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Psychological safety is a term we are hearing more and more of in our world and the work environment. Coincidentally, as we look at this topic, May was Mental Health Awareness Month. June is National Safety Month, among the other initiatives we celebrate. It is befitting we review this topic of psychological safety in the workplace in the context of both initiatives.

Psychological Safety
Employers should know that workplace safety – as governed by the Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – is outlined in the OSHA general duty clause that all employers are to “furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 654, 5(a)2

As a nation, survey results from the American Psychology Association  (AMA) reveal there is much we are stressed out about. No surprise that it ranges from personal finances, health, and family matters to social injustices, politics, and the personal safety of ourselves and family members.  Believe it or not, most stressors come from world and national events, not from high-impact life events we experience. To go along with these events creating stress, everyone has their unique way of maintaining composure during these events and a unique opinion on the circumstances surrounding them. More and more people are not afraid to speak their minds, some politely, others loudly, impolitely, and violently.

The American Institute of Stress estimates that job stress costs the U.S. industry $300 billion annually in absenteeism, turnover, lower productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs. However, a sense of powerlessness arises when a person cannot control life’s situations, which, according to the American Psychological Association, is a “universal cause of job stress.”   

Anger and fear are no longer being bottled up, and these emotions go everywhere with people, throughout the neighborhoods, stores, restaurants, our schools, and into the workplace. Are we physically and mentally safe with so much violence around us?  In previous articles, we have addressed establishing policies and practices to respond to physical violence in the workplace. In this article, we are addressing the aspects of psychological safety in the workplace.

Psychological Safety is a condition where you “feel included, safety to learn, safety to contribute and safety to challenge the status quo.” In the workplace, a cultural environment must exist where employees are free to perform and express themselves without “fear of embarrassment, being marginalized, or punished.”

As with all human capital initiatives, the strategic thread of psychological safety runs across all human resource programs. A major connection is within the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices. The workplace is changing, and it’s not just about hiring the right people to check that box that the organization has achieved an equal employment hiring practice.

Having an EEO policy is not enough. Diversity and inclusion cultures additionally welcome and promote the uniqueness in each of us and provide the mechanism for a workplace where “all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.” Such a commitment would be like the following:

Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

The Company is committed to creating and maintaining a workplace where all employees have an opportunity to participate and contribute to the business’s success and are valued for their skills, experience, and unique perspectives. This commitment is embodied in company policy and how we do business and is an important principle of sound business management.

While an organization, through its management practices, appears to treat all employees equally, unconscious biases can provide a real or perceived sense of exclusion in our ability to treat each other non-discriminately. A policy alone cannot eliminate the unconscious biases working against a culture that embodies a workplace where people want to work. How does a company promote and support diversity and inclusion in the workplace? Performance management is the equalizer.

Studies have shown that stress can lead to aggressive behavior. Employers see stress displayed by their employees in many behaviors: good performance deteriorates, increased absenteeism occurs, cooperation with team members erodes, and a once-focused employee becomes distracted, potentially creating safety hazards. Supervisors and HR traditionally have dealt with these issues through performance improvement plans up to and including termination of employment. It is important today for employers to know their employees so that they can recognize or unearth the reason(s) behind poor performance if they want to have the ability to retain employees.

Employers—regardless of size or industry—should be aware of warning signs and how to coordinate with HR to take appropriate action with the employee and safeguard the workplace. Some of the more obvious signs of unhealthy stress levels include:

  • Intimidating, belligerent, harassing, bullying, or other inappropriate and aggressive behavior;
  • Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees;
  • Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems to the point of contemplating suicide);
  • Drug/alcohol abuse;
  • Extreme changes in behaviors.

Supervisor communication should occur daily with employees, not just when poor performance challenges arise. Employees management should include positive responses to the below questions:

Is communication professional?

Professional doesn’t mean that good-natured conversation cannot occur, but is the communication promoting an atmosphere of respect, or is it demeaning and/or discriminatory?

Is workplace bullying occurring?

  • 19% of Americans are bullied, and another 19% witness it;
  • 63% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace;
  • 60.3 million Americans are affected by it;
  • 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women;
  • 61% of bullies are bosses.

Is there bilateral communication where top management and employees share information, ideas, and feedback?

Is there a conflict resolution process in place that promotes employees having authority to resolve matters with each other and/or their supervisor and bring them to the attention of HR when needed?

Does the company have a comprehensive employee assistance program (EAP)? Is the EAP used in the performance management process?

While employees may be going through stressful situations, and employers should have compassion, there is also the reality that quality performance is still required. A supervisor referral to an EAP can include a discussion with the EAP on the performance standards that need to be brought up to par. While the supervisor is not a party to the EAP/employee discussions, the supervisor can have check-ins to identify if workplace performance goals are being achieved.

Most important for an organization today, are supervisors, managers, and those in leadership positions, trained to manage the organizational team proactively? Employers cannot only rely on the tactical skills of the leaders to maintain positive employee engagement. Management needs to be trained on effective team leadership and how to manage that leadership within the particular company’s culture, focusing on attracting and retaining the right people in the right seats to drive forward the organization’s mission.