Psychological Safety At Work

Companies that strive to prevent physical injuries in the workplace clearly curb their costs. By making the workplace safe, they avoid increased workers compensation premiums, long or short term disability claims, medical and prescription drug and other expenses.

The same is true when companies make it a priority to prevent psychological injuries caused by bullying, harassment and hostile, degrading or gossipy workplaces.

Stress, depression, anxiety, distraction, and in the extreme, suicide can occur by working in such workplaces, which risk turnover in key positions, lost productivity and lowered performance.

Yet, some workplaces are reluctant to make psychological safety a priority. While in some sectors, such as the lumber industry, physical injury has been considered inevitable, traditional attitudes prevail towards some tactics that would now be considered psychological damaging. Companies may feel it’s either not their responsibility or it’s impossible – or too costly – to provide a psychologically safe working environment.

Some continue to believe bullying increases performance, says Dr. Joanne Leck, professor at the University of Ottawa, School of Management. Dr. Leck observed the bully boss is often tolerated because the organization believes he gets results through the exercise of exclusion, intimidation and unrealistic deadlines.

There are four main differences between organizations that strive to maintain a psychologically safe workplace and those that don’t:

Organizations making psychological safety a priority take harmful work behaviour seriously. Companies never deny the existence of harassment, bullying, isolating behaviour (keeping people out of the communication loop) or gossip when informal reports are made. And they don’t wait until there is a grievance to act.

Psychologically safe companies don’t dismiss rumours or concerns about humiliating or degrading behaviours. They don’t submit to pat or sexist explanations such as, “boys will be boys” or “what do you expect when women work together?”

The prevailing theme in psychologically safe organizations is “no one comes to work to be hurt;” senior leaders, managers and supervisors are mainly responsible for creating an emotionally safe place to work. This includes working jointly with management and unions to build a “social contract” where psychological safety is a priority.

Psychologically healthy organizations have well-defined policies about things like racism, sexism or homophobia. And the policies have teeth.

Leaders and managers are trained to deal with unsafe behaviours. They deal effectively with yelling or threatening employees, colleagues who ignore others, or co-workers who feud. Employees understand that a productive, high performing and caring culture precludes bullying, grudge- holding, mean-spiritedness and antagonism.

Psychological services are in place to help abusive, passive aggressive or toxic employees and leaders change their behaviour including employee assistance programs and coaching.

Employees who contribute to an unhealthy workplace are not transferred to another location or promoted or given fewer opportunities to interact with others. Rather, behaving in a safe way towards other employees is ultimately a condition of continued employment or promotion.

The psychologically safe work environment is a priority for healthy companies. Everyone, from leaders and staff, are responsible for its success. Staff is encouraged to support, nurture and protect a respectful workplace by ensuring that co-workers are treated fairly and with dignity.

Employees understand company safety policy and how to implement it. They know how to deal with or intervene on psychologically unsafe practices when they witness them.

Companies that are successful in creating safe workplaces ask employees about the topic. Employee surveys, leader and employee interviews and informal conversations are an ongoing means to understanding the level of psychological safety in the organization. According to researchers, Amy Colbert, Michael Mount and Murray Barrick at the University of Iowa, James Harter at The Gallup Organization, L. A. Witt of the University of New Orleans, surveys on workplace deviance indicate it is a common problem.

Areas in need of remedial support can be identified through questions that probe for the incidence of malicious or hurtful gossip, rude remarks, intimidating gestures, ridicule or efforts to humiliate.

Taking time to review the reasons for any short and long term disability leave claims that cite stress, depression, anxiety or other psychological reasons and diagnoses is important. If the claim indicates a problem with the degree of interpersonal safety in the office, steps need to be taken.

Rises in disability claims, turnover, absences or illness in a particular area or department should be examined closely. These organizational symptoms of ill-health can point to a lack of emotional safety.

Research shows that when management provides support and considers employee needs and values, staff reciprocate with increased commitment, loyalty and job performance.

Psychological safety at work may seem like a luxury to some, but to those enduring unsafe working conditions, it is a necessity.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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