Psychological safety at work is the idea that employees won't be punished, humiliated, or suffer other negative consequences when they express ideas, ask questions, bring up concerns, or even make mistakes.
According to human-resources experts, it's more important than ever for companies and employees adjusting to a post-pandemic workplace to foster psychological safety.
The concept of psychological safety isn't new. It's an issue, along with employee well-being and mental health, that's been on the minds of employers for some time, Stephanie Pronk, senior vice president at Aon, a firm specializing in risk, retirement, and insurance products, told Insider. The pandemic, social-injustice issues after the killing of George Floyd, and political turmoil of 2020 brought the topic to the forefront.
"Sometimes it takes a crisis or something to push people over the edge to really say, 'OK, we've got to really take this on,'" she said. "It just hit a tipping point, and I think that's really what has propelled this forward."
Company leaders ranked psychological safety the third most-valuable way to ensure a safe work environment, and 57% highly value psychological safety, according to Aon's 2021 Global Wellbeing Survey of more than 1,600 companies. Psychological safety was also linked to greater creativity and innovation.
"We're starting to see, in the employer sector, a lot of focus around making sure that people are feeling like they're in a safe environment," Pronk said. "If they're not in a safe environment, what kind of support can employers provide? Can we make sure that there are resources for employees to go to? Make sure that there are conversations being had."
Prioritizing psychological safety benefits both organizations and their employees. Here's why experts say it should be a key part of a company's future-of-work strategy:
It can ease worker burnout
Burnout and stress have especially affected remote teams during the pandemic. People are working longer hours and juggling childcare and virtual learning. Fostering psychological safety involves recognizing that employees are dealing with stressors and making them feel safe discussing the issues openly.
Mike Morini, CEO of management-software company WorkForce Software, told Insider there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
"You have to have multiple plays in your playbook on how you handle your people and how you engage with them," he said.
For example, WorkForce Software has worked to strengthen psychological safety and address burnout by giving teams time to devote to creative projects, hosting virtual happy hours and video-gaming time, and fundraising for charities. There's also the "Ask the CEO" program, where ideas or concerns can be shared.
"Employers need to make it personal beyond work," Morini said. "Not invading people's lives, but where people can feel a sense of community in their work environment. Also making sure that they feel valued and their opinions are valued within the organization."
It makes remote teams feel valued
Remote work is likely here to stay in some form, and psychological safety is critical for this environment, as working remotely often blurs the lines between an employee's personal and professional life, Keith MacKenzie, content strategy manager at recruiting-software company Workable, told Insider.
Our personal lives, he said, "can no longer be checked at the door." "It's not realistic to expect employees to do that anymore." Managers should normalize interruptions like pets, children, and housemates during video and conference calls.
But above all, they should stay close to their employees and listen to their needs, Pronk said. Aon has several initiatives aimed at improving wellbeing for remote workers, including access toand well-being webinars, the app TalkSpace that provides online therapy, and an app developed in-house that lets them track and measure their emotional, social, and physical well-being and get help and support. The company also has a partnership with Care.com and Varsity Tutors that allow employees to get discounts on services like childcare, housekeeping, and learning tools.
Giving people permission to work differently, such as with flexible hours, or take a step back when they're not feeling well makes employees feel valued.
"We're seeing a lot of manager and leader training, employee training around different aspects of psychological safety, whether it's mental health first aid, creating an emotionally fit leader, or whatever it might be," Pronk said. "It's getting people knowledgeable, getting them comfortable in having conversations, and addressing the different issues that are in this big bucket of psychological safety."
It builds resilient businesses
When employees feel secure asking for help, sharing their opinions, or raising concerns, it drives innovation and high-quality decision-making, Harvard Business School researchers found. It also makes workplaces more inclusive and helps companies retain top employees.
"If they don't like the way they're being managed, they don't feel comfortable working in the work environment that they're in," MacKenzie said. "In other words, if they don't feel psychologically safe working in that environment, they're going to start looking elsewhere where they can find a place where they can really feel their true selves at work."
Psychological safety and well-being programs must be ingrained in an organization's culture and a part of everyday interactions, Pronk said.
"Well-being is at the core of success from a business standpoint because if an organization isn't and our employees aren't well, we don't have any business continuity, we don't have any way to be resilient in crisis times," she said.