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Creating safe spaces at work: Reducing stigma and changing attitudes to personal psychological safety

When we think about safety at work, we often think of physical safety. You might think of practical items like PPE, or training in high-risk equipment or areas. It’s rare that when we consider safety at work, we think of psychological safety. 

The focus on health and safety has grown over the last century and finding ways to help workers live healthier, longer lives and operate safely remains a key aim for many industries and organizations. Experts have identified advances in safety equipment, better understanding of substance exposure, and reducing the risk of injury or death. As a result, even the most dangerous industries are now able to reduce their level of risk and have an improved level of safety.

The same cannot be said for psychological safety.

Psychological safety is broadly defined as the ability to show one’s self without fear of negative consequence or impact. In order to feel psychologically safe, criteria for the following have to be met: feeling included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, safe to challenge norms or commonly held values, and to do so without risking ridicule or reprisal.

It isn’t a particularly new concept, but as the workforce grows and shifts to take on ideas of new generations, it’s been recognised as something of vital importance. People want to be able to be their ‘whole self’ at work; they want to express themselves without fear and speak up about issues or ideas they may have. If an organization is not fostering an environment of psychological safety, employees will not feel able to do this and the business will continue to be driven by the most common ideas and values – which may not be working for the majority.

What is a safe space, and how can we create them?

The term safe space might make you think of signs at doctor’s offices or pharmacies where people who are suffering from abuse and other psychological injury can reach out. A safe space at work is where work and ideas can be discussed openly, without fear of reprisal or risk to your job, where you can listen to others and be heard in your thoughts and opinions. You can see from this list that it shares many of the same criteria as psychological safety, so you can see how they go hand-in-hand.

Safe spaces are essential for helping new ideas to flourish in a workforce. When people know they can speak up and discuss their thoughts without risk, it allows exploration of all kinds of new approaches and ways of working. People should feel comfortable enough to share their opinions and ideas, and those listening should be open minded to take on board different approaches and ways of thinking/working. 

Changing Attitudes and Overcoming Stigma

Businesses and organizations are built on the idea that everyone in them is working towards profit and productivity 100% of the time. As humans, we know this isn’t true, and impossible to achieve. Regardless, employees have been conditioned over years to only show traits at work that will help a business achieve their goals. Search ‘professional characteristics’ and you’ll see that a narrow set of ideals exists and none of them are related to helping people be expressive and safe in the workplace.

There is an attitude within most corporate organizations that a person expressing emotion is a liability. Similarly, for people who struggle to stay motivated or productive, there is a perception that they are a drain on resources and not contributing. This very narrow view does not take into account why a person might not be ‘giving their all’. Are they frustrated with a new process? Are they struggling to fit in with a new team? Are they having marital problems? There are so many variables in a person’s life that will inevitably affect them at work; we need to understand people as whole beings and not just work personas.

It’s unfortunate that these attitudes and ideas around ‘good’ workers persist. It’s partially due to the fact that they work – from a perspective of organizational success at least.  Fortunately, some businesses are adopting the ideas of the whole self at work, bringing in the ideas of cross department and cross-cultural collaboration, and building more inclusive spaces.

Google is well known for being a maverick with its approach to employees and working hours. But it’s shown time and again that the methods they use not only work, but employees thrive at Google offices. People are encouraged to collaborate, share creative ideas, and take part in peer-to-peer coaching to name a few approaches. Google has worked hard to create a culture that is founded on a high level of trust and respect for employees, who in turn are able to reach new levels of potential through this independence and admiration. In essence, the entire Google office is a safe space, where people can speak up and discuss without fear of being ridiculed because the whole office is doing exactly that.

Of course, not all organizations will suit the Google way of working, but there is something to be taken away. By trusting employees, by giving them the tools to succeed, they have created a space whereby people have naturally collaborated, supported and worked with each other.

Organizations need to stop being afraid of change and start embracing it. Open the floor to discussion with employees and colleagues and see what their suggestions are. Design your own safe space and start promoting ideas of psychological safety and the whole self at work. By trying and testing new ideas and ways of working, it might seem risky to your business plan. But we cannot grow without trial and error – sometimes it requires faith in your employees, business and customers to make a huge change for the better.

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