Fostering psychological safety in the workplace

Image Credit: Nik Shuliahin

We are teetering on the edge of a national mental health crisis and a potential mass exodus of top talent as secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The question remains whether your organisation is prepared and how you can sustain a healthy workforce through this crisis. 

We are currently in the most buoyant job market in almost 20 years and have gained confidence in the economy since the beginning of the pandemic. However, COVID-19’s toll on mental health has bubbled away in the background and is only now beginning to filter through to the workplace. 

The lived experience of Australians in the global pandemic continues to evolve, with work and family life having returned, for the most part, to normal. But lingering effects from the turmoil of last year will start to take hold even after the immediate danger of COVID-19 has passed.  

Medical experts refer to this stage as the ‘fourth wave’ of a pandemic, an incoming influx of mental health issues due to the pandemic, but not the virus itself.

These impacts on mental health are both long-term and hard-to-reverse. To future proof themselves, organisations can make small adjustments to their working environment to prepare for the acute and long-term impacts of COVID-19.

The impact of the fourth wave

Gartner research has revealed that all sectors of the workforce have experienced significant damage to workforce health, and we are not out of the woods yet.

During this new phase of the pandemic, we will see a spike in employees experiencing chronic fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. The reduced levels of social connection, the blurring of lines between work and home life, and longer working hours further contribute to increased mental exhaustion and psychological distress. 

Employees are already starting to feel the effects, with Gartner’s Global Talent Monitor revealing discretionary effort has already fallen to 16 per cent in Australia, and a mere nine per cent of Australian workers are considered ‘engaged’ in their work.

It’s predicted that the fourth wave of the pandemic will lead to a rise in employee absenteeism, a decline in productivity, and a surge in workers compensation claims due to an increase in workloads and psychological injury. 

The biggest concern is that workplaces are simply not prepared for the oncoming wave of employees experiencing pandemic-related psychological injury or burnout. 

What workplaces need to do

Organisations can tackle the looming ‘fourth wave’ of the pandemic by building a culture of psychological safety in the workplace. 

It’s more than introducing or extending wellbeing initiatives like yoga, mindfulness or resilience training. Organisations must proactively manage psychosocial hazards, employee workloads, be vigilant for signs of distress or psychological injury and understand how they can best support employees through what could be one of the hardest phases of the pandemic for Australians. 

Psychological safety is the shared belief that members of a team feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks. Organisations cultivating a safe space will encourage employee authenticity, learning and innovation, and drive business outcomes such as on-the-job effort and intent to stay.

Creating a psychologically safe space will help equip employees with tools to better cope with the fourth wave. Through daily interactions with employees, organisations should: 

  • Equip managers with the skills to create a psychologically safe environment

Managers should be aware of the psychosocial risk factors that inhibit psychological safety and have a range of policies and procedures supporting employees through a crisis. The three main risk factors are a lack of empathy, a lack of open communication and a lack of transparency on expected workplace behaviours and values. 

  • Celebrate conversations

Managers should celebrate and encourage employees to speak up about mental health issues and participate in open communication. They can express appreciation for employees’ willingness to vocalise questions, doubts and confusion, and help determine the best next steps.

  • Redesign the structure of work to minimise over-work

Leaders should adequately resource their teams and create consistent environmental expectations and effective communication around work structure. Managers should encourage team members to log off on time and take breaks away from their screen. Many organizations will need to consider implementing and enforcing “right to disconnect” principles to offset long-established “workaholic” cultures.  

  • Train and empower managers to be proactive when they see signs of distress

Ensure managers are trained to handle questions, concerns, disclosures, or allegations made by employees. If they witness signs of distress or breaches of psychological safety, they should be prepared to escalate a matter to the appropriate team and ask for guidance.

Organisations that promote a psychologically safe environment can expect their employees to exhibit integrity, welcome constructive criticism, respect other team members and exhibit higher overall resilience, work performance and intent to stay.


Read more: New mental health resources provide support to business owners

Read more: Understanding mental health


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By Aaron McEwan

Aaron McEwan is a VP, Research & Advisory for Gartner's HR Practice. A behavioural scientist and coaching psychologist, Mr. McEwan believes that great ideas, backed by rigorous science, have the power to unlock the potential of individuals, organizations and the world.