Promoting psychological safety at work: what can leaders and HR managers do?

Publication Date: 

COVID-19 has impacted so many areas of our working life. And that impact looks very different from person to person.  

We’ve written before about the psychological contract between employeand employer.  But what about the wider issue of psychological safety? 

What do we mean by psychological safety? 

It’s all about feeling able to bring your whole self to work.  Being accepted and respected within a team and having the confidence to voice beliefs, seek feedback or ask for support without thinking it will have a negative impact on how you are perceived or your success in the workplace.   

Why is this important? 

Having a psychologically safe workplace has many benefits, including: 

  • Promoting the development of creativity and innovation of employees 
  • Enhancing communication and knowledge sharing 
  • Increasing job satisfaction, wellbeing and commitment to the organisation from employees 
  • Developing a learning culture (where enhanced feedback/critical scrutiny are the norm and the team discusses and learns from mistakes/addresses issues and concerns).  

How has COVID-19 impacted our psychological safety at work? 

  • Differences in experiences. Previously, people working for an organisation would generally have a common set of experiences. But COVID-19 has driven a coach and horses through this. Whilst some workers experienced a shared ‘fear for the future of their work’, this was particularly relevant for those on furlough, who may have been asking themselves when – or even if – they would go back and how their roles may have changed. While their colleagues who worked through lockdown  whether from home or on the frontline – had a very different collective experience.  These people were involved in the emergency reaction of their organisation, restricting their opportunity to pause and process what was happening.  It is easy to understand how these differing experiences could challenge psychological safety at work with increased scope for resentment on both sides. 
  • Decreased job  security.  With around 5 million people in the UK now self-employed, on short-term contracts or working as freelancers, the gig economy has boomed in recent years. Many are attracted to this type of work by the flexibility it offers, but the pandemic and resulting lockdown has highlighted the less positive implicationsincluding limited access to benefits such as sickness and holiday pay, and very little workplace protection. All of which could combine to make this type of worker feel much less safe in relation to their employment.  And it’s a similar story for those who were furloughed. With the scheme scheduled to end in October, employers will be forced to make some tough decisions and we may see a return to job seekers prioritising job security over flexibility, culture and values. 
  • Survival  mode.  During the crisis, many organisations had to make changes to how they work or even pivot their operations entirely calling for greater flexibility and adaptability from employees.  But when does ‘survival’ become the new normal?  And when does it fall upon employers to pause and reflect upon how employees are being impacted by those changes?  From having to use their home and own equipment for work purposes to accommodating an ‘all handson deck’ approach to getting the job done which may cut across job descriptions and KPIs.  Plus, many organisations are already managing expectations around pay rises and personal development opportunities.  But these things are part of the psychological contact between employer and employee and contribute to our psychological safety at work.  So how long will employees be willing to work in this way? 
  • Individual Differences.  People cope and respond differently in a crisis, its important for our psychological safety that all responses and experiences are heard, acknowledged and seen as valid. Individual factors can also influence reactions. Gender and personality differences come in to play with certain traits determining individual responses such as high levels of neuroticism commonly being more vulnerable to stress. 

So how can we make an  organisation  psychologically safe? 

  • Open and inclusive debates – encourage conversations for people to share experiences, challenges and strengths.  Be open about difficulties the organisation is facing as this will promote engagement, cooperation and innovation to help overcome these.  Make sure to include the team in decision making where possible. 
  • Love learning – encourage openness to learning and learning from failure.  Promote self-reflection and learning opportunities whilst avoiding blame. Hiding knowledge and learning at work can act as a barrier to thriving and can result in hindering psychological safety. 
  • Allow job crafting  were possible – This is how individuals redesign or adapt what they do at work. As humans we react to being given control over seemingly small matters and within the current context of COVID-19, where so much has been out of our control, promoting job crafting could have a significant positive impact. It is allowing employees to influence what tasks they do and do not perform, how they perform them, what additional activities they may take on or who they interact with. Each of these amendments is done in a way that is more beneficial to the individual which has the potential to increase job satisfaction and motivation at work.  

At WPG we work in partnership with clients to apply the latest thinking in organisational psychology to develop people focussed solutions that contribute to organisational success

We are thought leaders in virtual/digital selection & assessment in high stakes contexts in the UK, and in global healthcare markets.   

We regularly blog about issues relating to psychology at workAnd often share ‘top tips’ and best practices.  

So why not subscribe to our quarterly newsletter to keep up to date with the world of organisational psychology?