Is It Time To Put Psychological Safety On Your Risk Register?

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed mental health and wellbeing to the top of the agenda for CEO’s and their boards. This article examines why psychological safety needed an ISO number and outlines the urgent case for putting it on your company risk register.  

Let’s start with some definitions… 

I put the words “what is a risk register, insurance industry” into Google. Scrolling down the page I see results from the IRMI, the ITL and An article catches my eye, 2017 most dangerous risks for insurers, I click on it. The number one risk 5years ago, according to L Wood Insurance Services: cyber security / cybercrime. At the bottom of the page, bottom 10 risks, at number 6: employee safety. How our lives have changed in a matter of one year. 

“A risk register is a document used as a risk management tool and to fulfil regulatory compliance acting as a repository for all risks identified and includes additional information about each risk, e.g., nature of the risk, reference and owner, mitigation measures. It can be displayed as a scatterplot or as a table.” – Wikipedia 

So, what is psychological safety and why has it needed an ISO number? 

Organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple. But asking a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” may make you sound like you’re out of the loop. It might feel easier to continue without getting clarification in order to avoid being perceived as ignorant. 

ISO 45003 is a new global standard that intends to give practical steps and methods of best practice for managing psychological health within the workplace. It will include rules around the management of psychological risk and incorporate it into a health, safety and wellbeing program. 

The cost of poor mental health alone has an estimated annual cost of £45 billion in the UK. The incredible work of the BITC, the CIPD and the Thriving at Work Leadership Council have demonstrated tirelessly, why organisations need to change.  And yetthe inclusion of psychological safety on organisational risk registers, continues to be far from assured. 

Outdated mindsets prevail 

I’m curious to understand why this might be the case. My recent conversations with wellbeing and HR leaders, shines a light on this disconnect. The problem appears to be systemic, linked to outdated mindsets and behavioural models. This in turn has led to apathy and underinvestment across the following; 

  • Collecting absenteeism data appears to be crude, with many companies finding employees selecting the category “other” from a drop-down menu of illnesses. 
  • Employee data often sits in siloed buckets within outdated and disconnected IT systems. It’s difficult if not impossible to mine the data and or join the dots. 
  • Many HR teams continue to operate with no or limited data analyst capability. 
  • Some EAP programmes are ring fenced as “no go zones” – outsourced providers appear unwilling to share even broad themes with the organisation.  
  • Last but not least, defining robust and widely accepted measures for presenteeism and leavism, has to date been largely ignored if not regarded as mission impossible. Perhaps leaders have simply lacked the will to try and understand what’s really going on. 

Survival of the fittest 

There remains a mindset at the top of some companies that sickness absence is an acceptable risk, that illness is inevitable and stress-related absence simply collateral damage. Ultimately, many leaders still believe that the organisation is not at fault – rather it‘s up to the employees themselves to look after their mental health and wellbeing. 

Defining the risk 

I geeked out on AON’s broker series workshop recently; a sneak peek at what health risks UK organisations now face. The insurance industry is bracing itself for increased risk of claims across the spectrum of psychological and physical illness. For example: 

  • In regards to Cancer, the provision of screening dropped dramatically over the past year, suggesting a steep rise in cases over the coming months
  • Muscular-skeletal conditions are set to increaseresulting from poor (home) workstations and the impossible task presented to occupational health professionals to advise or to make substantial recommendations. 

I know of one person, who suffers from a rare genetic condition that means he needs to be particularly careful about how long he sits and the importance of having a suitable chair at work. He approached his employer with a request to collect an office chair (at his expense) during the first lock-down, he received a flat refusal. I asked why he hadn’t pursued the discussion, his answer, only too familiar; he was in the running for a manager promotion and didn’t want to rock the boat. 

We don’t need any more reports, we already know that; 

  • Presenteeism is 4 x cost of absenteeism 
  • People signed off with mental health is up 40% (year on year) 
  • 146% increase in stress related absence in the past 12-months 
  • Depression will be number 1 illness in the world by 2030 (WHO) 
  • Future mental health exposures are moving from 1 in 10 to 1 in 3 

Stop talking, start doing 

The clear message; if organisations don’t change their approach to mental health and wellbeing, they run the risk of having a “protection gap.”  Reflecting now on the AON webinar, mental health and wellbeing can no longer be ignored, swept under the carpet or tolerated; the risk exposure is simply too great.  So, what does, getting on the front foot mean? What can organisations do now to mitigate these risks? 

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  • Make mental healtand wellbeing business priority, which means a systemic approach, including developing a rounded health benefits strategywith a core focus on personalisation 
  • Stay focused on the impact of home working e.g., occupational health risks as well as mental health risks 
  • Use data to make patterns more visible e.g., robust absence recording is critical, segmenting your workforce populations to understand the specific health and safety risks to different groups. 
  • Invest in both human centric and digital solutions 
  • Focus on underlying “health behaviours” that will improve the health and resilience of your workforcePerhaps the most critical shift that still needs to happen, is a mindset shift towards more sustainable business models, sustainable workload and where speed and agility is defined by trust factors. Humans are after all an exhaustible resource; we have finite amounts of energyRest and recovery must to be built into our work day and role-modelled from the top of the organisation. Let’s all embrace the attitude that prevention is better than cure. 

Holding organisations and their leaders accountable 

There is no doubt in my mind that large premium increases are on their way if organisations don’t act now call on every CEO, CFO and CPO reading this article, reflect on this question – is now the time to put psychological safety onto your risk register? I put this same question to Chris Simmons, Chief Broking Officer UK Health, AON. He replied yes, if it is deemed to be a high risk – alongside details of what the organisation is doing to mitigate that risk. 

I end this piece with some newshot off the press, recently, the FT published a piece on ESG investing and a move by the European Union to introduce a global standard for ESG funds. Below is an extract from that article; 

PwC’s Carré predicts this transformation of Europe’s investment industry will have a dramatic effect on the companies in which fund managers invest, redirecting capital into sustainable activities and forcing businesses to be transparent about everything from their environmental impact to how they treat employees. “If an asset manager wants to promote that [it invests based on specific sustainability] criteria, that will have impact on investments and that has an impact on capital flows and available financing for companies.” 

In a nutshell, company financing will be cut off if your record for emotional / psychological health and safety is poor. My prediction; wellbeing impact disclosure will be next in line for compulsory organisational reporting following gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting. Perhaps this might finally convince boards to put psychological safety on their risk register. 

What do you think? I would love to hear your feedback and comments… 


AON: Broking Insight Series 

About the author

Catherine de la Poer is on a mission to change the conversation about organisational value. #humansustainability puts talent investment and employee wellbeing front and centre. Talent-first CEO’s see TALENT as a value creator, as such talent is tied to every item of the strategic agenda. She is founder at halcyon coaching ltd, where the focus is to create more resilient and agile individuals, teams and organisations. Emotional Intelligence forms the centre-piece of her coaching approach.

You might also be interested in these articles:

‘Invisibility’ of Mental Health is the Biggest Challenge for Leaders

How Co-op Used Data to Develop An Effective Workplace Wellbeing Programme

#Covid-19 A Virtual Roundtable: Should Wellbeing Reporting Be Mandatory?


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