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5 Ways To Promote Psychological Safety in the Workplace

At a time in which most employees spend an excess of 40 hours a week on the job, it is critical that employers make safety and well-being a key priority. Although the roots of psychological safety can run deep, the most forward-thinking organizations are taking strategic and deliberate steps to enact meaningful practices.

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Chances are, you know someone who has absolutely hated their job. Perhaps it has even been you. Experiencing a sense of dread about going to work, feeling unfulfilled in your role, finding yourself calling in sick or taking time off more than is typical for you. Although degrees of workplace discontent vary, and “hating” one’s job is an extreme example, insights from EVERFI’s recent research study Preventing Toxic Workplaces revealed that workplace stress is a common problem with more than half of participants (54%) agreeing that negative stress is prevalent at their workplace. 

Recently, there has been a renewed focus on the concept of psychological safety, and it’s importance in creating healthy and inclusive working environments. A term first coined in 1990 by Dr. William Kahn, psychological safety is defined as “the ability to to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career”. Dr. Timothy Clark expanded upon this definition in his 2019 book The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: The Path to Inclusion and Innovation, with the notion that psychological safety is “a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo- all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.”

The following suggestions are meant to provide guidance for increasing the collective well-being of your community, and strengthening psychological safety within your workforce. 

Allow those at the bottom to inform those at the top

Often, senior leaders are largely disconnected from the specific challenges that may be impacting their employees sense of well-being. By engaging in mechanisms for collecting information about the employee experience- via employee engagement surveys, workplace climate surveys, and focus groups with individuals from throughout an organization, leaders can glean a better sense of the challenges that their employees may be facing– and begin to take steps towards some solutions.

Lead with authenticity

There are actually strategies that have been shown to promote psychological safety among employees- many of which focus on the importance of having invested and authentic leaders. LinkedIn posts about personal time and mental health days are trending, and those in executive positions have an opportunity more powerful than ever to set a tone that promotes psychological safety. By actively challenging practices that minimize an employees sense of belonging, and actively promoting those that contribute to a culture of inclusion and self-care, today’s leaders can set a new standard.

Identify and Leverage Employee Strengths

As humans, we thrive when we are doing work that we feel is meaningful and aligned with our strengths. When practices are built to support and honor the strengths of each individual contributor, employees can flourish. For example, if creating weekly check-ins for employees, work with them to identify the approach that most honors their strengths: some may prefer to outline their work in writing, while others may prefer a 1-on-1 dialogue. Similarly, when putting teams together, consider including strength assessments such as VIA or StrengthsQuest as part of your process. It is also beneficial to share with employees the “why” behind certain projects. When employees understand not only the goals of a task, but their specific role in it and how it contributes to the broader organizational picture, they can better harness their strengths to succeed. By being strategic about honoring and maximizing employee strengths, those in leadership roles can foster a greater sense of belonging and, likely, increased productivity and a more engaged workforce.

Create Mechanisms for Listening and Learning

By creating spaces in which employees of all identities can come together, share their perspectives, and feel heard, validated, and respected, steps can be taken to help employees come to work as their most authentic selves. At some organizations, this may include the creation of affinity or employee resources groups. At others, it may include roundtables or learning groups comprised of individuals at all levels of an organization. By keeping a finger on the pulse of these groups and the needs of the employees who participate in them, business leaders can gain insights into the needs of their employees that may go deeper than what traditional survey data can provide.

Prioritize workplace culture

The culture of an organization is defined by more than the snacks in the lunchroom and occasional happy hours. Everything from our organization’s motto and mission statement to the physical spaces that we occupy can be an opportunity to promote employee well-being. This includes the amount of PTO that is provided (and the ease at which employees are supported in utilizing it), the types of insurance and EAP plans that are chosen (are policies related to mental health considered in reviewing providers?), and the way in which we set the tone with employees through ongoing communication streams. 

One often overlooked or undervalued mechanism for reaching employees en masse is through workplace trainings. According to the Preventing Toxic Workplaces research, respondents from organizations that include culture building topics in their trainings are more likely to say that their workplace is positive and non-toxic. Those that include culture building are also viewed as more effective than those that focus on compliance-only.  And, within the context of collecting employee data through such trainings, consider the surveys that you are using and whether the demographics section is inclusive of all identities. Training opportunities that focus on maximizing the healthy beliefs of employees and creating a positive culture, rather than simply reducing unwanted behaviors, can be a powerful step towards demonstrating a community of care. 

At a time in which most employees spend an excess of 40 hours a week on the job, it is critical that  employers make safety and well-being a key priority.  Although the roots of psychological safety can run deep, the most forward-thinking organizations are taking strategic and deliberate steps to enact meaningful practices.

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