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Creating psychological safety for wellbeing strategies

Our teams are facing a level of exhaustion and overwhelm that is creating a significant business risk. Many companies are implementing new policies and procedures, communication norms, and wellbeing programs to support their teams.

But despite all of the options and efforts and encouragement, employees who need them the most aren’t taking advantage of the programs. They aren’t asking for help or flexibility. In many cases, they ultimately decide to leave the company because they don’t feel they can be successful.

As leaders, we need to understand the impact of psychological safety on the wellbeing of our teams, and actively create cultures that allow everyone to be successful.


What is psychological safety?

Two important descriptions of psychological safety are included Dr. Amy Edmondson's book ’The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth’:

  • a shared belief held by members of a team that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up
  • creating a work environment that supports the ability to bring your full self to work and ask for what you need to be successful

Dr. Edmondson outlines four stages of psychological safety, starting with Inclusion Safety: the feeling of belonging, fitting in, feeling safe to be yourself, and being accepted. When people feel they are the ‘only one’ who needs help, flexibility or accommodation, they often assume their coworkers will feel they aren’t contributing and will be left out of important projects, meetings or assignments.

The fourth and most difficult stage, is Challenger Safety: feeling safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there is an opportunity to improve. Employees often have ideas for making things better and more efficient. They worry about workload and capacity and unrealistic deadlines, but they don’t feel safe raising those concerns, or sharing their ideas. 


Why does psychological safety impact wellbeing?

Many companies have wellbeing programs and policies to support flexibility. They encourage employees to take vacations and breaks and speak up when they need help. They share lots of resources and encourage the use of EAP programs. 

But unless a leader expressly and actively creates psychologically safety, people will naturally seek to avoid the perception that they are failing or not capable of handling their jobs. 

You have to speak up to ask for flexibility. 

To point out that the workload or deadlines are unreasonable and overwhelming.

To ask for a break when you feel overwhelmed.

To suggest other ways of working that would allow you to be successful.

Leaders must ensure the invitation to request flexibility or adjustments in workload is explicit and encouraged in order for people to risk speaking up. When psychological safety is missing, people would rather suffer through the challenges or even leave the company than share their concerns.


Why does it matter?

Strong cultures create a competitive advantage. Successful organizations create a culture, team by team, leader by leader, where people feel safe. It doesn’t happen overnight, or with one policy or email. It requires constant reinforcement and support, willingness to ask the hard questions, and listening (even to the hard feedback you don’t want to hear).

Psychological safety is associated with higher work engagement, improved mental health and reduced turnover. When leaders are intentional about creating a culture that supports the ability for all employees to ask for what they need to be successful and openly share their concerns and ideas, they are more likely to retain their talent and deliver strong business results. 


Author: Becky Jacobs, Chief Engagement Officer


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