Psychological safety is a term that still carries with it a lack of clarity. That is completely understandable. It is a relatively new concept in regards to workplace safety and there is little documentation that helps understand how to achieve this in the workplace.

But this is all changing with documents including ISO Standard 45003 Psychological Health and Safety at Work released in 2021 and work safe authorities Australia releasing, or in the process of releasing, regulations relating to psychological safety for employers. These all add to helping employers understand their roles and responsibilities further.

Yet how does this relate to workplace bullying and how could you respond to prevent this psychosocial risk reoccurring in the future?

Understanding a psychosocial hazard

A psychosocial hazard, according to Safe Work Australia, is ‘anything that could cause psychological harm (eg. harm someone’s mental health)’. They identify a list of psychosocial risks including job control, violence and aggression, bullying and harassment (including sexual), conflict or poor work relations, poor physical environment only to name a few.

A recent Deloitte report provides that the most common reasons for mental injury in the workplace are workplace bullying, high job demands, exposure to work related violence, exposure to traumatic events, and harassment (including sexual harassment).

Management of these psychosocial risks, therefore, requires employers to examine the likelihood of that to occur within their workplace against the level of injury to plan for its control. An important part of this is achieving the goal through consultation with employees. The ultimate goal is prevention.

Connecting psychosocial safety to learning from workplace bullying

Let’s start thinking about creating a psychosocially safe workplace from a bullying perspective. Our starting point shall be that you have a bullying claim utilising a very simple example.

Mary approaches her manager, Tom, advising that she is being bullied by her colleague. This has been occurring for six months. Tom’s response is that her colleague is ‘like that with everyone’. She just needs to develop a thicker skin.

As an employer, this presents an opportunity to learn from what has occurred to create a psychologically safer workplace. Whether your role is HR, H&S or manager, the opportunity is yours. While you may investigate the incident under your complaints process, the opportunity is to ask questions as to learn why things happened and what needs to change to stop it from reoccurring.

For example, you ask Mary what stopped her from acting six months ago, and she might respond I didn’t recognise I was being bullied or I thought it was my fault or I thought they were just having a bad day. You ask when she did realise, did she try anything to stop it from happening? She tells you she didn’t feel she could approach Tom because she didn’t feel safe doing so and is somewhat unapproachable. She didn’t know who else she could go to. But she did go to Tom when she couldn’t cope anymore because she was at her wits end.

Interviewing Tom brought the following insights. He confirmed his opinion that Mary and other members of his team needed to develop a thicker skin. Even if he had the time given his workload, he didn’t really know how it could have been resolved in any case.

Developing a solutions focused plan

The above gives us knowledge to start building a psychologically safe workplace free from bullying. This information you can use to establish a plan > do > check > act process, which helps you meet your compliance obligation from a health and safety perspective.

Actions in the plan from Mary’s discussion may include:

  • How to identify bullying in the workplace for all employees covering both what behaviours to look for and the signs they are being bullied
  • How to intervene early through conflict management approaches with poor behaviour for all employees.

Actions in the plan from Tom’s discussion may include:

  • Leadership and/or empathy training for all managers
  • Managing conflict and/or performance training for all managers

Ensure your assessment considers broader systems and processes

It is important to broaden your thinking in developing your plan and think about how the link to other workplace systems and processes.

For example, Tom interview may lead to reviewing organisational recruitment systems. Are leadership skills and approaches, and associated questions, included in the recruitment process? If they don’t have the skills, how might you up-skill potential great leaders for those roles?

Tom also mentioned his workload. This can be another psychosocial risk. Do you need to explore this in greater detail to identify and manage this risk?

Another example for the plan may be how do you implement the check phase? Do you plan an anonymous employee survey annually to measure improvement of the workplace culture and adjust as required?

Psychological safety requires us to think about how people interact with each other in a healthy and safe way; and how systems interact with them. Doing this allows us to implement controls to mitigate risk. It will require adjustments in thinking and action across employers big and small. But this is what allows employees to go home safe and well at the end of the day, and saves your business in direct and indirect costs.