Why a culture of psychological safety must be created for organisational wellbeing

In a post-pandemic world, a mental wellbeing programme is not a 'soft people-project'; it needs to occupy the same importance as business development or impact measurement.

Why a culture of psychological safety must be created for organisational wellbeing

Friday March 11, 2022,

5 min Read

We have entered 2022 with Omicron rapidly spreading around the world, and need to focus on long-term solutions for organisational wellbeing.

Traditional Employee Assistance Programs (optional therapy sessions) and stress management workshops are failing ‘band-aid’ models of workplace mental wellbeing initiatives. We need deep, internal change processes - not quick fix, easy-to-do solutions that have limited impact. Leadership teams need to prioritise cultural initiatives and awareness programmes to tackle deep-rooted mindsets and empower employees.

Invest in mental health not to 'increase productivity' but because it's your responsibility as an organization.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a belief and feeling that allows employees to feel safe at work in order to grow, learn, contribute, and perform effectively in a rapidly changing world.

The Google Aristotle Project researched hundreds of internal Google teams (over 51,000 employees) in 2014 to understand what constituted the most effective teams. Their results astonishingly put ‘psychological safety’ as the foundational aspect to the best performing teams.

The learnings from this path-breaking study are yet to be implemented at a large scale worldwide and we have an opportunity now to make a difference - given the emotional distress of the pandemic that’s impacting each one of us.

A lack of psychological safety manifests in multiple ways in our workplaces. Employees not asking clarifying questions, being silent when behaviours don't match company values, working overtime to meet unsaid expectations, and not feeling comfortable asking for leave when sick.

More examples include managers not trusting direct reports when working from home, peers not giving each other feedback in fear of conflict, and always needing to look 'busy'.

As the future of work moves to hybrid workplaces, psychological safety in organisations is critical to success. A team with high psychological safety inherently nurtures a culture of trust and wellbeing.

What's the relation to mental wellbeing?

Indians roughly spend 10-12 hours daily at work (including the mental workload when not at the office). If the environment at the office is not safe, the built-up stress flows into our lives daily and over years, this leads to intense emotional distress, burnout, and in some cases severe mental health issues.

This in turn leads to low organisational trust, disengagement and most importantly, employees not living to their full potential. Which cyclically leads to bad mental health again!

Creating a workplace with a culture of wellbeing built around psychological safety is incumbent on responsible leadership teams to enable each employee to thrive.

A mental wellbeing programme is not a 'soft people-project' but needs to occupy the same importance as business development or impact measurement.

A mental wellbeing culture built around psychological safety

Start by internalising that mental wellbeing is core to your organisational priorities and that it's a comprehensive journey of multiple different (and small) steps that include:

Building a champions team

Integral to the success of any sustainable mental wellbeing programme is a group of champions (volunteers) across hierarchy, genders, and departments. These are the guardians of the wellbeing vision and ensure all voices are heard.

Leadership walking the talk

Nothing inspires more than a leadership team acting as a collective and showing their humanity. Whether it's sharing personal challenges, asking tough questions of each other, allowing respectful dissent, being gentle on themselves, harmonising work-family, or even having clear boundaries.

Creating safe spaces with boundaries

Safe spaces in organisations can sometimes be highly toxic and can be misused. Co-creating the ethos of safe spaces with your team is critical and balancing empathy with accountability is hugely important.

Coaching line managers

Line managers need to develop their skills as first responders - to identify signs of mental distress and create emotionally healthy teams. Treating this as part of yearly L&D goals and incentivising empathetic managers is crucial.

Innovative communication channels

A journey of workshops with external experts is useful, but it's the internal communications within organisations that are game changers. These are the cultural elements that will remain in organisational memory.

Newsletters, storytelling, resource-sharing, channels, events, authentic letters from the leadership team etc are examples of innovative communication channels.

Inclusive policies

When you onboard new employees or schedule annual appraisals, are you creating a culture of psychological safety? Are your wellbeing policies truly meaningful to your employees? Are exceptional cases of mental illness covered? Does everyone in the organisation know what needs to be done in case of a mental health emergency? When HR teams create inclusive policies, these questions need to be answered.

When you take the time and effort to create a culture of psychological safety, you're leading the way as not many organisations are doing it today. It's a roller-coaster journey as you might discover difficult truths, but it's also a deeply meaningful journey that exponentially impacts your organisation.

The pandemic has (and will continue to over the next decade) surfaced massive emotional distress, so we need to act now. Be a responsible leader, take the plunge!

Edited by Teja Lele

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)