A young woman with her head in her hands while sitting at a desk, showing a lack of psychological safety at work.
Image: © DimaBerlin/Stock.adobe.com

10 tips for employers to improve psychological safety at work

14 Jun 2022

Aclaimant’s Princess Castleberry discusses how easily a workplace can influence psychological safety and gives tips for making employees feel more comfortable.

Workers can expect a reasonable level of safety from their workplace and employers have a responsibility to provide that.

However, occupational health and safety can often be thought of in terms of physical safety, particularly in workplaces involving chemicals, heavy machinery or hardware. Employers might even think about how to ensure their staff are mentally healthy and not overworked or burned out.

But employers also have a duty of care when it comes to psychological safety at work. To find out more, SiliconRepublic.com heard from Princess Castleberry, interim head of people and wellness at risk management software company Aclaimant.

“Psychological safety is a person’s belief or feeling that they can be authentic and honest about their identities, ideas and actions without fear of negative consequences to their status, career or image in the workplace,” she explained.

“Even though it is influenced by one’s own mindset, psychological safety is largely governed by factors outside of one’s individual control.”

This means that while an employer can’t control an employee’s mindset, they can influence it through company culture, wellness and HR policies, diversity and inclusion strategies and leaders’ emotional intelligence.

These factors can have a positive or negative impact on an employee’s psychological safety. While every company is different, Castleberry shared 10 practical actions an employer can take to help build greater psychological safety at work.

1. Invest in wellness programmes

“Employee wellness and wellbeing are hallmarks of healthy, profitable organisations,” she said. “Invest in high-quality programmes and events and develop a programme that rewards internal wellness and culture champions.”

2. Seek employee feedback

Castleberry said feedback and ideas from employees is critical and this should be gathered from regular one-to-one meetings, team huddles and pulse surveys.

“Directly solicit the input of those that tend to be quiet. Be prepared to take action and communicate results on how their voices influence management decisions.”

3. Create risk management policies

As well as her role at Aclaimant, which creates workflow solutions to manage safety and risk, Castleberry is also the principal consultant at Castle Risk Management and HR Consulting.

She said creating and swiftly enforcing substantive risk and HR policies to combat microaggressions, bullying, harassment, demeaning sarcasm and retaliation is very important. “These behaviours must be dealt with immediately and enforceable at all levels, including the top.”

4. Measure leaders’ EQ

A lot of a company’s culture will come from the top, so a leader’s empathy and emotional intelligence can also play an important role in how psychologically safe employees feel.

“Use trusted assessments to benchmark leaders’ emotional intelligence and promote training and competency measures that improve self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management,” said Castleberry.

5. Ensure diverse representation

Diversity and inclusion have long been important parts of a healthy company culture, but equity must not be forgotten when looking at your teams.

“Examine the composition of your teams at all levels to determine what voices and perspectives are limited or missing,” said Castleberry. “People feel safest among allies, so diverse representation matters.”

6. Treat social issues equally

Castleberry also warned that when it comes to social crises, leaders must be prepared to respond to them all.

“Expending financial or publicly expressing emotional support for one crisis, then going radio silent on others, can alienate part of the workforce and erode a sense of belonging and psychological safety,” she said.

7. Bring in design thinking

Another way to build a psychologically safe environment is to ensure employees feel safe and free to express their ideas without criticism. In order to enable this, Castleberry suggests incorporating design thinking into problem-solving and innovation processes.

8. Consider accessibility

It’s also important that employers “consider the accessibility of information and systems to employees who are differently abled,” she noted.

9. Keep communication clear

One of the biggest elements of creating a feeling of psychological safety at work is open, clear communication channels.

“Clearly communicate strategic goals, avoid scapegoating, and provide ‘air cover’ when employees take risks, especially when they don’t achieve the desired outcomes,” said Castleberry.

10. Introduce mentorship

Proper training, guidance and mentorship are also important in helping employees feel psychologically safe. Castleberry advised developing and funding formal mentorship and sponsorship programmes “to promote learning, growth and allyship”.

A headshot of Princess Castleberry against a white background.

Image: Princess Castleberry

Other factors to consider

Outside of these steps, Castleberry also highlighted the value technology can have in establishing psychological safety, both in the office and remotely.

“Idea hubs and compliance platforms enable the sharing of innovations and process improvements and the anonymous submission and escalation of concerns, claims and ethical violations. These technologies remove barriers, fears and open criticism, and allow employees to elevate their perspectives,” she said.

“HR information systems allow companies to collect and aggregate feedback from the entire employee lifecycle from onboarding through exit interviews. This can allow management to identify trends that inform policies, programmes and decisions.”

While the workplace can have a massive impact on an employee’s mindset and psychological health, it’s important to remember that challenges can come from outside the workplace.

At a time when companies are encouraging their workers to ‘bring their whole selves to work’, Castleberry said many employers can then be daunted by the gravity of their employees’ personal experiences.

“I believe there are degrees of personal and corporate accountability for building psychologically safe environments and employees must assert themselves effectively to be part of the changes they seek.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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