Psychological Safety: What, How and Why?

Allison March 27, 2023

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety refers to the belief that one can express themselves without fear of negative consequences such as humiliation, rejection, or punishment. It is the sense of security that people feel when they believe that their opinions, feelings and ideas will be respected and valued by others. As well as that they will not be subjected to ridicule, blame, or retaliation for expressing them.

Psychological safety is highly relevant to organisations and employers as it plays a significant role in shaping the culture and climate of the workplace.

What is a psychological hazard?

A psychosocial hazard is anything that could cause psychological harm which could for example impact on someone’s mental health. They arise from or are in relation to:

  • The design or management of work;
  • The working environment;
  • Plant at a workplace such as machinery, equipment, appliances, containers, implements and tools; or
  • Workplace interactions or behaviours.

Psychological hazards can create stress which can cause psychological or physical harm. Stress itself is not an injury, but if it becomes frequent, prolonged or severe it can cause psychological and physical harm.

Psychological harm may include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or sleep disorders. Physical harm may include musculoskeletal injuries, chronic disease or fatigue related injuries.

Psychosocial hazards may interact or combine to create new, changed or higher risks. It is important to consider all the psychosocial hazards workers may be exposed to when managing psychosocial risks.

Some hazards may not create psychosocial risks on their own, but may do so if combined with other hazards.

How do employers identify psychological hazards in workplaces?

Employers can identify psychological hazards in the workplace by conducting a risk assessment. Other methods that can be used to identify psychological hazards can include:

  1. Worker and Employee Consultation
    • Engage with management, staff, key stakeholders, etc. through collaborative workshops to discuss operations and tasks to identify any issues or concens related to psychological health and safety in the workplace.
    • Encourage feedback. This is critically important for larger businesses where management cannot oversee all aspects of work. Front line workers are a great asset for identifying and reporting hazards.
  2. Workplace Inspections and Audits
    • Regular workplace inspections, audits and observations help to identify potential hazards, such as unsafe working conditions, that may impact worker psychological health and safety.
  3. Incident Reporting and Review
    • Review reports of hazards, incidents or complaints related to workplace bullying, harassment and stress to identify potential hazards.
  4. Review Workplace Policies and Procedures
    • Employers, with the engagement of employees, can review workplace policies and procedures to identify any potential hazards or gaps in current practices.

Once potential psychological hazards have been identified, organisations and employers can take steps to eliminate or minimise their impact on workers. This may involve implementing new policies and procedures, providing training and education, and making changes to the physical work environment.

For further information on the four steps of hazard identification and risk management, refer to our Introduction to Hazard Identification and Risk Management article.

Approaches and examples of psychologically safety in the workplace

There are several key initiatives that organisations and employers can implement to create a psychologically safe workplace that promotes well-being and productivity of employees. The table below lists key approaches and examples of psychological safety initiatives.

Psychological Safety ApproachesExamples
Establish clear expectations and policies that promote a culture of respect and inclusivity.Developing policies and procedures related to workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination and providing training and education to employees on these issues.
Encourage open communication by establishing clear channels for employees to voice their concerns and ideas.Regular team meetings, anonymous feedback systems, and regular check-ins with employees.
Provide training and development opportunities.Opportunities for employees to build skills, confidence, and resilience through training and development programs, coaching and mentoring, and other support services.
Foster a positive work environment.Recognise and reward employee contributions, celebrate successes, and promoting a sense of belonging among employees.
Manage workloads and resources.Manage workloads and resources to ensure that employees are not overworked or overstressed through providing additional resources, such as staffing or equipment, and monitoring workloads to ensure that they are manageable.
Promote work-life balance.Providing flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work, job-sharing, or telecommuting, and promoting work-life balance policies and programs.

Upcoming legislative changes in Queensland

From 1 April 2023, persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) in Queensland will have a positive duty under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace. Similar requirements are already in effect in New South Wales, with new duties to manage psychosocial risks commenced in the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (NSW) on 1 October 2022.

This means that organisations and employers must be proactive in identifying and managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace, such as workplace bullying, harassment, and stress, and take steps to eliminate or minimise their impact on workers.

Overall, promoting psychological safety in the workplace can lead to a more positive and productive work environment, where employees feel valued, supported, and empowered to contribute to the success of the organisation.

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