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Psychological Safety at Work

There’s a new idea in occupational health: this idea is psychological safety and health.

Psychological safety and health is about safeguarding the psychological health of employees. A psychologically safe and healthy workplace is one that promotes employees’ psychological well-being and does not harm employee mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways.

Psychological health consists of our ability to think, feel and behave in a manner that enables us to perform effectively at work, at home, and in society at large. Psychological safety is a bit different - it deals with the risk of injury to mental well-being that a worker might experience. Improving the psychological safety of a work setting involves taking precautions to avert injury or danger to employee psychological health.

It is important to note that psychological health problems occur on a spectrum, from mild psychological difficulties on one end (low mood, sleep difficulties, excessive worry) to severe psychological disorders on the other (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression). Because milder psychological health problems are far more common in the workplace, they account for a larger proportion of the negative impacts on employees and employers. So when we speak of protecting psychological safety and health we’re not talking only of trying to reduce the impact of severe mental disorders - we’re primarily talking about reducing the level of less severe psychological problems that have large cumulative effects on the workplace.

Why is Psychological Safety & Health Important?

There are a number of reasons employers should assess and address the psychological safety and health of their workplace:

1. There are current and emerging legal and regulatory mandates that articulate employer responsibilities in this area

2. There are compelling financial incentives for employers to reduce costs and improve the bottom line

3. There is scientific and practical evidence of the impact of workplace factors on employee mental health

Negative Impacts

Compromised employee psychological health has a range of negative effects on organizations, including:

  • Financial. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are rapidly becoming the main cause of disability in developed countries. Employers are facing increased disability premiums, rising health and benefits costs and expenses associated with replacing absent employees.
  • Productivity. In addition to absenteeism, psychological ill-health is a significant contributor to ‘presenteeism’, decreases in performance due to illness or injury while an employee is still at work. A recent study found that, compared to a variety of common disorders (e.g. asthma, migraine, arthritis), depression caused the greatest decline in work productivity and focus.
  • Safety. Reduced psychological health and safety contributes to accidents, incidents and injuries. Most jobs require employees to have good concentration, social skills and the ability to solve problems effectively. These skills are undermined by most mental health conditions. As a result, co-workers, customers and employees are at risk of serious, and sometimes dire, outcomes due to unrecognized or poorly managed mental health conditions.
  • Workplace morale. Reduced psychological health and safety contributes to conflict and grievances. If one member of a team is struggling, the whole team is compromised. Unlike physical illnesses or injuries, which tend to be visible to fellow employees, mental health problems are often described as ‘invisible’, because these problems aren’t apparent or recognized by team members. Changes in a colleague’s usual behaviour or performance due to mental health problems may be perceived as intentional, resulting in misunderstanding, resentment and tense relationships. This, in turn, contributes to absenteeism and turnover.

Positive Impacts

On the other hand, a psychologically safe and healthy workforce has meaningful benefits for organizations, including:

  • Improved recruitment and retention. In today’s complex and ever-changing job market, current and potential employees have higher expectations for their jobs. They expect to be treated fairly, recognized appropriately and provided with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and develop new skills. Employers who create and sustain a ‘great place to work’ will attract and keep the best workers.
  • Improved employee engagement. An engaged employee is someone fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work. When employees are engaged, they view their interests as aligned with those of the company. They are more willing to extend an extra or discretionary effort to assist clients, customers and their colleagues. The net result is improved performance, productivity and quality of goods and services.
  • Improved sustainability. Organizations, like individuals, must be resilient in order to respond to external demands (e.g., market challenges, layoffs, mergers or restructuring). Businesses or work groups with psychologically healthy employees are best equipped not only to survive, but to thrive, when facing challenges.
  • Improved health and safety. Employers strive to create an atmosphere where there is a shared commitment to employee well-being and security. In such environments, staff recognize their responsibility to care for their own physical and psychological health, but also to support colleagues whose behaviour indicates that they are struggling or whose actions place others at risk. In such environments, staff are also more accepting and collaborative when accommodating a colleague returning to work from a disability absence, whether physical or psychological.