Last updated 17 May, 2023

Psychological safety at work – what you need to know

Safety is a top priority in the workplace. Over the last three years, as we were forced to shift our focus internally, we’ve become more aware of the need to protect not only our physical health, but also our psychological wellbeing. 

With many people now permanently working in hybrid roles, the lines between work and home are becoming more blurred. The unique challenges that WFH arrangements bring for both employers and employees have contributed to our increased levels of workplace stress; and there’s a growing recognition of the negative impact this stress and the many psychosocial risks we face at work are having on our mental and emotional health. 

The recently published Psychosocial Hazards At Work Code of Practice that came into effect in Australia on April 1, 2023 has put a spotlight on managing psychosocial hazards to ensure psychological safety in the workplace. It’s an important step in helping organisations and employees keep workplaces safe, healthy and productive.

So, what exactly are psychosocial hazards?

Basically, a ‘psychosocial hazard’ is any work environment or workplace interaction or behaviour that may cause psychological injury (i.e., harm someone’s mental health and emotional wellbeing) with or without physical injury.

Typically, psychosocial hazards create stress, reducing our ability to cope and perform. While stress itself is not an injury, it can cause harm when it happens frequently or over a long time, or is severe.

Psychological harm resulting from psychosocial hazards includes anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and PTSD; and, according to SafeWork Australia, “work-related psychological injuries have longer recovery times, higher costs, and require more time away from work [than physical harm].” 

Common psychosocial hazards:

  • Poor organisational change management

  • Remote or isolated work

  • High job demands

  • Poor work-life boundaries

  • Inadequate employee support

  • Low recognition or reward

  • Conflict, or poor workplace relationships

  • Bullying, discrimination and/or harassment (including sexual harassment)

What does ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace mean?

The term ’psychological safety’ was first coined in 1999 by Harvard professor Dr Amy Edmondson, who describes it as “the absence of interpersonal fear.” Where fear is present – be that fear of humiliation, harassment, discrimination, or making a mistake, for example – employees become afraid to speak up and share their ideas. Over time, creativity becomes stifled and trust breaks down, which leads to a toxic culture.

On the flip side, psychological safety at work therefore refers to an environment in which employees feel included; valued; and safe to learn, take risks, and express themselves without fear

Benefits of psychological safety in the workplace:

Psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces are more productive and innovative, and more likely to engage and retain employees. According to the Diversity Council Australia, people who work in a safe and inclusive culture are:

  • 5 times more likely to innovate to solve problems;

  • 5 times more likely to be very satisfied with their job; and 

  • 3 times less likely to leave their employer.

Work-related psychological injury, on the other hand, is expensive – it’s estimated to cost Australian organisations $6 billion a year in lost productivity. 

Signs that psychological safety is lacking in your workplace

  • Lack of diversity

  • Low employee morale 

  • Poor communication, especially during times of change

  • Non-functional feedback loops 

  • No system for anonymous reporting 

  • Little support for employee growth

  • High staff turnover 

  • Absence of boundaries 

  • No room to make mistakes

  • Lack of trust among colleagues

  • No action against bullying and/or harassment

How to create psychological safety in the workplace

Psychological safety is a shared responsibility. It requires positive action across all levels of the organisation, and takes sustained effort. For more information on steps organisations can take to manage psychosocial risks and support the psychological safety of employees, see below.

9 key actions for leaders & managers to create psychological safety:

1. Be authentic and lead by example – let go of ego, admit to your own mistakes, and be open to honest feedback.

2. Welcome curiosity and encourage learning – support your team to view mistakes as opportunities to grow; create space for sharing new ideas.

3. Foster a sense of belonging – be compassionate; give every team member a voice, and be willing to listen when someone is brave enough to speak up; ask for your team’s input when you’re making decisions.

4. Don’t share in office gossip, or play the ‘blame game’ – instead, adopt a neutral, collaborative mindset.

5. Always champion your team; make an effort to recognise individual employees’ efforts and achievements.

6. Be an effective communicator, especially during times of change – be clear, consistent, positive and inclusive.

7. Set clear boundaries around standards of behaviour, and expectations; and make sure you honour those boundaries, too (no more texting or calling employees outside of their agreed work hours!). 

