The Psychology of Safety: It’s a State of Mind

Safety in the workplace is just as much about injury as it is about emotional and mental wellness.

The correlation between health and wellness and workplace safety continues to grow stronger. Many of today’s safety professionals agree that the broader organizational focus on wellness many companies are embracing is taking its natural path—a path that overlaps with employee safety in and outside of the workplace.

Safety is no longer just about avoiding injury in the workplace. It’s about ensuring the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of employees, in and out of the workplace, so they are healthy, alert and engaged while at work. This, in turn, contributes to the prevention of mistakes that can lead to accidents and injury.

But what does this have to do with psychology, you ask?

According to Great Place to Work Inc. CEO Michael C. Bush, “When people feel they can be themselves at work they are experiencing psychological safety, which also allows them to share their unique perspectives, their diverse experiences and their most creative ideas without fear of criticism that may otherwise stifle them.”

Simply put, Bush said, “by creating an environment where employees feel safe to be themselves, they are positioned to be the very best they can be.”

This concept has also been widely researched and accepted in the safety industry. Consider the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Total Worker Health (TWH) program which recognizes that work is a social determinant of health. The TWH approach integrates workplace interventions that protect safety and health with activities that advance the overall well-being of workers. Job-related factors such as wages, hours of work, workload and stress levels, interactions with coworkers and supervisors, access to paid leave, and health-promoting workplaces all can have an important impact on the wellbeing of workers, their families and their communities.

Here’s another example of psychological workplace safety: PwC Chairman Tim Ryan began a movement, called “CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion,” during his first week on the job in response to a national incident that involved interracial police shootings. He wanted to create an open dialogue with his PwC employees about how this incident impacted them. By making it safe for his employees to openly have this conversation, challenges and struggles were made known, which led to empathy, support and change within the organization.

Ryan’s effort now includes participation by more than 900 CEOs from some of the largest companies. These CEOs publicly pledge to create a safe workplace environment that fosters dialogue, mitigates unconscious bias, and shares best and worst practices. Results of these efforts have not yet been measured, but the conversations are taking place and executives are starting to understand their importance to the organization.

This all begs the question: “As a safety professional, how do I integrate these factors into my workplace safety plan?” One way is to utilize your safety incentive programs to communicate and recognize more of these non-traditional safety initiatives. Here are a few suggestions on how to make this happen:

  • Connect with your HR Department to learn what your organization is doing to address health & wellness for its employees. You may be surprised to find out a recognition program is already in place.
  • Find out if any these health and wellness programs or other corporate initiatives overlap with what you are trying to accomplish with your safety strategy. Work with HR and other key stakeholders in the company to brainstorm how you can collaborate to drive better results across the board.
  • Begin building more about health and wellness into your safety communications. This will help to build awareness and engagement.
  • Recognize and reward employees for exhibiting behaviors or completing tasks that improve their health and wellness and contribute to workplace safety.

Safety, after all, is a state of mind, and one of the five basic needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When employees do not feel safe in their environment—physically, psychologically, financially, or morally—we cannot expect them to reach their full potential.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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