Culture Hack #3 - Psychological Safety - Mental Health. What's the Difference?

I’m asked that question a lot. We know employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace. This means safe from physical harm, and also psychological harm. To date, many employers have taken a very ‘physical' approach. Only recently are we (in my humble opinion) beginning to see and understand that psychological safety is a thing. So is there a difference between psychological safety and mental health? Yes! Let's explore and then talk Hack #3.

Let’s start with the term most people understand and use. For years we’ve been talking about mental health in the workplace. We respect that in terms of ‘illness’ a person can be physically or mentally unwell. It’s been encouraging, particularly over the past 10 years, to see an increasing general acceptance of mental health’s ‘real-ness’ and the freedom for employees to use sick leave and the same mechanisms they have traditionally used for physical illness.

Definition of mental health

1: the condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental illness and by adequate adjustment especially as reflected in feeling comfortable about oneself, positive feelings about others, and the ability to meet the demands of daily life. (Meriam Webster)

Employers have generally assumed that mental illness is a non-work related issue. Good ones provide supports such as Employee Assistance programs and even health and wellness strategies. These are great initiatives. They are only effective if we have the base right. We need to recognise that our employees spend almost half their waking lives at work AND that some of the causes, or at least contributors to mental health issues may just lie within the workplace. We must provide safety psychologically in order to prevent harm.

In my observation and work over the past 15 or so years, we haven't really had a focus on preventing psychological harm - creating psychological safety. Bullying, harassment, discrimination and ‘stress claims’ have been present; a lurking risk for employers who often question the validity of the individual’s claim. I could write multiple blogs about just that topic, but let’s move forwards, not back.

Psychological safety - it matters!

If I am required as an employer legally to provide psychological safety, what does that mean?

It means a workplace ‘free from psychological harm’.

  1. No harassment or bullying – that’s pretty clear – it’s also illegal. Click here for an extensive list of resources.

  2. No discrimination – Also Illegal. Click here.

Just like in physical safety, we need to take more care than just the law. We need to assess risk, identify hazards, implement controls and look for best practice. We need to respect that the ‘safest’ organisations are also the most successful and profitable. This goes well beyond the physical realm.

“Poor psychological safety costs Australian organisations $6 billion per annum in lost productivity. This is primarily because psychological injuries typically require three times more time off work than other injuries” (Source: Dr Peta Miller, Special Adviser for Safe Work Australia,Safework Australia).

And by the way, workplaces with poor psychological safety take 43% more sick leave.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in how you get the best from your teams, than in minimum standards. Psychological Safety creates great spaces for teams to achieve high performance. And at the same time, provides inclusion and leads to greater opportunities for equity, creativity and innovation.

I digress. After all of that, just what is the definition of psychological safety? No major international dictionary has one, so I’ll use this one

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (Kahn 1990, p. 708)

R U OK? collaborated with iCare and world leader Amy Edmonsen and in 2017 launched Australia's first study into psychological safety in the workplace. They found that

"..only 23 per cent of lower income-earning front-line employees felt their workplace was “psychologically safe” to take a risk, compared to 45 per cent of workers on significantly higher incomes"

To read that article click here.

“psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs” (Amy Edmondsen - Harvard Business Review)

There’s a well known study I’d like to share.

In 2012 Google decided to invest heavily in figuring out ‘what makes the perfect team’. They reviewed 50 years worth of research into the topic and then mapped thousands of teams from within Google. They reviewed all the normal demographic data such as gender, age, ethnic background and even looked into social relationships such as whether people were ‘friends’ at work and socialised outside of work.

Here’s what happened – they couldn’t find any trends that suggested any particular mix of ‘who’ is in a team drives the performance of the team. So they started looking at behaviours and group behavioural norms. It got worse – they found that various groups that were highly successful at group norms that were wildly different from other equally successful groups! The research at that point concluded that successful teams rely heavily and shared and understood group norms. They just weren’t able to define the best ones.

So it was back to the research.. long story short, through a combination of further research on past studies, and their own work, the researchers came up with a common norm.

The successful groups had members that described their leaders as people who made them feel ‘safe’ to give an opinion, input, disagree and so on.

In fact they found that the one common thing all team members talked about when describing their team, was how their team made them feel. Successful teams felt safe and consistent and less successful ones didn’t. And don’t be fooled into thinking safe and consistent means low risk taking, conservative or highly organised. Some teams had strong disciplines in terms of how they interacted and ran group discussions. Others were informal, and allowed conversations to vary and shift track.

The one interesting finding that differentiated the teams that succeeded was this. Irrespective of how the meeting played out, everyone at the table spoke for approximately the same time - whether in a highly structured manner, or not. That suggests that psychological safety is where everyone feels safe to contribute and to do so as themselves - and that by their actions suggests an honest determination to give everyone voice.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a

‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’

The study concluded that Psychological Safety was the thing that mattered MOST in high performing teams. This was followed by Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning and finally Impact. You can read more here.

As we wrap up this topic, a very very simple fact remains:

The most important habit in providing psychological safety is to listen – listen actively, with curiosity, with respect for difference and with freedom to disagree.

At Culturise we have a powerful hack that we call ‘The Levels of Listening and Engagement’. It is a model that was inspired by an old friend and colleague – Tanya Lacy of Intercept Experience. By defining the levels of listening and engagement we show greater respect for others in listening and we unlock our power to respond to others, and make decisions based on future outcomes, rather than old habits. The Levels creates a team language that encourages better listening and engagement, and also deeper consideration of other people’s views. The language is easy, it’s fun and it becomes habit when practiced.

If you’d like to know more about the ‘hacks’ that we use with our clients to build these habits, get in touch at

Thanks for reading 😊

(Cover image courtesy of Sorbetto, Getty Images)

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