It is understood that within companies today that Health and Safety is a critical component of all workplaces and over the last 10 years mental health wellbeing and psychological safety in the workplace has become an important issue. During the last year of Covid, although many people were working from home and therefore many physical office health and safety aspects were not applicable, so emotional and mental health became more important.
As part of this understanding, psychological safety within the workplace has become a concept that is being talked about. So, just like when somebody is using a machine, one needs to make sure that the right safety features are in place, so too when one is working, especially working from home where we often lack the various advantages that come from having meetings with people face to face, we need to make sure that the psychological health of people is maintained.
Psychological health is in essence the ability for any workers to feel that they are not going to be attacked, hurt emotionally or psychologically due to their interactions with other staff members, whether or not they be line managers, colleagues or reportees.
It is essential at this juncture to mention that providing psychological safety has got nothing to do with people receiving the appropriate critique for their work nor has it got anything to do with people being let go or made redundant for appropriate reasons.
An accurate analogy could be attempting to climb a mountain. One would want to make sure that any attempt is as safe as possible, equipment is checked, not to climb when ill, climbing whilst knowing one’s limitations and understanding when to give up etc.
By making it safe though does not in any way mean that everyone will be able to climb the mountain nor does it mean that they will not be able to.
However, what it does mean is that they will not get hurt or worse by attempting to climb this mountain.
Within the workplace, the list below shows most of the major components of providing a psychologically safe environment, although this is not an exhaustive list.
People are always treated respectfully and politely with no raised voices or verbal abuse.
That there is a safe place to express upset or concern with any other members of the organisation.
There is an appropriate process for receiving criticism of either one’s work or attitude.
There is an open and transparent way to deal with any complaints.
There is a code of conduct at work either explicit or implicit.
That there is appropriate support to deal with any psychological-emotional issues.
There is training to deal with any significant emotional psychological in difficult situations e.g. within customer support.
Appropriate diversity and discrimination policies in the workplace.
There has been and I am sure that there will continue to be for many years the discussion about the purpose of work. There is one opinion that seems to be especially strong in certain parts of America which is that businesses are there for one reason and one reason only, which is to produce profit for the shareholders. Everything else, as long as it is legal, needs to be sacrificed for the goal of achieving the highest possible profits. The argument is that by producing the most effective and efficient workplace money and the capitalist system will achieve the best workplace.
There are many arguments against this particular monosyllabic approach which enriches very few people at the wealthiest edges of society and causes workplaces to be less meaningful than they could otherwise be, although they create short term additional profit. In the long term, many staff will not remain loyal to the organisation and will want to leave which will lead to deficiencies in later years. It has also been suggested by writers like Piketty that the Gini coefficient (a measurement between the wealthiest and poorest individuals in society) becomes larger through this singular focus on profits and thus causes significant social unrest which enduring can make society less stable and thus in the long-term less profitable.
A more complex understanding of the role of organisations and business is that although they are in theory to serve the shareholders there are other stakeholders in the business that also need to be looked after and valued. This includes staff members, clients and people impacted by the work the company does, e.g. the work that a steel mill might have on pollution in the surrounding areas.
Many companies have not just a single bottom line i.e. the amount of profit that is made by the company but a double or triple bottom line company which includes not just increasing the financial value of a company but also increasing the social value of the company and for the third bottom line increasing the overall value of the world as a whole.
For the purpose of this article, we will assume that the second bottom line i.e. that of creating social value for the employees, staff members and any other stakeholders in the business is important to improve. The first argument is that it is important to improve because that will have a long term drive and increased financial value to the company and increased profit in the long term. The second reason is that it is ethically right for both the individual and society to try and care about each other and that human beings both individually and in groups need to look after themselves and the planet otherwise it is possible that in the next 50 years we could continue to contribute to the deterioration of society as we know it through not taking the right actions to care about the collective rather than just the individual.
Evolutionary psychologists have understood that evolution implanted within our genes that some of us make sacrifices for the collective. If we didn’t have that in many of us, it is highly unlikely that human beings would have achieved what we have or perhaps even survived. The ability to sometimes put one’s own needs aside and prioritise the collective is essential for the success of both individual groups and humans as a whole.
Within this perspective there is an increase in social value i.e. that the experience of individual stakeholders across the organisation is stored and improved, one of the basic requirements for this is psychological safety. Thus, this article is arguing that both for the financial bottom line and the social value bottom line it is imperative for all organisations to implement guidelines and values that create an appropriate level of psychological safety.