Threats To Employee Psychological Well-Being: Are You Safe?

You probably have the proper safety equipment to ensure you aren’t injured on the job, but what about being kept safe from psychological harm?

Risks that might lead to physical injury in the workplace are given great consideration and thought, but psychological perils are less scrutinized or even understood as potentially equally harmful.

Being able to identify potential dangers at work can offer employees some peace of mind.  There are five ways to identify psychological risks at work.

1.     Psychological Hygiene

If your company has average or above average rates of absenteeism or high turnover, these could be signs of trouble.  If these indicators are ignored, long- and-short-term disability leaves may follow.  The organization is probably ignoring festering issues. Over time, psychological injury occurs and can be tracked via these indicators.  In fact, workdays lost to physical injury often have a psychological basis. High numbers of customer complaints and grievances are also tell-tale signs that the workplace could be becoming, or already is, toxic.

2.    Risky Situations

If you are the manager and people constantly want to discuss troublesome issues in the workplace with you, consider it a red flag your workplace may be suffering psychologically.  The issues can include a failure to be heard, or be invited to particular functions, people not responding to repeated emails or voicemails, concern about another employee, or expressions of being overwhelmed or of “needing direction.” If these conversations are ignored, it is to the organization’s detriment. Dismissing the visits as complaining, especially if those approaching you are repeat visitors, is risky.  If conflict exists between employees and it festers, or relations between a supervisor and subordinate are fraught with difficulty, or leaders are frequently moving to other organizations, you have a potential problem of workplace ill health.

Any discussion of harassment or bullying indicates that the workplace is suffering and an atmosphere of discord, tension and strife should not go unaddressed. Dismissing these issues as a personality conflict, an HR problem, or an individual employee’s predisposition or health issue, is a common mistake with costly consequences.

3.     Workplace Atmosphere

Is your workplace tense?  Is it sexually charged and tolerant of sexual banter and innuendo?  Have you noticed racial or gender-based discrimination in subtle forms? If the workplace allows sarcastic types of humour to prevail that not everyone enjoys, or routinely favours competitive type relations, or favouritism is suspected, your workplace could be psychologically harmful.  Like a bad diet, these types of unhealthy practices catch up with organizations and workers in the long run.

4.     Costs

Are you noticing overruns, costs due to lack of efficiency, or money being lost to poor project coordination. These things can be indicators of unaddressed psychological issues.  It takes time for these costs to manifest, which means problems have been ongoing and chronically ignored.  If recruitment and retraining costs are becoming unwieldy, it’s important to investigate why.  If it’s turnover of well trained, experienced or well-credentialed people, you might have a problem.  Conscientious employees are often targets of subtle workplace harassment, for example.  But when they leave, their reasons will seldom include a criticism of your organization.  You’ll hear a variety of reasons that seem benign, including finding another opportunity, pressing family needs, or possible relocation (that ends up not panning out).

3. Leadership

If the leadership of the organization tends to avoid conflict or engages in smoothing things over, sweeping issues under the carpet, or ignoring flare-ups, that organization risks being psychologically harmful.  If a leader surrounds herself with yes people, makes it unsafe to disagree, or does not actively solicit divergent opinion, a risk exists.  If expediency is the way things get done, rather than being solidly values based, leaders will make short-term decisions that affect psychological safety in the long term.  When a manager favours policy over people, or makes it clear that their job is more important than helping a subordinate, injury in the form of stress, feelings of being overwhelmed, anger, fear, anxiety and depression can result.

Maintaining psychological safety is like maintaining physical safety at work. It involves consistent application of principles of respect, zero-harm philosophies and taking action when incivility and disrespect become evident is key.  Scanning the workplace for pockets of trouble before they become chronic, entrenched and intractable, is the kind of vigilance required to prevent psychological harm on the job.

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.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:

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