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How the Lack of Psychological Safety in the Workplace Affects Mental Health

by | Aug 8, 2022 | EST | 0 comments

Psychological safety in the workplace is the ability of employees to be able to say what’s on their minds without fear of ridicule or discrimination. It’s the freedom of being able to express one’s honest opinions and become their authentic self. When employees feel psychologically safe, the company is rewarded with a highly motivated and innovative workforce.

On the other hand, the lack of psychological safety in the workplace poses a serious threat. A psychologically unsafe workplace is detrimental not just to the employee but also to the company. It is in an organization’s best interest to create a psychologically safe environment to show that they care for their employees as they grow their bottom lines.

What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard’s Amy Edmonson in 1999. In her journal article, she explored the relationship of psychological safety to team learning and performance. According to Edmonson, psychological safety is the lack of any interpersonal fear which allows people to speak up about work-related concerns.

She further defines the characteristics of a work environment where employees feel psychologically safe. These characteristics are:

  • Ability to speak up because there’s no humiliation, ignorance, or blaming game
  • Ability to confidently express one’s true identity
  • Ability to share fears, mistakes, and concerns knowing they won’t be embarrassed or retributed
  • Ability to report mistakes quickly so that solutions can be drafted faster
  • Courage to share wild and innovative ideas even if not fully-formed
  • High level of trust and respect among peers and colleagues
  • Open to questions and corrections for the team’s improvement

For members of the LGBTQ community, psychological safety in the workplace is crucial. Working in such an environment allows them to fully embrace their authentic selves and become better contributors to the company. Employees who can speak their truth are more creative and innovative than those who frequently hide their true identities.

It takes great courage for people to speak up and voice their opinion. It takes even greater bravery to share their authentic selves and risk vulnerability in a world that’s known for being biased and discriminating. Organizations that succeed in making their employees feel psychologically safe can reap the benefits in the end.

Lack of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

The lack of psychological safety in the workplace can be a dangerous environment for employees. It makes employees reluctant to take a stand even when they know that something wrong is happening. There’s a sense of fear across the workforce that compels them to simply blend in with the crowd, attempt to fit in, and be part of the status quo.

The fear of offending their boss holds them back from voicing out their own ideas or opinions, even when they know they have a potential solution. There’s a lack of healthy debates and discourse because employees are afraid to share what they think for fear of being wrong, embarrassed, or ridiculed. There’s a constant hesitation to try new innovative ideas for fear of failing.

In the end, employees who work in a psychologically unsafe environment feel ashamed, unvalued, and worthless. Their self-esteem is low, and they tend to see themselves as not good enough for the job. The organization eventually suffers from a low morale workforce. This may lead to the stagnation of innovation and bring down the company’s bottom-line. The worst case scenario is the company fading into obsolescence.

I know these sounds like doomsday prophecies but the lack of psychological safety in the workplace is a grave concern. Almost 90% of employees say psychological safety is essential and they expect business leaders to create a respectful and safe workplace. Teams value psychological safety as the most important criterion for making teamwork successful.

Mental Health Concerns due to Lack of Psychological Safety

Mental health has received front-page news attention in recent years, especially in the wake of Covid-19. The pandemic has exacerbated the existing psychological safety issues organizations face. As a result, productivity is negatively impacted making behavioral health one of the top workforce health concerns. As companies begin a hybrid workforce, psychological safety and its effects on mental health can’t be ignored anymore.

Having a boss who constantly dismisses suggestions or opinions can bring up childhood memories of an absent parent. Constantly being shamed for making mistakes or asking questions can cause one to question their self-worth and abilities. Inability to fully express one’s authentic self can cause a person to shut down and repress their creativity.

Members of the LGBTQ community experience this more frequently than others. A study showed that 40% of LGBTQ employees hide their identities at work for fear of ridicule, discrimination, and harassment. This constant state of fear can cause depression and anxiety. It’s easy to feel abandoned and alone in a workplace that offers little to no emotional support. And, if one works there for 40 to 48 hours a week, it’s easy to fall into a constant state of stress which affects sleeping habits, rational thinking, and emotional health. Despair can easily creep in if one fails to leave the toxic work environment.

Mental health is a serious concern that should receive equal attention as other facets of one’s health. If at any time you feel hopeless or desperate at work, you should be able to talk to a peer, a boss, or an HR representative. Always remember that you have choices and don’t need to suffer under harmful work culture. Every employee deserves to feel valued for their contributions and self-worth.

Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Combating mental health is essential to creating a psychologically safe workplace. McKinsey shares 6 action steps for employers.

  1. Identify behavioral health needs using analytics and employee feedback.
  2. Ensure employees have access to evidence-based behavioral-health services by making them accessible and affordable like physical health services.
  3. Reduce stigma in the organization by increasing the company’s behavioral-health literacy.
  4. Implement workplace programs that raise mental health awareness and solutions.
  5. Create various points of access to mental health and behavioral health resources.
  6. Integrate behavioral and physical healthcare and adopt value-based payment models.

Business leaders need to lead the charge in creating a psychologically safe workplace that puts prime importance on mental health. To do this, leaders must first look inside themselves and understand their own emotions and fears. The only way to support others is to fully understand one’s self.

Leaders must also be models of vulnerability. They must be ready to lower their guards and show their authentic selves, especially to the people they lead. Leaders must practice empathy at all times. They must be compassionate to all employees to ensure their subordinates feel their genuine concern.

Conclusion

Psychological safety is important to keeping employees mentally fit. A lack of psychological safety in the workplace is no longer an option for companies who truly want to be at the forefront of innovation in their industries.

Leaders must be the champions of psychological safety, and this includes making LGBTQ and underrepresented employees feel safe to express their authentic selves.

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