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Employees who feel both physically and psychologically safe are more likely to voice concerns and suggest ways to improve workplace processes.
When supervisors foster learning and open communication, they contribute to workplace cultures in which employees feel heard and free to express their views. Employees who fear reprisal in the form of being ignored, mocked, reprimanded or fired aren’t likely to speak up.
In the workplace, the need for whistleblower protections indicates there are still situations in which employees feel anxious or suppressed. There are 25 federal whistleblower protection statutes designed to protect employees who report violations of workplace safety, health, financial, consumer, anti-trust, tax and other laws.
In a recent development, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published an interim final rule in the Federal Register to establish procedures for handling employee retaliation complaints under the Taxpayer First Act, which protects employees who report potential tax law violations. The interim final rule went into effect on March 7, 2022; OSHA will accept comments online until May 6, 2022. (To learn more, refer to Whistleblower Protection for Employees Who Report Federal Tax Law Violations.)
In a noteworthy paper, Psychological Safety Influences Relationship Behavior, John Eggers, Ph.D., says “when people feel safe psychologically, the likelihood of engaging in behaviors that lead to greater learning and positive change are greater.” He explains that psychological safety requires trust behaviors such as being open to giving and receiving feedback, freely explaining motives and reasoning behind decisions, and aligning words with actions. Employees may need to be shown how to express their thoughts in the most constructive manner possible; supervisors may need to be taught how to receive and process employees’ suggestions.
Methodology to support psychological safety abounds. One commonly used tool is
Situation-Background-Assessment-Recommendation (SBAR), which provides a framework for team members to act on critical information in high-stress situations. Another is the SEA model:
The need for workers to feel psychologically safe cannot be underestimated. In a 2018 survey, the Pew Research Center found that 89 percent of Americans believe it is essential for business leaders to create a safe, respectful workplace. Since then, the need for psychological safety has become even more pronounced with shifts in attitude driven by COVID-19 and social movements focused on issues such as workers’ rights and equal treatment for women and people of color.
The psychological safety effects of work-from-home during the pandemic by those who were accustomed to going to a workplace are not yet fully understood. Home, or close proximity to it, is generally perceived as a safe place to be. But a new survey conducted in North America suggests that people who work alone in remote locales are vulnerable to safety-related stressors.
There are an estimated 53 million lone workers worldwide, nearly half of them are in the U.S., according to a report by TracPlus. Ground Control and TracPlus surveyed 224 lone workers and the people who supervise them in transport and cargo, utilities, agriculture, oil and gas, renewables, forestry and mining industries. Even with robust safety protocols, they found that the absence of reliable ways to communicate affected psychological safety. For example, among respondents, 93 percent said they sometimes or often work out of cell phone range. While this is a technical challenge, it is also a psychological one.
Regardless of location, the flip side of this survey is that many people are attached to their mobile phones and other communication devices and find it hard to shut down, relax and regroup. This is fertile ground for researchers interested in attachment theory. (Did you know that the Mobile Attachment Scale was developed in 2016 to assess various aspects of an individual’s relationship to their mobile phone?)
It is incumbent on employers to have a mobile device, computer and other communications technology use policies that acknowledge the psychological safety benefits and risks associated with them. That’s a topic for another day.
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