• Blog
  • March 15, 2023

Getting rid of ‘the fear factor’ at work has never been more important

Amanda Kerley, our Chief Operating Officer recently shared her thoughts on psychological safety with The Herald.

The expression “psychological safety” isn’t something everyone’s talking about, yet – but HR professionals are increasingly in tune with it, and it’s starting to filter into everyday thinking this winter as we contend with what can often feel like a growing list of issues.

While we can’t control outside events, we can make our workplaces more human. Work can – and should – be somewhere people can feel fulfilled, stimulated and supported.

Psychological safety is widely defined as “allowing people to flourish at work without fear of retribution for mistakes or setbacks”.

The key word there is “fear” – one of the biggest contributors to low wellbeing. I think I speak for most when I say we’ve all had quite enough of fear over the past few years. Microsoft has even suggested we are amid a “human energy crisis” and I think that sums it up perfectly.

Fear – whether it’s of failure, your boss or of losing your job – can lead to poor productivity, chronic self-doubt, exhaustion, overwhelm, and a serious risk of burnout. Many are already anxious enough as they try to make ends meet, without daily work life adding to an already heavy load.

Psychological safety is the opposite of fear. It’s being in a team that has your back, and knowing you can (respectfully) challenge the status quo or share concerns without negative repercussions.

There are benefits for employers too when people feel psychologically safe. They will be more creative and productive, and there will likely be less conflict between team members.

For leaders who already know this, most probably assume they are running a psychologically safe workplace. But are they really? And how can they find out?

We are undoubtedly seeing more organisations move towards addressing employee wellbeing, but some of the most common initiatives – such as “mental health days” or free access to mindfulness apps – are akin to putting a sticking plaster on what could become a gaping wound.

I’m not disputing these have their place, but they won’t have much impact if the person has to return to the same problems that caused them to need time off in the first place. They also don’t make the organisation examine the root causes of excessive stress and fear.

To make a real difference to wellbeing, we need bigger changes, like tackling excessive workload or issues like bullying.

To identify those, listening is key – and no matter how psychologically safe your workplace is, there are always going to be some who don’t feel comfortable speaking out when they have an audience.

One way for leaders to address this is through online engagement platforms, where workers can voice their concerns digitally, in an employee-only space. If they can do this anonymously, even better.

No matter how you’re planning to listen, how you phrase questions is also important. If you ask an employee if they are feeling stressed, they will probably say “no”. If you ask them, ‘How can I help you?’ or ‘What can I do to make things easier for you?’, they are more likely to open up.

Knowing they will be helped rather than judged – so, psychologically safe – encourages people to seek support sooner, with positive results for employees and employers alike.