MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Ensuring safety in the workplace is nothing new for HR leaders. From physical safety to cyber security, from training to policy development, safety plays a big part in ensuring the protection, welfare, and ultimate success of the team.

In the last decade, a lot of emphasis has been placed on psychological safety, one of the key hurdles identified in the Kooth Work HR Hurdles report – the belief between employees that they can share ideas, concerns, and questions without fear of judgement or repercussions from others – including management. 

Having such an environment is the foundation of genuine employee wellbeing, an integral part of any organisation. It’s no longer just about staff perks, wellness days, and free fruit in the office – it’s about creating a space where employees feel safe, can comfortably be themselves, and know that their voice is valued. 

According to Abraham Maslow, psychologist and philosopher best known for his Hierarchy of Needs model, it is only once we feel secure in an environment that we can establish meaningful connections with others, grow in self-esteem, and reach our true creative potential. 

It is therefore no wonder that forward-thinking companies who create psychologically safe environments report that their teams are: 

  • More diverse and inclusive
  • Share a broader spectrum of ideas 
  • Clearer on overall goals
  • More likely to take risks and trust one another

These effects then filter into the overall success of the business. 

Creating a Psychologically Safe Work Space

Developing a psychologically safe culture starts with HR leaders and managers. We have put together some ideas on how to cultivate this environment with insight from Alexandra Thompson, Head of People at Kooth Work. 

1. Lead with Curiosity

When it comes to any kind of management or team building, taking a curious approach is one way to stop looking at situations with blame or judgement and create a space where employees feel heard.

Alexandra says: “Approaching situations with curiosity is so important in creating a safe space to explore circumstances. I [was]in a situation, once, where one of my employees was demonstrating poor performance and was consistently late, and I already thought, ‘This guy can’t last’. But adopting a curious approach from training, we approached this situation with ‘What’s going on for you?’, and you could just see his relief. He was a carer, and was travelling long distances back and forth, and he couldn’t make the timing work. He felt he was failing at work and as a carer. By creating a space where we could have that openness of conversation, we were able to make adjustments so that he could keep the job that he needed.

“In terms of approaching situations, without sounding cliché, the ‘whole-person’ thinking is important. What’s under the surface for this person? Be genuine, authentic, and empathetic, and make space to talk.”

 

Approaching with curiosity helps to reduce the “threat” that some people can feel in the workplace. Additionally, listening to employees and investigating their situation demonstrates interest in them as a person, which can help people feel more appreciated for their whole selves – not just their work. 

Training up leaders to have these conversations is also necessary, according to Alexandra: “You don’t just suddenly ‘know’ how to have these conversations. It’s a skill that takes time and grows like a muscle. Training on taking a curious approach is something that should be embedded into all front line management teams.”

2. Think SCARF

Alexandra also spoke about the importance of using the SCARF brain-based model to communicate with others in a safe way. This stands for five domains that impact behaviour in social situations:

Status: Our relative importance to others

Certainty: Our ability to predict the future

Autonomy: Our sense of control over events

Relatedness: How safe we feel with others

Fairness: How we perceive exchanges between people to be

According to neuroscience research, these social domains activate the same threat response in the brain that we developed for survival. This means that when we feel threatened in one of these domains, we can have strong emotional and instinctive reactions, to protect ourselves from harm or risk. 

For example, if you are left out of important conversations at work, you may feel a sense of threat to your fairness or autonomy. Studies show that such situations activate similar brain regions as to when we are in physical danger. 

The SCARF model can be used to create a safe environment where threats are minimised, rewards are maximised, and communication is clear and effective. For example: 

  • Minimise threats to autonomy by avoiding micromanaging, and instead maximise rewards by handing out responsibilities and the freedom to explore.
  • Minimise threats to certainty by avoiding vague direction, and instead be clear and transparent about goals, expectations, and feedback.

How you use the SCARF model depends on the individuals in your team, and everyone responds to situations differently. 

3. Prioritise Connections Over Productivity

According to research, a positive team climate is by far the number one predictor of psychological safety. Without good interpersonal relationships, it is difficult to form trust – and without trust, people do not feel safe sharing ideas, concerns, and questions. 

To develop a positive team climate and also reduce stress levels, Alexandra suggests approaching each meeting with joy: “People tend to come into meetings with high stress levels, either from being very busy or even from battling traffic in the mornings, and it’s difficult to think clearly when you’re stressed. Taking five minutes at the beginning of each meeting to talk about something lighthearted reduces those stress hormones, meaning we have more effective conversations. When you want to stretch and challenge, you can because people are less on edge.

“You also get to learn little unusual things about each person, which is important for good relationships, especially in a remote environment.”

4. Be Approachable

Being approachable relates to both how reachable someone is and also how open and welcoming they are. 

Leaders can increase how accessible they are by doing the following:

  • Operating an open door policy
  • Providing different ways of receiving ideas and feedback, acknowledging that not everyone works in the same way
  • Organising regular team meetings
  • Modelling vulnerability – from admitting to mistakes and showing emotions to asking for support and feedback
  • Actively listening to others
  • Always offering the benefit of doubt

Creating a psychologically safe workplace will ultimately vary depending on the company and industry you are in, but at the forefront of this culture is a space of acceptance, where people feel comfortable to be themselves, raise questions, and have space to learn. 

Psychological safety is the new driver of employee wellbeing and business success, leading to healthier, happier, and more inclusive teams, where there is a sense of engagement, increased motivation, and better performance. 

For more about the major challenges facing HR teams right now, including managing multiple resignations, handling hybrid working and supporting employee wellbeing, Kooth has created a new HR Hurdles Guide. The Guide offers clinically sound advice designed to support HR teams through hugely challenging times. 

For information on our BACP accredited digital mental health and wellbeing support services, head to work.kooth.com and see how we could help your employees towards better mental wellbeing. 

About the author

Dr Lynne Green is the Chief Clinical Officer at Kooth Work, a digital mental wellbeing solution for medium and large sized organisations. Dr. Green has an extensive clinical background, including being a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with 20 years’ NHS experience.

With Kooth Work, employees can access safe and anonymous support with live 1:1 chats with professionals, extensive self-help resources and community support. Businesses can benefit from aggregated reports and insights that will help maintain a happier and more productive workforce.