Do we ask employees to share enough responsibility for “workplace psychological safety”?

There is a lot of great, recent research and writing on workplace psychological safety – a search engine query I just did yielded over 77M results (I’m sure of varying quality and relevance, but you get my point). I like seeing work (and especially free toolkit-type content for HR professionals to help out!) focused on seeking more ways to create employee engagement and find another business performance edge – in all the ways you can define it. Who doesn’t like the idea of creating a psychologically safe work environment so both employees and employers can thrive?

Here’s a high-level list of business case elements for creating this type of work environment (from the Am. Psychological Association – link in Resource Page): 

  • Benefits to employees including increased job satisfaction, higher morale, better physical and mental health, enhanced motivation, and improved ability to manage stress.
  • Benefits to the organization including improved quality, performance and productivity, reduced absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover, fewer accidents and injuries, better able to attract and retain top-quality employees, improved customer service and satisfaction, and lower healthcare costs.

Pretty straightforward, no? 

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) and the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) pulled together research Canadian workplace to distill their recommendations and (free!) employer resources to these 13 elements for building a psychologically healthy work environment (text from the CCOHS page):

  1. Psychological Support is an environment supportive of employees’ psychological and mental health concerns, and responds appropriately.
  2. Organizational Culture is a work environment characterized by trust, honesty, and fairness.
  3. Clear Leadership & Expectations is effective leadership and support that helps employees know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization, and whether there are impending changes.
  4. Civility & Respect is where interactions are respectful and considerate.
  5. Psychological Competencies & Requirements is a good fit between employees’ interpersonal and emotional competencies and the requirements of the position.
  6. Growth & Development is encouragement and support for the development of employee interpersonal, emotional and job skills.
  7. Recognition & Reward includes appropriate acknowledgement and appreciation of employees’ efforts in a fair and timely manner.
  8. Involvement & Influence is where employees are included in discussions about how their work is done and how important decisions are made.
  9. Workload Management is where tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.
  10. Engagement is where workers feel connected to their work and are motivated to do their job well.
  11. Balance is where there is recognition of the need for balance between the demands of work, family and personal life.
  12. Psychological Protection is where psychological safety is ensured, workers feel able to ask questions, seek feedback, report mistakes and problems, or propose a new idea without fearing negative consequences.
  13. Protection of Physical Safety is where appropriate action to protect the physical safety of employees.

Good stuff, right? And broadly applicable since we’re talking about concepts like organizational culture and leadership and physical safety that cross industry and socio-cultural lines. 

So here’s where I have a question – please comment what you think about this? The literature I’m seeing focuses on what the employer and the organization (including individual leaders) can do to foster this kind of environment. By what about the employee accountability angle? What should employers expect from individual employees in terms of effort, engagement, etc. 

The analogy I’m thinking of is the employer that provides a great wellness program and “does everything right” but only a few employees make the effort to participate. Which one has control of that – employer or employees? Some would say it’s on the employer to find a way to enagage employees in these efforts in all circumstances. I don’t think that’s realistic. 

I think there has to be some shared responsibility between the organization and its employees.  But I’m not seeing that in the literature for the psychologically healthy workforce. I know it’s not a black and white question or answer, but definitely a new perspective to explore and I would argue stands to make this type of organizational work even more powerful. 

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