Risk-taking encourages creativity, and in the workplace, this can open the door to innovative ideas and creative solutions. In order for risk-taking to occur, a worker needs to feel psychologically safe to do so. Therefore, it’s important for workplaces to ensure the psychological protection of their workers. But what is psychological protection?
Psychological protection is present in a work environment where workers’ psychological safety is ensured. Workplace psychological safety is demonstrated when workers feel able to put themselves on the line, ask questions, seek feedback, report mistakes and problems, or propose a new idea without fearing negative consequences to themselves, their job, or their career. A psychologically healthy and safe organization actively promotes emotional well-being among workers, while taking all reasonable steps to minimize threats to worker mental health.
Why is Psychological Protection Important?
When employees are psychologically protected, they demonstrate greater job satisfaction, enhanced team learning behaviour and improved performance. Team members are more likely to speak up and become involved. They show increased morale and engagement, and are less likely to experience stress-related illnesses. Psychologically protected workplaces also experience fewer grievances, conflicts and liability risks.
What happens when psychological safety is not protected?
When workers are not psychologically safe, they experience demoralization, a sense of threat, disengagement and strain. They perceive workplace conditions as ambiguous and unpredictable. The organization is at a much greater threat from costly, and potentially crippling, legal and regulatory risk. This can, in turn, undermine shareholder, consumer, and public confidence in the organization.
An organization with good psychological protection would be able to state that:
- the organization is committed to minimizing unnecessary stress at work;
- immediate supervisors care about workers’ emotional well-being;
- the organization makes efforts to prevent harm to workers from harassment, bullying, discrimination, violence, or stigma;
- workers would describe the workplace as being psychologically healthy; and,
- the organization deals effectively with situations that can threaten or harm workers (e.g., harassment, bullying, discrimination, violence, stigma, etc).
Ways to Create Psychological Safety at Work
Ultimately, psychological safety is about making a team come together as one – and fostering an environment that sets up everyone for success. So, how can an organization foster a culture where psychological safety is valued, encouraged and promoted? Here are a few ideas:
1 Give employees a voice.
This is not only about encouraging communication, but giving everyone the opportunity to provide feedback and be part of the process.
2 Mistakes are part of the process.
Ensure workers understand that making mistakes is part of the process, and that learning from mistakes helps them to grow. Ensure that leaders do not overreact or reprimand workers for making mistakes.
3 Earn and extend trust.
All members in an organization – and particularly people leaders – have a responsibility to model and demonstrate psychologically safe interactions.
4 Treat people the way they want to be treated (as opposed to the way you want to be treated).
Take the time to ask team members what they’d prefer regarding things like frequency of check-ins, style of communication, or type of feedback. This allows them to feel more in control.
5 Welcome curiosity.
Encourage questions and welcome curiosity in a way that encourages creativity.
6 Promote healthy conflict.
Create an environment where asking questions from a place of curiosity and wanting to understand is encouraged, rather than judged. Promote an environment where it is okay to disagree and oppose one another, with the ultimate goal of finding the most innovative and creative solutions together.
7 Ask for feedback.
Asking for feedback ensures others feel as though they are part of the process, and reminds workers that leaders are humans who are always learning the same as they are. Asking for feedback genuinely also helps to build trust and a relationship with effective communication.
Another thing to consider when it comes to psychological protection is fairness. Did you know there are multiple types of fairness?
- Ensure fairness in how workplace decisions are made and how procedures are carried out (“procedural justice”).
- Ensure fairness in the outcomes of workplace decisions, such as promotion decisions (“distributive justice”).
- When communicating decisions to staff, do so in a respectful manner, with sincerity, care and empathy (“interactional justice”).
Psychological Protection and Harassment
Psychological protection also means providing a work environment that is free from discrimination, harassment and bullying. Therefore, it’s important to provide ongoing orientation and training on policies and programs on harassment, discrimination, violence at work and conflict management. Train all people leaders, including human resource providers and union personnel, to be knowledgeable and accountable for ensuring a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. This also includes providing safe opportunities for team members to identify and participate in the remediation of psychological safety concerns.
Organizations should also ensure staff is up-to-date on existing policies on harassment, discrimination, violence and conflict management. Communicate the availability of resources, educational material and supports available to manage stress, including that resulting from workplace crisis or trauma.
Final Thoughts on Psychological Protection – Ongoing Improvement
It’s important to recognize that the assurance of psychological safety is more than just a policy – it involves an ongoing process of education, implementation and evaluation, with revisions as needed. Therefore, organizations should conduct regular risk assessments and reviews to help understand and monitor factors that may negatively affect workers’ psychological health and safety. Additionally, organizations should provide programs and services for those working in vulnerable situations or environments, including those working off-hours (e.g., debriefing, peer support, “safe-walk” programs, secure parking access).
Psychological Protection is psychosocial factor 12 from the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S) in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 – Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace). For more information, see also Guarding Minds at Work (Samra et al.).