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Why Fostering Psychological Safety Minimizes Psychosocial Hazards

BY Michelle McQuaid

With the levels of burnout for workers continuing to pose a significant challenge for most workplaces, new research suggests that fostering psychological safety – the belief that talking openly and honestly is valued at work – can help address this workplace risk.

“Workers who believe it is safe to speak up are more likely to help leaders and workplaces quickly identify the psychosocial – emotional and social – hazards that put them at risk of burnout,” explained Dr Paige Williams, co-founder of The Leaders Lab and one of the partners in the new research. “The presence of psychological safety doesn’t magically resolve the hazards – for that effective workplace controls need to be put in place and monitored – but feeling safe to talk about problems and challenges does seem to help minimize the risks.”

For example, the study of more than 1,000 randomly selected Australian workers found that workers who reported high levels of psychological safety were more likely to report fewer experiences of psychosocial – social and emotional – hazards over the past two weeks of:

  • Work design hazards including lack of role clarity, unachievable job demands, low job control, and inadequate reward and recognition.
  • Social support hazards including poor supervisor support, poor workplace relationships, bullying, and harassment.
  • Work condition hazards including poor change management, poor physical environment, remote work, and isolated work.
  • Work experience hazards including poor organizational justice, violent and aggressive behaviors, and traumatic experiences.

This finding is consistent with data gathered from a separate randomly selected sample of more than 1,000 Australian workers during 2022. 

Why might this be the case?

Psychological safety can help to buffer us from psychosocial hazards – social and emotional hazards – at work by making it easier to be open with each other and talk about the risks we are encountering and how they can be navigated,” explained Dr. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School and the author of The Right Kind Of Wrong, when we interviewed her recently. “It allows us to share our perspectives about what is creating the hazards and work together to minimize or eliminate them.” 

Studies have found that when we treat each other with respect and care it calms our brain’s threat system and lights up our reward system. This releases more of the calming hormone oxytocin which makes us more empathetic, trusting, co-operative and forgiving, and reduces our levels of anxiety and stress.

Unfortunately, only 18.6% of the 1,000 randomly selected workers who were surveyed reported currently having high levels of psychological safety. 

New psychosocial safety codes (e.g. ISO 45003) and in some places local legislation require workplaces to educate and consult their workers on how to identify and minimize psychosocial hazards. The researchers suggest that one way they’ve found it helpful to foster a greater level of psychological safety is to teach leaders and teams to have a Safety Check Chat by asking:

  • What’s working well? – This question builds understanding, confidence, and appreciation for how a team is already working to minimize psychosocial risks and surfaces the strengths they can build upon.
  • Where are we struggling? – This question makes it safer to speak up and candidly discuss psychosocial risks people may be experiencing. It helps to normalize that every job involves some psychosocial hazards that we struggle with at different times.
  • What are we learning? – This question reminds a team they are never “won-and-done” when it comes to building a culture of safety and care. It is a team’s ability to continue learning and caring for safety together that ultimately minimizes risks.
  • What do we want to try next? – This question helps to clarify the next steps a workplace, leader, and team will take accountability for owning to minimize any psychosocial risks that have been identified and how these efforts will be monitored.

 How is your workplace fostering psychological safety?

To learn more about the study visit: www.theleaderslab.net/2023research.

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