How to Create a Psychologically Safe Environment at Work

  • Health & Safety
man looking overwhelmed by work obligations
Michelle Ann Zoleta

Michelle Ann Zoleta, Health & Safety Team Manager

(Last updated )

The health, safety, and wellbeing of employees in the workplace is critical to the overall operations of a business. Often time, however, not enough emphasis is placed on psychological safety. The Mental Health Commission of Canada reported that in any given week 500,000 Canadians miss work due to psychological health issues. Some of which include excessive workload and harassment.

The Canadian Centre of Occupational Health & Safety also reported that psychological health problems cost the Canadian economy $20 billion resulting from work-related causes.

According to the Health & Safety Legislation in Canada, employers are responsible for creating a safe space at work where employees can be at peace and feel their most productive.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be ridiculed or punished for asking questions, voicing concerns, or speaking up with ideas in the workplace.

What is the Canadian Safety Association standard for psychological safety?

According to the CSA Standard Z1003-13 (R2018), "Psychological health and safety in the workplace - Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation" defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as a “workplace that promotes workers' psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.” 

Psychological safety can present on different levels – high psychological safety, moderate psychological safety, and low psychological safety – which will each impact your team’s performance.

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership, found that teams with higher levels of psychological safety reported higher levels of performance and lower levels of interpersonal conflict. While the opposite was true for teams with low levels of psychological safety.

Is psychological safety the same thing as mental health?

Not exactly. Mental health deals with a much broader set of concerns – our emotional, social, and psychological well-being and how our thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted. However, low psychological safety in the workplace can have a direct impact on employees’ mental health including:

A lack of psychological safety within the workplace can present much larger psychological hazards. A psychological hazard assessment highlighting the areas of concern must be done to determine the state of psychological health and safety in the workplace. 

How are psychological hazards assessed?

Assessments are typically done using three methods:

  1. Reviewing available internal data: complaint reports, absenteeism and turnover rates, and resource usage rates.
  2.  Auditing existing workplace structures related to mental health including policies and procedures, training programs, management practices, workplace supports, and job descriptions.
  3.  Gathering feedback within the workplace through conversations, observations, group discussions, anonymous forms, and surveys.

To get the best results, it is recommended that you use more than one of the methods listed above. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety provides a checklist for psychological hazards for employers.

Sample Checklist for Psychological Hazards

Area of concern Examples Follow-up Suggested? (Yes/No)
Pace of work
  • Discussion observation of work scheduling issues
  • Workload (too much/too little)
  • Observing actions including rushing to complete tasks or taking shortcuts.
  • Hours of work.
  • Feeling or looking tired.
Conflicting demands      

  • Observation or discussions resulting in workers feeling confused or overwhelmed or not knowing what to prioritize.
  • Comments about little or no participation in decision making.

Hours of work

  • Working extra time (paid or unpaid) to complete work: through breaks or lunch, after or before scheduled hours, etc.
Work environment
  • Issues that interrupt concentration are mentioned: ergonomic set up, indoor air quality, noise, etc.
Working in conflict with others
  • Workers feeling intimidated, uncomfortable, or even scared of interacting with other employees.
Working in social isolation
  • Comments about communication or function/dysfunction within the team.
Working alone
  • Concerns about communication methods or fear for safety.
Poor communication
  • Feeling left out, lack of feedback, no response, receiving only negative comments, etc.
Relating to management, policies, organization of work, etc.
  • Comments that suggest innapropiate or unfair decisions around work policies and rules
  • Lack of opportunities for training, promotions, and professional growth
  • Comments regarding uncertainty of the individual's role

The findings should be shared among management and changes put in place to ensure the best outcome for all involved.

How do you create a psychologically safe workplace?

1.       Make psychological safety a priority

This goes for your entire organization, not just top management. Speak with your employees about the importance of psychological safety and work as a team to foster a psychologically safe environment.

2.       Encourage workers to speak up and promote open dialogue

Give workers the freedom to speak about issues in the workplace to help foster growth and positive change. Remain open to feedback and willing to listen.

3.       Create a safe space to birth ideas

Remain respectful of your employees’ ideas, even those you may not necessarily agree with. Showing support and leaving the floor open for employees to voice their ideas will help foster innovation within your organization.

4.       Establish a health relationship with failures

Encourage learning from failures and reasonable risk-taking, without the fear of punishment.

5.       Celebrate wins

Employees love being celebrated and knowing their efforts are appreciated. Take time out to acknowledge and celebrate individual and team wins.

Employers should engage their employees at all levels of their business – including board of directors, management, HR, and their health & safety committee - to encourage open communication regarding mental health and psychological safety.

Psychological safety is necessary for a healthy, functional work environment, to ensure your employees and your business thrives.

Do you need help creating a psychological safety plan for your workplace?

Protect your employees from psychological hazards and your company from avoidable fines. Whether you need assistance developing company policies, have an HR or health & safety query or are struggling with an employee issue – Peninsula can help.

We will help you streamline your processes, update policies and workplace documentation, and ensure you are compliant with labour laws and protected from litigation. We have a team of consultants available 24/7 via telephone to answer all your queries. We also offer a smart HR software to make your daily HR and OHS tasks quick and convenient.

To learn more about how our services can benefit your business, call an expert today at 1 (833) 247-3652.

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