8. Embrace diversity – not only in your hiring practices, but also through encouraging employees to set up employee networks, and creating opportunities to celebrate cultural holidays and other significant events.  

9. Provide appropriate wellbeing support for employees who’ve suffered psychological  harm.

Protect your own psychological wellbeing 

As an employee, you must actively participate in creating a safe and inclusive workplace. Ensure your actions (or lack of action) don’t harm others; and always raise any concerns you may have as soon as possible, and by following organisational procedure. You should also take reasonable care of your own work health and safety, including your psychological wellbeing. 

Here are a few ways you can keep yourself psychologically safe at work:

#1. Identify the source of stress. 

Find yourself feeling stressed at work? It’s important to identify the source of your worry, tension or discomfort. This can be anything from working long hours, unrealistic expectations from your boss, or dealing with a difficult colleague. Once you know what (or who) is causing you to experience stress, you can start taking action to reduce the negative impact on your wellbeing.

#2. Set firm boundaries. 

High job demands and unhealthy boundaries are common psychosocial hazards, and overworking is a major cause of workplace stress. Don’t take on more work that you can handle; be firm in your boundaries; and consciously work towards establishing a better work-life balance. 

If you do find yourself glued to your computer or overwhelmed by a long to-do list, take regular breaks during your workday – this can be anything from enjoying a coffee break with a colleague, walking around the block, or spending a few minutes meditating. These mini-breaks are essential for dialling down your stress levels, and protecting your mental health in the long term.

#3. Reframe your mindset.

No matter how tough things get, keeping a positive mindset in the workplace will make daily work life better for you and your colleagues. Rather than dwell on the negatives, focus on the good aspects of your job, such as your personal achievements or your team’s successes. To help boost your positivity, clarify expectations, avoid comparing yourself to others, and set realistic goals.  

#4. Stay connected. 

We are, by nature, social creatures and staying connected with others is one of the best ways to protect both our psychological and physical health. However, remote working or a toxic work culture can put a spanner in the works, exacerbating feelings of isolation and exclusion. 

Don’t just keep scrolling through social media – stay connected by seeking company from co-workers, friends and family. It can also help to join an employee resource group at work; or talk to a mental wellbeing professional, who can guide you through ways to overcome loneliness and build stronger connections

#5. Get moving.

We all know by now that exercise is good for our physical wellbeing, but staying active also supports a healthy mind. Research shows regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression, lifts your mood, builds self-esteem, and increases mental alertness. The good news is you don’t have to run a marathon to reap the benefits.

The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines suggest you aim to be active on most days, doing at least 2.5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity each week – that includes activities such as taking a brisk walk, swimming, playing golf, or mowing the lawn. Choosing activities you enjoy will keep you motivated, and including incidental exercise will go a long way towards reaching your activity goals.

#6. Speak up. 

Sometimes, it is hard to speak up for yourself or others. However, if you notice or experience any workplace misconduct or wrongdoing, remind yourself that you (and your colleagues) have a right to be safe in a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and bullying. Your employer also has a legal duty of care for your health and wellbeing while you’re at work.

Before you muster up courage to raise a concern with your manager or HR, it’s important to do your homework. Know your rights; make sure you have a good grasp of relevant company policies and complaints procedures, and understand which resources are available to employees. Stick to the facts, be clear and direct in your communication and, no matter how upset you feel, keep negative emotion out of it. Don’t forget to document your discussion in case you need to take matters further.

#7. Seek professional support. 

Experiencing psychosocial hazards in the workplace can take a serious toll on your wellbeing. If, despite your best efforts to adopt the above strategies, you find yourself feeling stressed, unsafe or, worse, psychologically injured, it’s time to seek professional support.  

Working with a coach will help you:

  • Identify stress triggers 

  • Develop coping techniques

  • Release your fear

  • Set healthy boundaries

  • Master your mindset

  • Communicate more effectively

  • Build stronger connections

Psychological safety in the workplace supports both your professional and personal growth. When you feel safe, you have a stronger sense of belonging, are more engaged and feel more motivated. You’re also better equipped to reach your full potential which, ultimately, means living a happier, more fulfilling life!

Need help to keep yourself psychologically safe at work?
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