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What does it take to make a workplace psychologically safe?

Everyone wants to work in organisations where they are valued, supported, and free to voice their views. Our most recent Work with Purpose guests – Sarah Hawke from the Department of Health and Aged Care and Greg Vines from Comcare – dive into building psychologically safe workplaces and share practical ways to achieve this.

Working in an environment where people feel well-supported has obvious benefits to the individual, but organisations also thrive and succeed when employees feel psychologically safe. 

For our panellists, the pillars of a psychologically safe workplace are good communication, trust, and respect where everyone is treated with dignity and fairness. 

“[A psychologically safe workplace] is where people feel connected and engaged, and I'd say empowered to contribute at all levels. That's about having a shared understanding of the organisation's purpose and how their role and team contributes,” Sarah Hawke, assistant secretary, suicide prevention and priority populations’ mental health reform, Department of Health and Aged Care says.

Greg adds, “I think [another] important aspect is around diversity and inclusion, where diversity isn't just tolerated but celebrated. Taking into account the varied backgrounds and perspectives of people, which are the lifeblood of a healthy work environment.”

Be proactive in supporting employee wellbeing

Greg emphasises that support for employee wellbeing should be a foundation and not an afterthought, which is why employers should prioritise proactive mechanisms to support their employees. 

This means focusing on better awareness and capacity to effectively identify and eliminate psychological hazards at work. Greg explains that the new work, health, and safety regulations will better guide employers in managing psychological risks. The amendments also reinforce employers’ obligations to eliminate these hazards or minimise them to the greatest extent possible.

Greg mentions that there is a wide range of toolkits, educational programs, and outreach activities to assist workers in addressing issues at work.

“A large part of the work that Comcare does is to better equip and educate people to identify hazards, risks, and events, and to act swiftly to ensure that health and safety come above all else in the workplace,” he says.

Sarah underscores that even with the right skills and training, various work pressures and circumstances may still cause distress to employees, so quick responses are just as crucial.  

“Good supervision, trust, and communication are so important to be able to respond quickly and appropriately to a situation where an employee has been exposed to and affected by something distressing in the course of work. If we take that action to notice and respond early, then we can make a real difference to the impact of that exposure,” she says.

Foster good communication

Despite psychological safety’s obvious benefits, there can be barriers to achieving it.

“Common areas of breakdown in terms of psychological safety are poor communication, failure to deal with emerging workplace conflict effectively, lack of role clarity, and lack of understanding of the organisational purpose,” Sarah says.

Communication has also become more challenging with remote working, which can lead to psychological risks such as bullying through exclusion or isolation caused by missed opportunities to engage with colleagues. 

“We've got to make sure that the appropriate practices apply to work wherever work is done. For some employees, working from home can also be quite an isolating situation. It can further exacerbate problems, where people are working in a home environment that might have conflict in it or that might not have the capacity for people to be able to work properly, that can have impacts on their mental health and wellbeing as well,” Greg says.

For Sarah, good communication can be fostered if more effort is put into forging connections with remote colleagues. 

“There's got to be greater thought and consideration being put into how you communicate, where [there are] more efforts to talk on the phone or virtually rather than sending emails, which are capable of being misunderstood, and compensating for those casual conversations that you would have in the office about how work is delegated,“ she says.

Cultivate trust for frank and fearless advice

While public servants are expected to provide frank and fearless advice, our guests reiterate the need for a healthy psychological workplace to deliver such.

“We can't have confidence that people will be able to give that frank and fearless advice if they feel at risk of intimidation or of some other sort of punitive action of isolation or whatever it may be,” Greg says.

“So, trust and respect [must be] the foundation in all the relationships and service delivery in the public sector.”

Sarah adds, “For me, it's about being authentic, open, creating trust, and that takes time. You've got to make the time to check in with staff and seek feedback.”

Uphold dignity at work

Creating a safe workplace boils down to respecting one another and sticking to proper conduct.

“If you want a safe environment, the diversity of people must be respected, and the opportunities for people must be provided. As I indicated before, things like bullying and harassment just simply cannot be tolerated in a workplace,” Greg says.

Greg concludes by saying that everyone has a play to part in cultivating that culture of respect in the workplace, where everyone can thrive without fear of any negative encounter or treatment.



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