How to promote psychological safety in the workplace

It is a crucial aspect of a healthy and productive work environment

By Ghenwa Yehia

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Published: Thu 28 Dec 2023, 9:11 PM

For Ali*, getting up to go to work every morning was once an experience filled with dread.

“A few years ago, I had a colleague in a very senior position who was the definition of a toxic colleague. He was arrogant and belligerently patronised his direct reports,” explains the 40-year-old Indian national who has resided in the UAE for the past 14 years.

“He rarely allowed healthy discourse, and often suppressed others’ points of view. It was stressful having to work with him.”

Ali wasn’t alone. It was clear that others in his team felt the same way.

“His direct reports feared him. They were intimidated and humiliated if they tried to share their ideas for better ways of work, or concerns about his unrealistic expectations. He provided harsh feedback and constantly gave biased and unhelpful criticism to some, while playing favourite with others,” he continued. “He was a bully.”

It’s nothing new that a culture of fear is unbearable for employees, but the main issue that can arise from threats to psychological safety in the workplace is the direct impact it can have on employees’ mental health and well-being.

Psychological safety in the workplace refers to the extent to which employees feel safe to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of negative consequences. Without it, employees are more susceptible to experiencing mental health issues.

“When a workplace is hostile, it can contribute to mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety, and other challenges, including extended periods of stress leading to burnout,” explains Dr Bisi Laniyan, clinical psychologist and adult specialist at Sage Clinics in Dubai.

Dr Laniyan goes on to explain the economic impact of employees’ mental health and wellness on a company’s bottom line.

“In any business, the main goal is to maximise profit and productivity. People play a key role in achieving that. When employees are dealing in a toxic workplace and your staff don't feel taken care of, on the surface it can look as if everything is fine, but internally it can feel like a tornado. And when you're in that state, it's impossible to give your best and to perform at your optimum. The two priorities of profit and productivity will be compromised.

“Mental health conditions can also contribute to increased absenteeism as people suffering from anxiety and depression will take more sick days to avoid going into an unhealthy work environment,” Dr Laniyan continued. “At the same time, employers will also be met with presenteeism — where employees are physically in the office, but they're not cognitively and emotionally present.

“Without psychological safety, the whole team’s morale is affected. Whether it’s one team member impacted or more, it has a knock-on effect. It sends out a message to other colleagues that they also won't be supported.”

A psychologically safe workplace at its most basic is free from bullying and incivility.

But at its best, it’s an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their opinions, asking questions, and providing feedback without fear of retribution. Feedback itself is given in a constructive, helpful, and respectful manner, focusing on improvement rather than criticism and blame. Team members, regardless of their seniority, background, or identity, feel included and valued for their unique contributions. Employees at all levels are empowered to take calculated risks without the fear of being punished for failure, which in turn promotes innovation, collaboration and experimentation.

A psychologically safe workplace is built on the essential foundation of trust between employees and leadership. It is a crucial aspect of a healthy and productive work environment.

Psychological safety is linked to various positive outcomes, including increased employee engagement, higher levels of innovation, better problem-solving, and improved overall team performance. It is a concept that has gained significant attention in organisational psychology and management as companies recognise the importance of creating environments where employees feel safe to express themselves and contribute to the success of the organisation.

In the case of Ali and his colleagues, not only did the lack of psychological safety in the workplace affect their engagement, satisfaction, and overall well-being, it also affected the company’s retention rates.

“People questioned their future prospects in the company,” he said. “Eventually some of the smartest minds left the organisation — they just couldn’t take it anymore. Many had to suffer in silence until they found the right opportunity.”

Looking back on that time, Ali reflects on how psychological safety in workplace plays a paramount role for employees.

“We spend most of our adult lives in the workplace and so, an unhealthy working environment can take a toll on our mental health. Employees should be respected. Psychological safety in the workplace is a right, not a privilege.”

*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s privacy.

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