How Measuring Psychological Safety Enables a Proactive Approach to Employee Mental Wellbeing

psychological safety

Psychological safety is a lead indicator for employee mental wellbeing.  Knowing how to measure how psychologically safe people feel across a team or an organisation provides us with a proactive way to approach wellbeing, and to flag up surfacing issues before they become more serious.  Ahead of World Mental Health day, Helen Stephens reflects on the year so far and explore why so many forward-thinking organisations are focused on psychological safety right now.

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health day. 2020 marks a time in history where the human race has never needed this more. Not only has our collective physical health been threatened by the Coronavirus pandemic but, as study after study is demonstrating, our mental health has, and will continue to suffer.

The number of UK adults experiencing some form of depression has doubled since the start of 2020

Mind have reported a doubling of the proportion of adults in the UK experiencing some form of depression since the start of the year. According to a new WHO survey, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, leaving many unsupported. The voluntary sector has also seen a rapid increase in demand for their services (examples include Mindline in Somerset seeing a 10-fold rise in calls) highlighting the need for more investment.

Fear and anxiety caused by isolation, loss of income and bereavement is an everyday occurrence fuelled by a constant state of uncertainty. We are all experiencing some level of grief for the normality we have lost. Chronic experience of these factors, sometimes with increased levels of alcohol and drug use and/or insomnia can trigger mental health problems or exacerbate existing ones.

How does this play out in the workplace? Those in work are facing additional pressures of remote working, reduced headcounts, heightened pressure to attain targets, or for many the discomfort of PPE and the personal risk involved with contact with customers. On top of this, emotions are running high so communication is impaired leading to conflict with customers and within teams. Problems with stress and mental health are already the leading cause of workplace absence estimated to cost UK employers approximately £2.4 billion per year. And presenteeism (being in work whilst in poor health) is widespread and damaging.

The stakes are high. We need our people to be at the top of their game to navigate our way out of economic and social catastrophe.

How can we adopt a more proactive approach to caring for mental health within the workplace?

So how can we adopt a more proactive approach to caring for mental health, in order to start to avoid burnout and long-term systemic dysfunctionality?

The most effective thing that we can do for our people is to establish a culture of psychological safety [1], where everyone feels safe to open up, offer ideas, ask questions and ask for help without fear of judgement or punishment.

“It’s good to talk.” We know that talking helps us feel better. It enables us to voice our fears, reflect on and reframe past events, start to look for solutions and make tentative plans for an uncertain future. However, we are very often reluctant to open up. We all have an in-built desire to look capable and in control at work – especially if we perceive our colleagues to be coping, which leads us to censor ourselves, to refrain from asking for help and stop us from saying what we think.

Engendering a sense of safety and belonging for all involves building human connections and trust, and in order to stick, it needs to be embraced and modelled from the very top of the organisation downwards. Whilst so many people are still working from home this is more important than ever.

It is not enough to say “my door is always open”, employees need to feel this message is genuine

It is not enough for managers to say “my door is always open”, “we are listening”, “we value your opinion”, “we will support you”, “there are no mistakes just learning opportunities”, employees need to feel and trust that all these messages are genuine. Leaders (at all levels) that demonstrate humility and vulnerability through admitting mistakes and opening up about their own mental health tend to generate more respect and trust than those who demand accountability and ignore problems. This ‘human-centric’ leadership comes more naturally to some managers than others, but it can be developed through coaching, training and self-reflection. The line manager/report relationship is the most crucial to get right.

In the current economic climate many of us are seeking ways of managing the wellbeing of our employees with ever decreasing budgets, so being able to pinpoint those with the greatest need and focusing your energy and budget where it will have the greatest impact is an attractive and cost effective proposition.

Psychological safety is a lead indicator for employee mental wellbeing

It is now possible to measure how psychologically safe people feel across a team or an organisation which is a lead indicator for employee mental wellbeing. There are a number of ways of approaching this, at Minerva we use a simple employee survey, Conductor [2]. This helps to identify untapped potential across the business as well as areas of stress and triggers such as styles of leadership that may aggravate it.

Perhaps most importantly, it provides us with a very proactive way of approaching wellbeing, often flagging up surfacing issues which can be swiftly addressed before they become more serious. The results produce very practical and actionable insights into the factors that enable us to perform at our best, pointing the way to relevant and targeted activity.

Undoubtedly leaders have the greatest opportunity in creating a psychologically safe environment by setting out the vision and values and modelling the way, but we all have a role to play. Behaviour is contagious and when supportive behaviours are truly valued in the workplace, behaviour starts to shift. Before you know it, you have a tight-knit team who support each other. Collaboration, creativity and productivity rockets. In the current climate this is a win-win for any organisation.

What are you doing to cultivate an environment of safety within your team?

Helen Stephens is a wellbeing coach, mental health first aider and an Accredited Professional for Conductor.

Footnotes

1 William A Kahn was possibly the first to coin the phrase psychological safety in 1990 and the concept has since been researched and developed by, among others, Harvard professor Dr Amy Edmondson. Not only does a high level of psychological safety improve wellbeing, but research by Google shows that it is the most important factor for high performance in teams.

2 Minerva Engagement is now a fully accredited Associate Partner of ‘Conductor’, a statistically validated instrument, grounded in neuroscience which links how we feel with how we perform and quantifies this link in financial terms. If you would like to know more about how we assess, measure and improve levels of psychological safety within teams please contact jennie.flower@minervaengagement.com