The last few years, where home-working and isolation have tested the mental health of employees of all levels has shown how important it is for organisations to have a psychological safety model in place.
We ask – what is psychological safety and how can we ensure psychological safety at work?
How to promote psychological safety at work
The home-working and isolation of lockdown during the pandemic brought home to everyone the importance of connecting with others – with social interaction at work an important element of that. Zoom calls and webinars were all very well, but they were poor compensation for physical presence, exchange of ideas and casual conversations around the coffee machine.
Little wonder, then, that in a Mental Health Foundation study in November 2020, a quarter of people admitted they had felt lonely in the previous two weeks.
However, lockdown also highlighted the fact that the best way of overcoming loneliness is to help other people. The study reported that more than 60% of respondents said being kind to others or receiving kindness had had a positive impact on their mental health.
It is all rooted in hormonal responses to such actions. Indeed, research shows that giving to others produces a greater rush of endorphins than being the recipient. So, there is a neuro-chemically based rationale for altruistic behaviour, creating an upward spiral of compassion, as it means helping those in need, which pays dividends for yourself and creating social connection.
What is the psychological safety model?
When we look specifically at the benefits for mental health of working together, one great concept is the notion of ‘psychological safety,’ a term coined by the Harvard-based organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson.
Psychological safety means the members of a team at work believe they are safe to ‘take inter-personal risks,’ so they can be themselves, offer suggestions and, importantly, make mistakes and learn from them without fear of negative repercussions.
The result is higher performance. When Google tested the idea across a range of cultures and countries, it found that teams with higher psychological safety outperformed their target by an average of 17%, while those with low levels of psychological safety underperformed by 19% on average. Interestingly, when Edmondson started out on her research in the 1990s, she began from the hypothesis that higher-achieving teams would make fewer mistakes than low achievers.
However, the opposite turned out to be the case: high-achieving teams made more mistakes than their under-achieving peers, but there was no reason for the high-achieving team members to try to cover up their gaffs for fear of recrimination. Instead, the successful teams turned errors to advantage by learning from them, and then moved briskly on to try another idea or approach with more knowledge under their belt.
Working in such a way not only clearly benefits the organisation through enhanced productivity, but it also ‘permits’ individual team members to take initiatives and make suggestions without fear of time-wasting or looking foolish. It is not difficult to see the links between greater psychological safety and lower levels of stress, a more supportive, empathetic environment and better mental health. In the fourth and final module of our digital workplace mental health training course, we explore these and lots of other practical ideas for increasing engagement at work.
More than that, we provide pointers to help you seize the moment and embed greater mental wellbeing awareness in the fabric of your organisation – not only looking after yourself and being alert to warning signs that all may not be well with others but enabling others to do the same. Grassroots change really can smash the stigma of mental health issues!
High psychological safety equals high performance
Teams with higher psychological safety outperformed their target by an average of 17%.
Teams with low levels of psychological safety underperformed by 19% on average.