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What is psychological safety at work and how to build it

What is psychological safety at work and how to build it

By Laura | 08.08.2022

Have you ever been passed up for a promotion, when it was previously promised?

Undermined by a manager with ego issues?

Maybe you are one of the 23% of women or 6% of men whose professionalism was doubted simply because of their gender.

These are all examples of ways that the workplace can be psychologically unsafe.

At home and at work, we are all human. Whether you earn a six-figure salary, or are just starting out, whether you are a senior manager or a junior team member, everyone has emotions and are responsible for handling them in a healthy way.

At the same time, humans are wired to form social hierarchies and we place psychological importance in the perception of status. Intentional or not, gender discrimnation, ageism, and ego-plays can and do happen at work. The question that every employer should be asking is how we can overcome our natural tendencies and create psychological safety in the workplace. That starts by first understanding what is psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is when an individual is in an environment where they feel validated and secure, free to experience their emotions and express them to others. Feeling psychologically safe also means that a person believes they can say what they think without fear of being humiliated, punished or rejected.

Feeling safe is a basic human need; in fact, “safety” is the second rung in Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, only above basic physiological needs, like food, rest and shelter. Safety obviously refers to physical protection from threats and violence, but it also includes emotional safety – things like validation, acceptance, emotional stability and support. These are crucial to psychologically safe workplaces too.

What is psychological safety in the workplace?

Psychological safety in the workplace is when employees can show who they are and what they believe, and know that they will be accepted and respected. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees can express their opinions and individuality without fearing that it will affect their position, career prospects, salary, or the way they are perceived and regarded by their colleagues, managers and employer.

Showing who you are to the world involves a certain level of risk-taking. Employees in an environment of psychological safety can reasonably speak out, disagree, share an unpopular opinion or challenge the status quo, without undue fear of external reactions or consequences.

The benefits of psychological safety at work

Creating psychological safety at work is not just the humane and right thing to do; it is also good for business. Here are several ways that workplace psychological safety can benefit everyone, from the CEO responsible for the bottom line, to the employee who wants to do the best job they can and advance their career.

More diversity & inclusivity

A workplace of psychological safety is accepting and inclusive of the ‘other’, and provides a safe space for all kinds of people to express themselves and realize their potential. When people feel validated and included, this naturally draws diverse talent of every gender, age, race, and sexual orientation. This is good news for all, as inclusion and diversity are crucial for performance: Gartner research shows that diverse teams perform 30% better!

Better teamwork

Psychological safety means that employees feel they can be vulnerable and open with one another, and this can only happen when there is trust. Trust is an essential component of safety. It fosters a sense of comfort and acceptance, which makes team members more willing to take the risk of expressing their opinion and acting with assertiveness. It also makes team members more conscious and empathetic, so they can work together efficiently and in unison.

Increased productivity

Happy workers are productive workers – 12% more productive, according to a recent study. Happy Google employees were even found to be 37% more productive.

Psychological safety is a precursor to happiness, as Maslow’s hierarchy attests. Before they can focus on being creative, challenged and satisfied at work, employees must feel secure enough to have their thoughts, opinions and feelings heard, without fear of reprisal or negative outcomes.

Heightened creativity

Creativity requires a sense of freedom to let go, and let new and different ways of thinking come forth. This can only happen in a place of psychological safety. Creativity is all about unrealized potential – what could be. A workplace that is emotionally safe will be a place where people can unleash their potential with confidence, and this is a key to innovation and creativity.

Lower employee turnover

According to Microsoft, 40% of employees worldwide are considering leaving their jobs in the next year. Staff turnover has become the leading problem for employers, but there is a solution. A study of hotel workers in Indonesia showed that having their psychological needs met is a key component of wellbeing on the job, which determines whether an employee intends to leave or stay. Fact: a psychologically safe and supportive workplace makes workers happier, emotionally healthier and more likely to be retained as an employee.

How to build a psychologically safe workplace

There are concrete steps that employers can take to promote psychological safety at work. These are not special ‘events’, but rather part of the everyday running of the workplace, making safety an underlying thread in the company’s ethos and values.

Here are five practical suggestions for how to build a psychologically safe workplace:

Promote consistent communication: Encourage employees to be themselves by making healthy and open communication a part of the company culture. Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins with managers, during which employees can open up about how they are feeling at work, or any issues they may be facing. Let employees know that their opinion is welcome and valued, and ensure that courtesy and respect are inherent at every level of the company.

Be transparent: Let employees know what is going on at the company, and how it is expected to impact them. Where possible, allow employees to take part in decision making processes, or at least keep them up to date about issues that may be relevant or important to them. Managers should foster an open-door policy, encouraging workers to come with questions any time. This “nothing to hide” approach paves the way for a strong sense of security and psychological safety.

Offer employee wellness programs: Put employee safety at the center by offering programs and resources that support emotional resilience and wellness. For example, a workshop in public speaking or presentation skills is a great way to encourage workers to feel confident and secure. Mindfulness meditation is another excellent technique that significantly improves mental health. Employers can offer courses during office hours, or provide subsidies for meditation apps or equipment that workers use at home or on weekends.

Create safe spaces: Promote psychological safety at work by providing dedicated safe spaces where staff can unwind, relax and practice techniques that promote mental health and wellbeing. A safe space can simply be a room with comfortable lounge areas and dimmed lighting so employees can practice meditation, listen to calming music or even take a quick power nap.

Provide biofeedback devices, so workers can track their physiological markers and learn to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and workplace stress. The Reflect biofeedback device is shaped like a stylish orb, and fits in easily in any office safe space. And it is so easy to use at work – place your hands on the Orb, and it will track your heart rate, breathing rate and more, without needing to apply any special sensors.

Reflect biofeedback orb

Be good leaders: The best psychological safety workplace approach begins and ends at the management level. It is absolutely vital that senior management and company executives lead by example, providing a role model for how to relate to people with acceptance and empathy. Management sets the tone of a company, so make sure to demonstrate accountability, mutual respect, good communication and genuine caring, and this will improve emotional safety at work in leaps and bounds.

Build it and they will come

It takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to build a successful company. But if a workplace is not built on psychological safety, it will not be a healthy place to work, employees won’t be productive and they won’t stay for long. Alongside a strong business strategy and a solid financial base, also invest in building a psychologically safe work environment – and great employees will come, and stay.