Rebuilding psychological safety in the workplace post-coronavirus

Employee mental health and organisational outcomes are at risk but there are steps business leaders can take to reinforce psychological safety in the workplace, according to UNSW Business School's Frederik Anseel

The coronavirus recovery is in sight, but organisational health and wellbeing remain at risk. Burnout, stress, and anxiety were significant issues in the workplace and society in general long before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary. Mental illness is the leading cause of absence and long-term incapacity in the workplace. Throw in the global pandemic's mental health impact, and the next few months could be enormously challenging as Australians trickle back into their communal workspaces.

So business leaders and employees must brace themselves for an aftershock and be prepared to meet a dramatically heightened need for support and mental health services. We will all be returning to the office a little more mentally fragile than when we left. While the coronavirus pandemic has awakened many employers to the benefits of flexible working arrangements, what else can businesses do to weather the storm that is yet to come?

Research linking psychological safety to workplace mental health shows there are certain ways leaders can communicate with employees to instil a sense of trust and improve organisational outcomes, according to Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School, and an organisational psychologist whose research focuses on the psychological micro-foundations of organisational learning, innovation and entrepreneurship and how leadership can optimally support these processes.

How has coronavirus impacted psychological safety?

Psychological safety refers to the feeling that people have when they can bring their whole self to work, speak up and come up with ideas – which is extremely important for performance, explained Professor Anseel. "You need to feel safe so you can come with new ideas, try new things, and that is also from where you get your energy and your motivation," he said.

But what is happening in this crisis is that psychological safety is under threat. "People don't know what the future will bring; they hear a lot about job cuts, salary cuts, being uncertain about the future of the company, the future of their careers. So suddenly, people become very cautious in what they do and what they say at work," said Professor Anseel.

With most people working from home, or in very exceptional circumstances, it is not easy for managers to check-in informally with people to see if everything is okay or if what they're doing is okay. 

"So, they don't have a lot of information about how they're currently seen in the work environment because they're a bit isolated and they're uncertain about the future," said Professor Anseel. "They don't feel psychologically safe anymore, and that creates a lot of stress for people," he added.

Employee stressed working from home-min.jpg
With psychological safety under threat, managers must find new ways of checking in on employees informally to see if they're ok. Image: Shutterstock

So how can business leaders go about improving psychological safety to boost organisational outcomes?

Communicate proactively and meaningfully

Organisations may mean well when they communicate about turbulent business environments or when they're honest about a difficult financial situation, but in doing so, they could be creating more uncertainty. Too much of this sort of communication could be undermining people's psychological safety, making them insecure and suspicious about the company's plans, warned Professor Anseel.

"People don't want to hear that you're listening, they want to see that you're listening"

Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School

Rather than sending mixed messages, what business leaders should do is engage in reassuring one to one conversations with employees, acknowledging any verbal agreements that had been made pre-pandemic, and negotiate new psychological contracts.

Professor Anseel recommended employers also explain that they are doing everything they can to make sure employees thrive in their job, that their job is still essential and that they will get all the information they need to continue working effectively. 

Organisations and leaders must also engage with employees on a fundamental level, encouraging employees to reach out to leaders about how they're doing and how they would like to be supported to continue to do their job as well as possible.

Professor Anseel also explained that although leaders and managers would have been trained in crisis communication, and may have learned to communicate clearly and quickly, the present situation may require a more personal approach.

Leader conversing with employee_Inline-min.jpg
Company-wide crisis communication is important when problems arise, but interpersonal relationships with leaders ensures that employees feel safe to ask questions. Image: Shutterstock

"Imagine that you're in the place of these employees and you get all these emails from all sorts of places and you're feeling that no one's listening to you," said Professor Anseel. "People don't want to hear that you're listening, they want to see that you're listening. They want to see in your behaviour and your decisions and your actions that you're listening."

So, the challenge for organisations is how to organise communication to reach thousands of employees. Businesses must open up communication channels, engage in one to one conversations, and then capture what they've heard.

"Bring that back to people and say: 'Look, this is what you're telling me, I've listened, I've reflected on it, and this is what I'm going to do.' That will instil a sense of trust when they see that you're changing your decisions based on what you've heard from them," said Professor Anseel.

Acknowledge and renegotiate past agreements

If there had been an informal verbal contract with an employee pre-pandemic about working hours, training or a specific program that the person would follow, but is no longer possible, this will necessitate another conversation and new agreement – and should not be ignored.

"It's best to be very open about it and say: 'Look, I know, we had agreed upon this, but these are very exceptional circumstances. At the moment, we cannot go through with this. But as soon as the situation sort of normalises, we’ll find a way to fulfil our promise'," suggested Professor Anseel.

Informal workplace_Inline-min.jpg
Employees feel psychological safety when they have a chance to digest information, ask questions and raise concerns in the workplace. Image: Shutterstock

He recommended that employers try and respect verbal agreements as much as possible or aim to renegotiate. Doing the above will help instil a new sense of trust; employees can accept that some of the verbal contracts will not be fulfilled, but there will be time set aside to renegotiate in the future.

"A lot of people are a bit distrustful about whether employers will remember in six months or a year. So you need to acknowledge the previous sort of promise… it would help if you also made it very clear that a new negotiation will happen in the future where everything that has happened will be taken into account," he continued.

For example, if employees have put in extra effort, time and work to help the business survive the crisis – or perhaps they've sacrificed hours and pay – then this must be acknowledged and rewarded once it is viable for the company to do so.

For more information on leading in times of crisis to improve organisational outcomes, please contact UNSW Business School's Professor Frederik Anseel directly, or listen to this AGSM webinar on leading through a crisis: from coping to thriving.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy