration and yet when you look beneath the surface at team dynamics, you often find examples of undermining behaviour as leaders jostle for relevance and influence in the hierarchy. Often for good reasons, employees may feel pressure to outperform others in the business, to withhold information, to denigrate the contribution of others, to focus on achieving their goals, sometimes at the expense of others. The winning at all costs attitude can create stressful, demanding environments which results in a toxic atmosphere that  is fraught with  psychosocial risks.

Watch Kate and Fiona’s recent FB Live on this topic here.

How to for Individuals

Increase self-awareness and self-regulation: The more insight individuals have about themselves and others, the more equipped they are to navigate challenging workplace dynamics and aggressions. In our coaching conversations we encourage clients to question their beliefs and biases. We all have blind-spots and default beliefs and behaviours that we are not conscious of. They impact what we think and how we show up in the world. Being curious about the way your behaviour may affect others and seeking feedback from a place of genuine interest can expand both self-awareness and emotional maturity.

Set and enforce boundaries: Establishing and protecting clear boundaries between work and personal life ensures time for rest, relaxation, and activities that provide perspective, right size responsibility and develop resilience. In our experience the ability to get clear on what boundaries are necessary to support the health and well-being of each individual and having the courage and ability to hold these boundaries when tested (Act of Confidence #6 Set and Enforce Boundaries, Saying No with Confidence) while challenging for many,  provides individuals with not only the agency to manage their workplace experience but to call out behaviour early that could perpetuate psychosocial risks.

Prioritise and practice self-care:  Employee well-being and self-care activities such as exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating became a mainstream pillar of organisational health and wellbeing during the covid pandemic. And while the dogs in most households are no longer hiding from their human owners for fear of yet ‘another walk’, practices such as mindfulness, meditation and making time for activities that recharge you mentally and emotionally are actively encouraged by most organisations. Developing a toolkit of strategies that can be leveraged throughout the workday and beyond can increase an employee’s overall health and well-being and their ability to navigate workplace challenges.  

Build a support network and ask for help: Having a support system of trusted friends, family, or colleagues who can provide guidance, empathy, and a listening ear when needed is invaluable. Peers in the workplace are often an essential part of the support network because they know the challenges, dynamics and personalities involved and can offer specific advice and support relevant to the situation. Although it can be hard to reach out and ask for help for fear of being seen as weak or incompetent, developing a willingness to lean in and ask for help from a place of personal power (Act of Confidence #4 Ask for Help) can often be the difference between someone’s ability to speak up and call out poor behaviour directly with those involved or with a trusted colleague in the organisation. 

Monitor and address early signs: Be aware of warning signs of burnout, such as chronic exhaustion, irritability and decreased motivation. If these emerge, take them seriously and implement steps to address them including self-care, seeking support from trusted advisors or adjusting the work situation.

Watch Kate and Fiona’s recent FB Live on this topic here.

How to for Leaders

The first step for all leaders is to be aware of the issues raised above and  to resource themselves through the individual strategies suggested. From this base, leaders are better equipped to lead others in addressing psychosocial risks.

Provide clarity and set expectations:  In the words of one of our favourite experts in human behaviour, Brene Brown: “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind. Whilst many leaders believe implicitly that their team members are clear on their roles, responsibilities and outcomes, our experience has shown that there is often a lot of grey in this area that can create uncertainty, confusion and even chaos. Proactively, explicitly, and consistently establishing clear expectations regarding behaviour, performance standards, and the consequences of inappropriate conduct across the whole team creates a level of certainty that makes it easy for others to measure their own success and know when they are falling short. 

Foster open communication and create space: Encourage a culture of open dialogue and create channels for employees to express their concerns or grievances without fear of negative consequences. Invest time in talking, actively listen to their comments and feedback and follow through on appropriate actions to address any issues presented. Be mindful that the most important aspect in this strategy is the preparedness to hold space and listen, leaders do not need to have all the answers. During times of great change, the more time invested and the more communication the better. Regularly check in with employees; schedule regular one-on-one meetings to discuss workload, challenges, and career aspirations. This helps build trust and provides an opportunity to address any emerging psychosocial risks.

Be a role model and take responsibility: When leaders go first and lead by example, they unconsciously and consciously reinforce to all watching, the standards of behaviour they expect and are prepared to live by. This is one of the most powerful areas that can often trip up some leaders who can be caught out of integrity with their words and actions. A leader’s actions sets the tone for the team from the top, about what’s ok and what is not ok. It’s what they do that will make it safe for others to follow and create (or destroy) psychological safety for the team. As a recent article from Forbes says “As leaders striving to be inclusive, the first thing we must ask ourselves is whether those around us feel psychologically safe enough to share their thoughts and ideas without fear of reprisal”

Promote work-life balance authentically: Encourage employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance by promoting flexible work arrangements, encouraging breaks including annual leave, and discouraging excessive work hours. Recognise and value the importance of personal well-being and create a culture where it’s safe to be honest about capacity, workload and realistic deadlines. This will then encourage leaders to support their teams in the same manner.

Develop your skills and capabilities: Active listening, giving and receiving feedback, delegating, building trust and coaching are all skills and capabilities that are continually developed and mastered over time. It is easy to believe that whilst these can be seen as Management 101, they are easily forgotten in the busyness of the day-to-day commitments and pressure to deliver on deadlines. These skills provide the much-needed space for leaders to create safe containers for their team to enhance self-awareness and understand how their behaviour is impacting others.

Watch Kate and Fiona’s recent FB Live on this topic here.

How to for Organisations

Invest in training and development: Facilitate development opportunities for employees to enhance their own self-awareness on topics such as building trust, courageous conversations and leader as coach. Supporting employees with the skills to manage interpersonal dynamics effectively including the capabilities to have honest and difficult conversations with their leaders provides the conditions necessary for productive two way conversations across the organisation. In today’s fast paced world, short, bite-sized learning that provides opportunities for self-reflection and connection with others that normalises difficult experiences can help create a culture of empathy and compassion.

Increase employee confidence: Organisations can actively reduce psychosocial risks, by supporting individuals to honestly share challenges with their leaders and ask for what they need with the certainty that they will be listened to and supported to find solutions. Confidence works hand in hand with safe workplaces, providing the courage to call out inappropriate language, behaviour or unfair expectations. It’s crucial to cultivate a culture where all forms of harassment, bullying, or inappropriate conduct are promptly addressed and not tolerated.

Listen to signals and respond to warning signs: Problems across an organisation’s culture can be hidden or invisible to more senior stakeholders. Providing spaces and situations where employees can share their lived experience in the organisation can reveal issues that are occurring below the surface, causing distress and pain. Facilitating conversation groups that provide an opportunity to uncover the issues that are not being openly spoken of is a powerful way to ensure that employees experiencing or witnessing psychosocial risk have an opportunity to be heard and supported and the organisation has an opportunity to respond.

Leverage your values: Most organisations have invested in defining their values and the behaviours that align with those values including an explicit articulation of the behaviours that do not align with these values (many of which will mirror psychosocial hazards). This is a powerful way for an organisation to set explicit expectations around behaviours that are not tolerated in an organisation and provides a framework and the permission for all employees to hold each other accountable to this standard. This makes the conversation more neutral and aligned with the expectations of the organisation and less personal and/or accusatory.  

Provide support and resources: Ensure that employees have access to the necessary resources, tools, and training to perform their jobs effectively. Offer support for work-life balance and encourage self-care practices. Consider what support is most likely to gain traction. While online tools and platforms offer great resources, often what people need is the time and space to have a different quality of conversation. To slow down enough to hear feedback about what is not working or where people are feeling frustrated or experiencing challenging situations. By making time to connect and vulnerably talk through what is working and what needs to be different, organisations can foster an environment that has greater psychosocial safety. 

By being willing to address psychosocial risks head-on and establishing a zero-tolerance policy, companies can protect their employees and cultivate a healthy and supportive work environment Specifically focusing on comprehensive policies, training and then fostering a culture where these behaviours are no longer accepted (or brushed under the carpet) organisations have an opportunity to improve the psychosocial safety of their employees. More emphasis on the importance of respect, and clarity of unacceptable practices reduces the incidences of subtle undermining and damaging self-esteem as well as more obvious bullying and sexual harassment. 

The upsides and positive consequences of proactively managing psychosocial risks and creating a constructive and thriving company culture go beyond legal obligation and risk management. From increased confidence and retention to higher engagement, productivity, and gender equity, the benefits are far-reaching. By investing in the growth, development and well-being of our employees, the skill and capability of leaders and the willingness of organisations to listen and respond, we create organisational cultures that prioritise psychosocial safety and also inspire and empower our team members.

Watch Kate and Fiona’s recent FB Live on this topic here.

For more information on how your organisation can empower teams and leaders to recognise and address psychosocial hazards or to access a copy of our micro-skills catalogue that support constructive organisational cultures please get in touch with Fiona at fiona@quantumimpact.com.au.

For individuals who’d like to explore this topic further, book a 15 minute Confidence Breakthrough Call.