The concept of workplace safety isn't new. As long as I can remember, I've gone to places like the mechanic, a convenience store, or even a college campus and seeing signs proudly displaying the number of days employees have gone without an accident on the job. It's easy to think of safety at work in this way — ensuring that your people are physically protected while completing their work and that everyone knows those protection standards through employer-provided training, growth, and development initiatives. And this makes sense — long periods of physical safety are certainly something to be celebrated prominently with accolades and signs on the wall, especially with all we've gone through during 2020 and continue to deal with in 2021.

That said though, there's another aspect of workplace safety that's not as tangible and easy to identify or celebrate but just as important — psychological safety. So what does that mean and how do we support it with the same dedication we give to physical safety?

Managing through uncertainty psychological safety banner

Why is psychological safety important?

Especially during the great reset many organizations are experiencing right now, psychological safety has become vital to ensuring not just a positive employee experience but also practical aspects of daily operations like productivity and business continuity. Supporting psychological safety is also a big part of the wider psychological contract at work that you may remember me discussing in an earlier blog.

Your people need this critical element to have a feeling of security in their role, their environment, and the activities they're doing in their day-to-day. Without it, uncertainty will quickly creep in and slow them down with second guessing or push them to start looking for new opportunities.

Now I'm not saying ensuring physical safety is less important — its importance will never change and it's even a key piece in the puzzle of establishing psychological safety. What I am saying though is that as HR professionals we need to ask ourselves what concrete actions we can take to promote and celebrate achieving psychological safety as well as physical safety in the workplace.

Let's take a look at some ideas for how we can get there.

Defining psychological safety for your organization and evolving it into trust

When you think of psychological safety in the workplace, what words come to mind? For me, I think immediately of trust, belonging, and the freedom to express my voice and opinions without fear of retaliation. It’s the feeling of being heard by your coworkers and the company and feeling confident in the stability of your position.

Your definition might be different than mine. In fact, each person likely has their own idea of what psychological safety at work means to them. While it's possible to have several differing personal opinions, it's important that organizationally there is a collective agreement that the company wants to achieve psychological safety for its workforce. Providing managers with the right tools to get the job done is also an integral part of achieving this.

For managers, the tools needed for establishing and maintaining psychological safety on their teams all revolve around enabling them to give trust to their employees and employees to return trust to them. It's not easy, but it's foundational to an environment that gives employees the feelings of confidence and stability they need to succeed.

I say it's not easy because according to a trust study done by The Workforce Institute at UKG, there's some work to be done by employees and employers alike when it comes to trust in the workplace. One element that’s clear in the survey is that employees don’t trust their employers to always have their best interests at heart. The study found that more than a third (38 percent) of employees have no faith their employer will put people before profits. Similarly, nearly a quarter (24 percent) of those surveyed don’t trust they’ll be paid accurately, while 27 percent don’t trust they’ll be scheduled fairly. Of note is also that nearly a third (32 percent) of employees surveyed don’t trust their organization to apply equal standards for pay and promotions.

So how do we set a standard for psychological safety despite these challenges? This is where modern HR technology makes a big impact. Manual processes or outdated solutions make it challenging to promote fairness and equity across organizations. The reality is you need a level of visibility into day-to-day employee and manager activities that just can't be achieved without a unified, streamlined, and automated approach.

We can look at the focus areas identified in the trust study results above and quickly see how HR technology can combat many of the fears that employees have regarding things like fairness, pay, and scheduling by exploring a few quick examples.

Psychological safety and HR technology

We've done other studies in the past that show that employees are likely to leave a job after just two incorrect paychecks. Reliable technology prevents these kinds of errors. Automating time keeping policies, which are the start of payroll processes, is vital to guaranteeing an accurate paycheck. Empowering employees with self-scheduling allows each person to build a schedule that works for them. And insightful data availability across compensation, performance, and career pathing helps reduce the opportunity for discrimination in these area — reducing the chance of bias in these areas.

When all these people processes are connected in the same system, it becomes much easier to see how they affect each other, give employees a sense of stability, and fix issues before they become widespread. This central location where employee information (benefits, pay stubs, etc.) is stored and can be accessed, updated, and referred to when needed via desktop, tablet and mobile methods is critical to ensuring that employees are kept informed in times of uncertainty and beyond. Additionally, a central location where leaders can convey information is vital and can be used as a “hub” to disseminate information. Keeping employees and stakeholders well-versed on the company’s strategy shows transparency, trust, and a team mentality. As companies move forward these things become paramount to ensure both physical and psychological safety in the workforce.

Oftentimes managers will look to things like employee sentiment surveys to get a pulse on how the workplace is feeling overall. Surveys are useful, but the problem is that surveys usually get sent out reactively when a problem is identified, and by that time it's too late! When it comes to psychological safety at work, proactively ensuring that workers are continuously feeling safe and secure is massively important, especially now. The good news is that there is technology that can assist in understanding ongoing employee sentiment about psychological safety in the workplace on a continual basis.

From an opportunity standpoint, now is also a great time to establish your company as a psychologically safe employer by truly showing employees that you see the whole person, and not just the worker. Managers must keep in mind that they aren't just managing people — they are managing husbands, wives, aunts, uncles, disabled individuals, adoptive parents, recent divorcees, etc. People are much more than their role as employee, and managers must remember this. Not only will focusing on this improve your company brand for outside hiring, but it can work to improve existing employee psychological safety levels as well.

When an employee is apprehensive, there are both emotional and physical reactions that can occur. If an employee does not feel psychologically safe in the workplace, they likely will go in one of two directions– fight or flight. Typically, employers will see negative emotions from employees such as anger, gossiping, or lack of productivity.  Also, the relationship between the two suffers because there is a lack of trust and respect. Commitment on the part of the employee is reduced and they may be less willing to work hard, to share ideas, and to be a good brand ambassador for your company.

Conclusion: We must look at the whole picture when considering our people's safety

The concept of safety at work has always been an important factor in everyday business decisions, but the focus now has taken on a different level of importance. Businesses have had to double-down not just on physical safety, but on assuring psychological safety as well. The cost of doing nothing from this perspective is extremely detrimental to employers and employees alike. When employees do not feel like the organization has their best interest in mind, they feel threatened, or they do not feel valued, it can become a perilous cycle of negativity.

Evaluating your HR technology from the standpoint of psychological safety, business continuity, and connectedness will aid in promoting a positive employee experience. Make sure you're looking beyond your people's physical needs and supporting the unseen but critical mental elements as well.

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Published: Tuesday, February 23, 2021