By Renée Gendron
Workplace safety discussions tend to focus on physical hazards, improper use of equipment and improper handling of hazardous materials. These are all critical aspects of safety and they all pertain to physical security. But we also need to look at issues of emotional and psychological safety in addition to physical security.
Emotional safety is a term used in relationship counselling to describe the relative trust between intimate partners. I think the concept does apply to workplaces as well in the context of trust between employees, and trust between employees and leadership. Trust in the employee-employer relationship can be defined as the ability of the employee and employer to show candour and vulnerability in discussions about workplace matters, without fear of personal repercussions.
If trust is strained, then people don’t feel comfortable or capable of signalling a hazard, and in turn, accidents are more likely to happen.
Trust can be established by setting set high stands for personal responsibility and accountability throughout the organization. When a manager he will look into a problem but he doesn't, it harms trust. When a safety issue is flagged, and no corrective action is taken, that damages trust. Trust is earned through consistent alignment between what people say they will do and what they actually do.
When an action cannot be carried out as described initially, always clearly communicate the reason why. In the real world, problems, mistakes and challenges arise. Strategies don’t work. Solutions often lead to more questions. Communicate why things didn’t work out according to plan and express how you continue to work towards a solution to the identified problem
Psychological safety is the degree to which a person feels safe in sharing work-related matters without fear of damaging their self-esteem, their self-identity or suffering repercussions on their careers.
Even with safety officers, best practices and excellent leadership, safety matters arise. Workplaces change over time, equipment is updated and processes are modified. All of this means that people need to adapt to emerging circumstances. And this new reality requires employees to communicate new risks.
The thing is employees will only flag new hazards when they feel safe to do so. When an employee feels threatened by sanctions, social ostracism (as being perceived as the troublemaker, the one who adds more work or the one who costs the company money), or a stunted career, they don’t feel psychologically safe.
To improve psychological safety, have clear and transparent guidelines as to how people are hired and promoted. As part of the promotion requirement, attribute points for candidates who have concretely improved workplace safety on any level (physical, emotional, psychological).
Make it part of the corporate culture to have regular conversations about the different types of safety and publicly reward those who make contributions.
Physical safety will not be achieved until emotional and psychological safety concerns are addressed. The simple reason is that no one will flag issues until they feel secure in doing so. When raising matters of workplace safety, always remember employees are human beings and have emotional, psychological, as well as physical concerns.
Renée Gendron is the principal of Vitae Dynamics in Russell, Ont. She works with professionals, associations, businesses and entrepreneurs to help them hone their skills. Her work centres on self-leadership, leadership and conflict. Gendron offers bilingual SMRT services – speaking, mediation, research and training. Visit www.vitaedynamics.com
for more information.