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The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Published by: TELUS Health,

The social and economic costs of poor mental health in the workplace are growing. Absenteeism and lower work performance are just two of the outcomes for organizations who neglect employee mental health. For individuals, it can lead to reduced quality of life and lower life satisfaction.

One way organizations can improve employee mental health is to develop strategic policies that help employees feel more psychologically safe in the workplace. By working to reduce stigma around mental illness, employers can improve employee wellbeing long term.

Mental health stigma in the workplace

For many employees, fear of stigma prevents them from seeking treatment for mental health issues. Stigma can best be described as different, interrelated actions that impact on an individual. For individuals with mental illness, stigma is usually experienced as a combination of ignorance, prejudice and discrimination both in the workplace and outside.

An interdisciplinary study of employees in Australia and the UK found that individuals’ fear of mental health stigma at work means they don’t seek support if they are experiencing mental health issues. Participants admitted that they feel pressure to live up to cultural expectations of what it means to be a good employee, including being ‘mentally healthy’, capable and ‘able to cope’. They also identified the fear that disclosing mental health conditions would lead to judgement from employers, including being labelled as unreliable or unproductive.

What this lack of psychological safety means is that many organizations are failing to effectively identify at-risk employees. This results in a lack of support and impaired access to interventions that could help to improve employee wellbeing, thereby increasing the likelihood of absenteeism and reduced productivity.

The role of managers in creating psychologically safe workplaces

To improve psychological safety in the workplace, management training is crucial. In many workplaces, managers are not equipped to recognize or intervene when it comes to employee mental health. The vast majority also lack the knowledge they need to build a more inclusive workplace culture.

A study of workplace mental health conducted in Canada found that employees would report to managers that they were “sick” rather than disclosing mental health issues. Managers also expressed concern at their lack of training and conflicting company policies for handling employees with mental illness, demonstrating the need for a better strategy for managing employee mental health.

Workplace managers are well-positioned to influence the success of employees with mental illness through their involvement in establishing workplace culture and communication. In order to help managers excel in this role, thorough training is crucial.

Building a healthier workplace

Traditional workplace solutions for employee mental health frequently focus on the individual, rather than addressing broader workplace culture. However, the complexity of the problem means that it cannot be solved with simplistic or minimalist interventions.

Instead, organizations must develop a company-wide strategy to shape attitudes and behaviours of both managers and employees in order to generate an inclusive workplace culture where employees feel psychologically safe. This is the path to better employee mental health and wellbeing at work.

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