• Clare Hopkins

Employers are the drivers of societal change for mental health and inclusivity

On 18th March 2020 Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) launched their annual campaign called 'My Whole Self Day'. This was set it up with the core aim of raising employers awareness of the key role they need to play in supporting peoples mental health by creating inclusive workplaces were employees feel valued and safe. In other words, creating psychological safety at work to enable employees to show up as their whole self, without fear of judgement or retribution where they feel they have to choose which parts of their self they can show at work.

Work and our quality of life

We spend the highest proportion of our waking hours at work according to research showing the average person spends 13 years of their life at work. So how fulfilled we feel about the work we do has a huge impact on a persons quality of life, and just emphasises the key role that employers have in being a force for good, by contributing to a society where everyone's mental health matters.

Psychological safety

This term has become a buzz word when it comes to discussing ways employers can cultivate wellbeing in the workplace as we plan our way forward through this pandemic and look to redefine ways of working going forward.

The way in which we all had to respond to this crisis meant we all moved into a reactive mode to ensure our lives and business continued as best as possible, but we've now had time to reflect and begin to choose how we want to respond:

  • at an individual level - looking at how we want to integrate the different aspects of our life to ensure wellbeing for ourselves and our family; and

  • at an organisational level - looking at how work is best performed to meet business needs and how to also support employee wellbeing.

So what is psychological safety and why is it so important for employers to focus on this approach?

The term was first coined in 1990 by the psychologist William Kahn, but it was only in 1999 when Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams, and she has since gone on to conduct a wealth of research that proves this leads to business success.

Google conducted their own research back in 2012 over a number of years called Project Aristotle. It covered 180 teams across their organisation to examine why some teams thrived while others failed, and of the five key traits of high performing teams they discovered that psychological safety was the first and most essential element.

Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety at work as:

"a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes"

and explains that:

“team psychological safety involves but goes beyond interpersonal trust; it describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”

When it comes to workplace culture what this means is that employer's need to cultivate a shared belief by all employees that the work environment is a safe place for them to show up fully as their whole authentic selves, which is why I like to refer to it as authentic wellbeing.

If we look below at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, psychological safety at work covers 4 of the 5 human needs, providing employees with:

  • Safety - security of employment within a safe working environment

  • Belonging - feeling part of a team & part of something bigger with the business vision

  • Self Esteem - feeling the work they do makes a difference and is valued

  • Self Actualisation - a sense of fulfilment as they are able to be the best version of themselves

In addition when you have a workplace culture that moves beyond safety to meet the top three needs, you will have highly engaged employees who feel good at their jobs, know what's expected of them, and feel supported to do well in an organisation they feel aligned to with shared values.

What does cultivating psychological safety in the workplace look like?

I think many business owners may be cautious and unsure as to how this can practically be translated in their organisation. So below is a simple outline of what psychological safety looks like in an organisation and I also highlight what it doesn't mean. These are based on the book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy R Clark which is a great read for any business leader who wants to cultivate psychological safety in their organisation.

> Creating a culture of inclusion - this is about having respect for a person's humanity, regardless of any judgment of their worth based on the meaning we have been conditioned to believe about gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, social status, education etc.

  • This is about providing opportunities for employees in an organisation to develop their self awareness about any prejudices and stigmas they currently believe and how this could be translated through their interactions in the workplace. In addition, the employer should set out clear expectations of how they and their employees will manage their relationship to ensure inclusivity in the workplace through the psychological contract. Supported by processes and policies which embed the ways people are expected to work together, to demonstrate mutual respect and trust for each other and appreciate the diversity each person brings to the organisation.

For example:

  • New employees would complete a full induction around all areas of the business, to ensure they have a sound understanding and respect for how all the different departments and colleagues support each other to achieve the organisations vision, values and goals.

  • Floating holidays are encouraged to appreciate the various religious beliefs of employees, so for example if they are not Christian and do not celebrate Christmas Day they can take this time off at a time to reflect their religious celebrations.

> Creating a learning culture - this is about nurturing everyone's need to learn and grow in an environment that supports them through each stage of their learning curve, without fear of being demeaned, rejected or punished if they should struggle or make mistakes as they learn.

  • This requires leaders and managers to show genuine care for their employees by adopting a coaching culture, which is where the emphasis is on developing each employees unique potential. This requires all managers to develop coaching skills so they build effective and trusting relationships with colleagues, enabling them to confidently hold courageous conversations to address any issues promptly and provide appropriate feedback that empowers employees to develop more self awareness and come up with their own solutions.

For example:

  • Every employee at every level in the organisation has regular one to one's (weekly/fortnightly) with their line manager to enable timely feedback and recognition on work completed, discuss upcoming work and any potential obstacles and solutions, review learning and development progress and talk about their wellbeing to ensure they know support is available if needed.

  • When a team fails to meet a target there is a team meeting with everyone feeling safe to input into a discussion on the learnings to be taken from the situation, and how these can be applied for upcoming goals or projects. With action taken to ensure what is agreed is implemented with each team member taking personal responsibility to implement the actions for the betterment of the team.

> Enabling positive contribution - this is about employers assuming the best in their employees by trusting them to apply themselves to the best of their ability in their roles, enabling employees to have more ownership over their work and increase the value they add to the organisation.

  • The focus here is on the leaders and managers trusting employees to execute their roles effectively through enabling increased individual accountability based on performance, which would enable employees more freedom to innovate through increased involvement in how to approach challenges and strategic planning. The key benefits of which are increased employee engagement and increased organisational responsiveness and innovation.

For example:

  • Employees are invited to set their own goals to discuss with their manager, enabling them ownership in their role with the freedom to suggest new ways of working and share innovative ideas to add value to the team and organisation.

  • Succession planning would enable autonomy in exchange for performance, enabling employees to demonstrate competency as they develop to take on increased responsibility.

> Enabling positive challenge - this final level is where people in an organisation feel safe to challenge the status quo, and where leaders ensure that they role model the behaviours that enable employees to feel safe to challenge behaviours or ways of working that are not conducive to maintain shared values and a culture of psychological safety.

  • The focus here is on managers and leaders taking ownership of the key role they play in co-creating organisational wellbeing with employees, seeing it as part of the culture rather than an additional aspect to their role.

For example:

  • Ensuring that clear role responsibilities are in place for each employee along with policies and processes that provide a framework to underpin a culture that enables wellbeing.

  • A management competency framework is developed to ensure that all leaders and managers are accountable and clear on what role model behaviours are expected of them to cultivate psychological safety as well as organisational performance. Also to ensure the values of the organisation are embedded and are not just a few words no one can remember on a reception wall or website!

It's also important to add here that a psychologically safe workplace does not mean leaders and managers cannot challenge employees, as everyone needs to be challenged for personal growth. What it does mean for example is that they:

  • use a coaching conversation approach when challenging an employees behaviour, ideas, mistakes or performance in the workplace; and

  • have respect and awareness to adapt their approach for employees who may be experiencing poor mental health, as they may find conversations challenging their behaviour, idea, mistakes or performance more difficult than someone who has mental health.

Redefining how we work - next steps

With all the planning underway at the moment as people ease back to work, my hope is that business leaders and managers work with employees to gain their input into how to best co-create the working environment so that wellbeing is fully integrated into the culture, no longer an 'initiative'. As this is how we can positively impact inclusivity and mental wellbeing in society as we move forward out of the pandemic.

I am looking forward to partnering with small businesses this year to support them creating authentic wellbeing for their employees.

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