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The Psychosocial Safety Gap Most Workplaces Are In Danger Of Missing

BY Michelle McQuaid

How is your workplace measuring the psychosocial (emotional and social) safety of your people and teams? The reality is that every job involves some psychosocial hazards that have the potential to harm people due to deficiencies in the design, organization, and management of our work or a poor social context. So, how can these hazards and their impact on people’s wellbeing be accurately assessed?

New workplace codes (e.g., ISO 45003) and in some places local legislation provide a long list of psychosocial hazards they recommend workplaces monitor and report in a risk register. For example, unachievable job demands, lack of supervisor support, poor change management, bullying, and exposure to traumatic events and materials among many others.

“It’s important to note that a one-off experience does not mean that the employee is at risk of psychosocial harm,” explained Caitlin Ible, an employment law senior associate at MinterEllison, when we interviewed her recently. “The place to start when you’re assessing psychosocial risks is to determine the frequency, severity, and duration of the hazards your people are experiencing.”

But will just measuring the risks provide workplaces with enough data to effectively minimize or eliminate the hazards?

While identifying psychosocial risks in our workplaces is essential, this information alone sheds no insights into the most effective ways to minimize or eliminate the risks based on what works well in an organization. As Peter Drucker, one of the greatest scholars of leadership and management over the last century noted: “One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

For this reason, we recommend workplaces also monitor and report the workplace and leadership strengths they can build upon when it comes to navigating psychosocial risks. For example, people feeling safe to quickly speak up about hazards, frequent actions of care towards each other, and a culture of accountability, among many others.

So, will measuring both the psychosocial risks and the workplace and leadership strengths provide organizations with all the data they need to effectively minimize or eliminate the hazards?

When we gathered this data for more than 1,000 workers across all sorts of workplaces, we discovered that there was one more important safety risk that none of the codes or legislation addressed. For example, 92.5% of leaders reported they were often taking actions to minimize the risk of poor change management for their team, and yet 80.9% of team members reported that they were often experiencing this psychosocial hazard at work.

This “safety gap” between the support leaders were providing and the experience their team members were having was repeatedly reported across most of the psychosocial hazards. Sometimes the actions leaders were taking either weren’t frequent enough or were simply ineffective. Other times, the lack of personal, portable psychological safety among team members meant that it was unlikely anything the leader did would be enough.

Understanding if such a safety gap exists, and why, is essential for workplaces to quickly, affordably, and effective reduce psychosocial risks. We recommend workplaces assess:

  • Hazards – The frequency, severity, and duration of the psychosocial hazards your people may be encountering.
  • Strengths – The frequency and impact of the psychosocial support your leaders and workplace are providing.
  • Safety Gaps – Any gaps that exist between the support being provided by your leaders and workplace and the levels of psychosocial risk still be experiencing by your people, and what is causing these gaps.

How is your workplace taking a holistic approach to measuring psychosocial safety?

If you’d like to measure your leadership approach to psychosocial safety, try our free five-minute survey at www.theleaderslab.net/leadershipsurvey

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