The rise of psychological safety in the workplace

Experts weigh in on how pandemic has pushed mental health to the fore of OHS

The rise of psychological safety in the workplace

The growing awareness of mental health in the workplace started before the pandemic, but in the last two years psychological safety has become a top concern for safety professionals.

“The one thing that I have dealt a lot with – and increasingly so – are psychological risks or hazards,” says Wolf Kirsten, health and safety consultant. “Mental illness is definitely up and it’s a real concern.”

And while the focus was there before the pandemic, Kirsten says that COVID-19 has only magnified the important of mental health.

Numerous surveys conducted over the last few months have painted a relatively bleak picture of employee mental health – burnout is at an all-time high.

The awareness raised by the pandemic may end up being a good thing, but nothing is clear yet.

Employer awareness

The way a company structure work or organizes work is really important: the demands being placed on employees, how much control they have, how sure they are about their job in terms of meaning (i.e. purpose) – all of these factors have a massive impact on mental health and wellbeing.

Kirsten says that while he sees a lot of companies providing employee resources like resilience programs or counseling and therapy, many still lack a “preventative approach in terms of looking at some of the origins of [stress].”

Though not all stress is workplace related, a lot of it and can be prevented.

“I think slowly the awareness is changing, but I still don’t see a lot of companies taking a systematic approach to assessing what are the psychosocial hazards? What are the risks there? And what can we do about it?”

These are all important questions to ask, but Kirsten recognizes that it is also a huge challenge for a lot of companies who having been using the same working models and structures for decades and are slow to change.

Broadly though, Kirsten says that improving psychological safety is tied to building “a more manageable combination of work and life.”

Working from home

While the pandemic has certainly exacerbated mental health issues, a silver lining to COVID-19 is the increasing opportunities for employees to work from home or embrace more flexible work models.

“There’s no clear answer yet, in terms of whether [telework] is going to be favourable or going to help mental wellbeing or not,” says Kirsten.

He points out that he does see huge opportunities to improve mental wellbeing now that telework is more prevalent and accepted:

“I think it will help a lot of employees, but it's not necessarily for everyone.”

For some, says Kirsten, it may create more stress. Young families, for example, may find themselves having to juggle more responsibilities.

And work-life balance is possible on-site or in an office too, it is up to employers to provide a better structure for its workers.

It is really important, he says, for employers to use the pandemic as an opportunity to make sure that employees are being heard in terms of what their needs are, and being met as best as possible. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Workplace violence and harassment

Psychological safety is not just about mental health – workplace violence and harassment (or lack thereof) plays a huge part.

“For a long time, workplace violence and harassment was a matter for a police service or for a human rights tribunal. But many jurisdictions across the world have incorporated workplace violence and harassment requirements into their occupational health and safety legislation. It’s now embedded and it's become a regular part of our work,” says Jody Young, Assistant Deputy Minister, Operation Division, Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

“We approach it from a prevention lens perspective and put requirements on workplace parties to have programs in place for the safety of their workers with respect to those two issues,” says Young. “I do see psychological safety […] being on the landscape for our future in health and safety legislation.”

“We look at health and safety as a physical thing, and it’s so much more than that,” says Marie Clarke-Walker, safety consultant. “There are a lot more things that employers, governments, can do to ensure that people are health and safe.”

“[Safety] needs to be thing that carries us through to the next level […] it’s incumbent on all of us to sit down and have a conversation and say what we need to do differently,” says Clarke-Walker. “If we have those conversations, it’s a little easier to understand where the other side is coming from.”

Cultural approach

Kirsten, who is based between the U.S. and Germany, says that it is fascinating to compare different global approaches to workplace health and safety – especially psychosocial risk management and assessment.

Though he doesn’t want to generalize, he says that from his perspective there are a number of European countries that are further ahead on the topic of mental health – notably when it comes to national or supranational legislation.

Kirsten, however, notes that awareness is growing in the U.S., “and the work structure of organizations is changing gradually.”

Cultural differences help explain why there is such a different approach.

In the U.S. there is “a very strong sense of personal responsibility. Helping the individual to become better and stronger. But employer responsibility is lacking or lower [than in Europe].”

Conversely though, wellness and health promotion has a longer history in the U.S. and employers have played a very active role for financial reasons (i.e. paid sick leave, productivity).

Global Centre for Healthy Workplaces

Though Kirsten is originally from Germany, his career in health and safety really started in the U.S:

“At the time, there was a lot of interest in terms of workplace health promotion [and] taking care of the health of employees.”

He started getting more interested in the opportunities in the field of OHS in the U.S., and pursued a Master’s degree in health promotion and management.

After his degree, he worked with the American University in Washington D.C. to set up an International Institute for Health Promotion.

Kirsten is now a consultant and is also the co-founder of the Global Centre for Healthy Workplaces.

One of the things he loves the most about health and safety is the cause itself.

“[It’s] hard to argue with trying to make people healthier.”

Another great part about OHS is that it attracts good people, he says:

“Throughout the years, I’ve really been blessed to have met so many great professionals, great people in various countries […] It’s been great for me, because it gives you energy and a positive aspect of it is working with professionals which are honourable.”

Kirsten also points out that OHS is a growing field, with issues like mental health now gaining the attention that they should have been gaining decades ago.