Why Psychological Safety is Important at Work
When I say the phrase “safety at work,” what is it the first thing that pops into your mind? Is it risk prevention? Maybe you are thinking about being confident that the machinery you are about to use is up-to-date and has passed all audits. Or, considering the current pandemic, possibly you think about maintaining distance between coworkers and wearing proper PPE.
All of those safety measures are legitimate first thoughts when considering how safety applies to work. They provide physical safety and security to work life, and possibly into your personal life. But, have you considered what psychological safety may mean at work? Why is mental wellness often overlooked or intentionally ignored? This article seeks to define psychological safety at work, why it matters as much as physical safety, and how mental wellness in the workplace benefits the individual and the business.
Back to the Basics
Let’s go back to your Intro to Psychology course you were likely required to take in school. Specifically, we will turn to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (shown below).
This pyramid displays the order of human needs that need to be fulfilled; each level must be met before advancing to the next level. As you can see, safety needs come right after physiological needs like food and water. In fact, safety needs are known as a deficiency need– where if it is not met, we are automatically motivated to identify where this deficiency derives from and fulfill it, whether through family, friends, or even, work life. This is especially important to consider, as having guaranteed safety against harm and injury at work can significantly reduce stress and fulfill the safety need. But, how can that happen?
The Benefits of Safety Culture at Work
Now jump back to the beginning of this article. Often, we consider safety in a physical sense- avoiding injury in the workplace, for example. However, safety encompasses much more than that. Consider safety as “ensuring the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of employees, in and out of the workplace, so they are healthy, alert and engaged while at work” which will, in turn, lead to less injuries and higher quality product in the workplace. Safety is typically only thought of in a physical sense, but this creates an imbalance where an individual’s needs are not being prioritized equally. Workplaces do not only need to ensure physical safety, but also psychological safety and wellbeing.
The key to creating a psychologically safe work environment is to promote a safety culture, which is the “perceptions of the policies, procedures, and practices relating to safety.¹” According to Frone & Barling (2005), this can be accomplished through two different methods of action: compliance and participation. Compliance refers to more proactive measures, such as actively following safety and quality regulations on the floor or logging Workflows daily. Participation is equally important but more passive, such as attending a safety training program for work voluntarily.¹ Incorporating both of these practices contributes to a positive perception of safety in the workplace.
In turn, prioritizing mental health and safety along with other company goals such as efficiency and productivity create a space for workers to feel motivated to contribute to a safety culture. Investing in safety in the workplace will internalize psychological safety within each worker, which leads to overall safer behaviors on behalf of the employees. It is a strange phenomenon to consider- but, our minds are wired to fulfill these safety needs in one way or another.
Efficiency does not always mean efficacy. What may be a rapid process, may not be the best solution for your company. While expecting each employee to “carry their own weight” and leave their own struggles outside the workplace may seem effective, it will not always be efficient. For example, research has demonstrated that employees with “high levels of negative affect, anxiety, and depression” are less likely to use PPE in the workplace. This creates an unsafe environment for the individual, which could have been intervened by efforts on an organizational level.¹
There is a lot of work to be done to ensure the safety of each worker holistically. Frone & Barling (2005) have also compiled a list of foundational dimensions to consider when evaluating whether a workplace emphasizes psychological safety and approaches it in an appropriate manner. A few of these dimensions relate heavily to leadership action on a managerial level, and HR level, and a supervisor level.¹ The next article in this series will include a call to action and a plan for leaders on what they can do right now to improve on psychological safety in their workplace.
Anvl is here to kickstart your efforts to create a safety culture and ensure the psychological wellbeing of your workers. We have created safety management software that will appeal to both actions of compliance and participation, which will in turn motivate workers to feel safe at work and perform in a safer manner. Let us help your business be both efficient and effective.
- Frone, M. R., & Barling, J. (2005). The psychology of workplace safety (1st ed (Online-Ausg). American Psychological Association. http://search.ebscohost.com/direct.asp?db=pzh&jid=200388217&scope=site.