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Building Psychological Safety: A Foundation for Employee Well-being

Updated: May 26, 2023

In today's rapidly changing environment, fostering a culture of psychological safety has been identified as a critical factor in promoting employee well-being. Psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals feel safe to express themselves, share their ideas, and take interpersonal risks without fear of negative consequences. By creating this foundation of psychological safety, organizations can significantly enhance employee well-being, leading to improved mental health, job satisfaction, productivity, and overall organizational success.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety goes beyond physical safety and encompasses emotional well-being in the workplace. It involves cultivating an inclusive and supportive environment where employees feel respected, valued, and accepted for who they are. When employees perceive that their thoughts, opinions, and contributions are genuinely heard and respected, they are more likely to engage actively, collaborate, and take risks without the fear of ridicule, rejection, or retaliation.

Google's well-known Aristotle Project conducted extensive research on team performance and found that psychological safety was the most important factor in determining high-performing teams. Teams with high psychological safety had members who felt comfortable taking risks, sharing ideas, and speaking up, leading to improved collaboration, innovation, and overall well-being.

The Impact on Employee Well-being and Engagement

Extensive academic literature on psychological safety has demonstrated its positive association with learning, performance and employee well-being. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are less likely to experience burnout and more likely to be engaged in their work. The following are some of the key benefits of cultivating psychological safety amongst teams and the broader company culture:

Promotes Mental Health

Psychological safety plays a crucial role in protecting and promoting employee mental health. When employees feel safe to share their challenges, stressors, and emotions without judgment, they can seek support and receive the help they need. This open and non-judgmental environment fosters a sense of belonging and reduces the stigma associated with mental health issues, encouraging early intervention and support.

Positively Impacts Job Satisfaction

Creating a psychologically safe workplace empowers employees to voice their concerns, provide feedback, and actively participate in decision-making processes. When employees perceive that their opinions matter and their contributions are valued, their job satisfaction increases. They experience a sense of autonomy, control, and fulfillment, leading to higher levels of motivation, engagement, and loyalty.

Improves Collaboration, Creativity and Innovation

Psychological safety encourages collaboration and teamwork by creating an atmosphere where individuals feel comfortable exchanging ideas, challenging the status quo, and engaging in constructive debates. When employees feel safe to take interpersonal risks and express diverse perspectives, innovation and creativity increases. This dynamic fosters a culture of continuous learning, adaptability, and resilience.

Supports Work-Life Integration

A psychologically safe workplace recognizes the importance of work-life integration and supports employees' well-being beyond their professional roles. When employees feel safe to communicate their needs for flexible working arrangements, time off, or personal commitments, organizations can establish practices and policies that prioritize employee well-being. This approach contributes to reduced stress, burnout, and turnover rates.

Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety

Cultivating psychological safety requires an ongoing collective effort from leaders, managers and employees at all levels of the organization. Here are key strategies to foster a culture of psychological safety:

Lead by Example

Leaders must demonstrate vulnerability, openness, and authenticity. By sharing their own mistakes and learning experiences, leaders create an environment that encourages others to take risks and be themselves. It is also important for leaders to audit their own fears and behaviors, reflecting on when they speak up or hold back from doing so to better understand the current climate of the organization.

Active Empathetic Listening

Encourage Active Empathetic Listening and respect in all interactions. Foster a culture where everyone feels heard and understood, and differences are valued. AEL is a skill that can be applied during any conversation whether communicating in-person or remotely and when used, has been shown to reduce stress, improve interpersonal relationships and enhance group interactions.

Provide Psychological Safety Training

Give employees access to training programs that help employees understand the concept of psychological safety and provide practical tools for inclusive leadership, effective communication, conflict resolution, and constructive feedback. When Psychological Safety Training can be done as a team, it is very effective since it helps all members to align on desired behaviors and expectations and gives them the opportunity to agree on a plan moving forward.

Encourage Behaviors That Promote Psychological Safety

Develop rituals or practices that foster psychological safety, such as regular team check-ins, peer recognition, and celebrating diverse perspectives and contributions. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the authors mention the importance of over-indexing on appreciation when others speak up to share their ideas or a differing perspective. They say to thank them publicly, privately, often and with sincerity and to ensure that employees are being rewarded for behaviors that contribute to feelings of inclusivity and safety.

Psychological Safety and Remote Teams

Remote work can pose some challenges to maintaining psychological safety, as it can be more difficult to build and maintain relationships and trust when people are not physically in the same space. However, when individual and team interactions are approached with thoughtfulness and intention, psychological safety can be fostered to create high performing and healthy remote teams. In addition to the recommendations mentioned in the previous section, the following strategies become even more important when working remotely.

Establish Clear Expectations and Norms for Communication

In a remote work environment it is important for the team to align on expectations and norms for communication. For example, what are the expectations around having cameras on during meetings? or what is the turnaround time for responding to messages? It is also advantageous for the group to decide on how and when to use certain communication channels and who to include in the various discussions that take place throughout the workday. This reduces the chance of team members feeling excluded from conversations or overwhelmed by too much communication.

Engaging Check-ins and Feedback Conversations

When employees work remotely it is not uncommon for them to feel like they are having less of an impact than when they were working in-person because there are less opportunities for informal conversations and interactions where they receive recognition or praise for their work. Two things become important to ensure employees feel that they matter: 1) Take the time to provide feedback to your direct reports and acknowledge and recognize the work they are doing and 2) Mentor employees on how to solicit feedback from their colleagues so they are not left wondering about their performance or impact which can negatively impact well-being and confidence over time.

Create Opportunities for Social connection and Collaboration

One study found that full-time remote work was found to increase loneliness by 67% when compared to in-office work, making a focus on social connection of utmost importance for remote teams. Teams that have been successful fostering connection remotely, regularly engage in social gatherings online: playing games, sharing playlists and resource recommendations, and hosting movie or book clubs. They also gather in-person regularly for team off-sites and other learning experiences.

Cultivating a culture that is comprised of help-seeking and help-giving has also been shown to increase connection and employee well-being. It is important to make it easier for people to ask for help when they need it and to reward both those that seek and give help. Create opportunities for others to discuss what they are struggling with and ask for advice and allow the team time to collaborate and brainstorm ways to help.

In conclusion, building psychological safety is a fundamental component of creating a supportive and healthy work environment. By nurturing psychological safety, organizations lay a strong foundation for employee well-being, leading to enhanced mental health, job satisfaction, collaboration, and innovation.


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