Talent Management | What is a psychologically safe workplace and how does it help you retain talent?

What is a psychologically safe workplace and how does it help you retain talent?
What is a psychologically safe workplace and how does it help you retain talent?

By Fiona Thompson, Writer for Kooth Work

As the Great Resignation continues unabated, mental health support is fast gaining currency in the battle to retain and attract talent.

Rates of workplace burnout, depression, and anxiety are at an all time high, and we are starting to see the serious implications of this on the workforce.

Deloitte’s latest annual mental health report found that 28% of employees had left or planned to leave their jobs, with 61% citing poor mental health as the reason for leaving.

Against this backdrop, HR teams have the tricky challenge of attracting and retaining talent, while knowing that burnout and mental exhaustion are driving demand for meaningful mental health support at work.

One of the ideas that’s gaining traction as a way to retain people is psychological safety in the workplace.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace will help you attract and retain talent

Where does “psychological safety” come from?

The theory of psychological safety has been around since the 1960s but became more prominent in the 1990s. In 1999, Dr Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School defined psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”.

Interestingly, as part of her research, Dr Edmondson discovered that teams that admitted their mistakes were likely to perform better than those that covered them up.

Why is psychological safety so important now?

According to Dr Hannah Wilson, Head of Clinical Governance & Clinical Psychology Lead at Kooth Work, “At any time, people’s psychological safety at work is important. But the mental health of the nation has been impacted by the pandemic, and this is having an additional effect on levels of sickness, productivity, and commitment.”

She adds: “Anything we can do to reduce and mitigate the impact of these feelings of being under psychological threat will have a positive effect both on individuals and workplaces.”

Priorities have changed

Another factor that has come into play is that many people’s work priorities have changed. “Employees are realising the importance of things like wellbeing, feeling valued, and feeling safe,” says Dr Wilson. “Before COVID-19, they might have put up with feeling miserable. Now, they expect workplaces to step up and take action, or they’ll move to another workplace that offers more support.”

5 questions to ask

Drawing on our experience of supporting employees’ wellbeing, here are five questions to ask that will help you determine whether your organisation is a place of psychological safety.

1. Is employees’ mental health and wellbeing at the heart of your company’s values?

A commitment to psychological safety must run through the whole organisation and be backed up with action.

To do this:

  • Create a “psychological safety” contract, where employees are clear on how you will support their mental health and what you expect from them in return.

  • Have Ambassadors of Change and key figureheads around the business who champion mental health and wellbeing.

  • Make wellbeing conversations part of performance reviews.

2. Are people free to ask questions and talk about their ideas, concerns, or mistakes?

If your organisation lacks a sense of psychological safety, people will be inhibited about speaking up, fearing a backlash if they share their ideas or concerns freely. Sometimes referred to as the ‘missing middle’, many may simply be continuing on despite needing support and feeling burnt out

“Leaders have an important role in helping to create a culture where people feel free to speak up,” says Dr Wilson. “They need to lead by example by admitting mistakes and sharing concerns. Ensure that everyone feels able to contribute by offering people different ways to raise concerns and give feedback. If you have a transparent process in place, people will feel more confident to speak their mind.”

3. Are people encouraged to learn from their mistakes?

One of the key principles of psychological safety is that everything is a learning opportunity. If something goes wrong, what can you learn from it, and how can you make sure that you do it better next time?

Dr Wilson: “Within reason, people shouldn’t be fired for putting one foot wrong. In a workplace that demonstrates psychological safety, people should feel able to make a mistake, own it, and learn from it.”

4. Do people engage in constructive conflict?

In any workplace, people will sometimes disagree. But in an organisation that values psychological safety, people will engage with each other openly and constructively in order to resolve their differences.

“So many people are afraid of conflict and just stay quiet,” says Dr Wilson. “But it’s an important part of psychological safety to acknowledge that we don’t have to agree all the time and are free to voice a difference of opinion. Either we will have a conversation about it and reach a compromise, or we will make an effort to understand why a particular decision has been made and agree to disagree.”

5. Do you offer effective mental health support to employees?

As well as doing things to promote a culture around wellbeing and psychological safety, organisations must look to include a range of formal mental health support options within the workplace.

Some organisations might identify a Wellbeing Lead who’s on hand to offer support to employees. Larger organisations might have the resources to employ Wellbeing Officers or to train people as Mental Health First Aiders who will have the skills and confidence to step in and support people in distress.

Some may also decide to invest in digital support, offering employees access to an online platform with a wide range of mental health tools, advice, and professional support, available as and when they need it. Stigma and shame in the workplace is one of the biggest barriers to people seeking support, and many employees view discussing mental health as having a high level of risk. Having a confidential, online service can help to increase these feelings of safety in the workplace, and encourage employees to access support much sooner.

Psychological safety: a fast track to standing out

The good news for HR teams is that providing a sense of psychological safety is now a good way to stand out in the marketplace. “We know that employees are not simply looking for the best salary,” says Dr Wilson. “They want the whole package. They want to feel nurtured, listened to, appreciated, and supported. It follows that psychological safety could be a way of giving your organisation an edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent.”

For more information on how to structure mental health support in your business to help attract and retain key talent, read the Guide to Beating the Great Resignation.

Download the Guide