Psychological safety in the workplace - employers must consider diverse employee needs

Organizations need to take an holistic approach to psychological safety in the workplace and consider the unique lived experiences of a variety of demographics

Psychological safety in the workplace - employers must consider diverse employee needs
Grace Ewles, director, HR research & advisory services, McLean & Company

As the employee experience continues to be a key focus for organizations and employees alike, the traditional singular focus on physical safety in the workplace is no longer sufficient to meet employee expectations. In the future of work, organizations are increasingly expected to ensure that psychological safety is as integral a component to employee wellbeing as its physical counterpart. However, not every employee experiences psychological safety in the same way.  

“When we talk about psychological safety, it's really about how we create an environment where every employee feels safe and supported, says Grace Ewles, director, HR research and advisory services at McLean & Company. “Psychological safety is the feeling of being able to speak up, to take risks, and be yourself within the organization without fear of negative consequences.” 

Ewles says organizations need to look at psychological safety in the workplace through a systemic lens and examine organizational norms and values, leadership behaviours, and formal processes and procedures and policies.  

An evolution of health and safety at work 

“This is an evolution in the conversation around health and safety at work,” she says. “This includes expanding on traditional approaches to include the physical, the emotional, the social, and the psychological aspects of the work environment. So, similar to exploring the physical implications of work and aiming to minimize risk, organizations can also explore the mental and psychological impacts of work as well. A holistic approach recognizes the different facets of health as critical components of employees’ overall health and well being and, ultimately, the goal is to prevent harm in the workplace – whether that be physical, emotional, or psychological – and to promote employee health. Employers can create an environment where individuals feel safe to contribute, to challenge ideas, to be creative, and to foster innovation.” 

To determine if psychological safety is an issue within their organization, employers can look at a variety of indicators.  

“One of the key indicators for a lack of psychological safety is silence. If the employer asks for feedback or input from employees, whether that be in a small team setting or a larger company wide meeting, silence is an indicator that employees do not feel safe speaking up. 

“Organizations can also leverage available data. For example, do they see themes or trends related to psychological safety within available engagement data, health and safety metrics, or exit feedback? As well, are there low participation rates in employee surveys or feedback channels to begin with? In addition to data, organizations can also look for behavioural indicators across the organization. Indicators of a lack of psychological safety include things like silencing behaviours, incidents of discrimination or harassment, and a norm around blaming others for mistakes.” 

Support guide offers steps to foster psychological safety 

To equip HR and people leaders focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion with the tools to adapt their approach to fostering psychological safety to meet unique employee needs, McLean & Company has released a support guide, Primer: Psychological Safety in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Sessions.  

Successfully creating psychological safety through an inclusive lens ensures all employees experience the ability to speak up, take risks, and be their authentic selves without the fear of negative consequences, regardless of demographics or personal lived experiences. Building a psychologically safe workplace that prioritizes inclusion requires ongoing commitment from key players, including organizational leaders, people leaders, and HR. 

To support leaders in creating psychological safety in DEI sessions and leading with inclusion in mind, the firm has created an overview of each stage of psychological safety, adapted from Timothy Clark's Four Stages of Psychological Safety. Additionally, the primer includes practical sample tactics for the elements of psychological safety – organizational norms, leadership behaviours, and artifacts – that can be applied at each stage. 

The four stages of psychological safety, adapted from Timothy Clark, consist of: 

  1. Inclusion – Employees feel like they belong and are appreciated for being themselves 

  1. Learning – Employees feel safe participating in the learning experience 

  1. Contributing – Employees feel safe using their skills, making a difference, and participating 

  1. Challenging – Employees feel safe speaking up and challenging the status quo 

McLean & Company has organized the elements of psychological safety at work into concise categories that need to be aligned consistently to foster safety. These elements are: 

  1. Organizational norms – Shared standards of acceptable behaviour that are socially enforced and guide all interactions across the organization. For example, establishing ground rules for DEI sessions where people share their personal experiences. 

  1. Leadership behaviours – Actions, values, and characteristics that leaders incorporate to motivate their team and achieve their goals. This may look like practicing grace and humility by apologizing for mistakes rather than acting defensively. 

  1. Artifacts – The organization's processes, policies, and procedures, such as introducing and consistently reinforcing an anti-discrimination policy. 

The primer is a component of the firm's broader Introduction to Psychological Safety for HR resource. 

Ewles says employers should utilize every opportunity to communicate their commitment to psychological safety and the overall well-being of employees as part of the employer brand.  

“Rather than leaving it to employees to observe and infer on their own, how does the employer communicate the value of psychological safety from day one? Employers can be intentional about how they're communicating their values around this topic and reinforce it from that first experience with a new employee. 

“Psychological safety highlights the importance of shifting perspectives to look at the organization more broadly in terms of the way they do things and the work itself to support employee health and well being in a broader sense.”