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We need to focus on Psychological Safety, not wellbeing, says LSE

Learning & Development 15th January 2024

Psychological Safety LSE - PS over WellbeingEmployee wellbeing was high on the HR agenda before the Covid-19 period turned it into a major priority. Workplace wellbeing has become an industry in itself, with organisations investing in wellbeing strategies, wellbeing-focused managers, and everything from subsidised gym memberships and yoga sessions to free massages, meditation apps and fruit baskets.

But the focus on wellbeing and wellbeing benefits can be the wrong approach, says new research from the London School of Economics. As common sense would suggest, all employees really want is a decent working environment: one without bullying and burnout. They’ll look after their health in their own ways and in their own time.

Rather than a focus on wellbeing, the researchers concluded that the attention should be on dealing with ‘ill-being’ in practical ways — in other words, by delivering ‘Psychological Safety’. Around a third of the employees interviewed by the LSE’s psychological and behavioural scientists said that job demands, lack of flexibility and how they were being treated, were having a significant affect on their mental and physical health. The report authors have recommended that employers make an assessment of the ways in which particular organisational practices might be contributing to ill-being.

The problem is that some employers have preferred to avoid dealing with issues around what might be unreasonable job stresses, poor management and inappropriate behaviours. It’s much easier to introduce eye-catching perks than look at underlying causes.

The importance of Psychological Safety

Feelings of trust and Psychological Safety are the real source of wellbeing for anyone, whatever challenges and insecurities they have to deal with. Employees need to feel able to speak up and have difficult conversations when they need to, as a means of moving forward and dealing with what might be a simple misunderstanding, a minor cause for unease, that can either be easily cleared up — and not be allowed to fester over years into de-motivation, disconnection and ill-health.

So while employee wellbeing will always be a critical issue, there needs to be clarity over what’s involved and the most effective role for employers. What the LSE research doesn’t reflect is the extent to which some wellbeing programmes are trying to get to the roots of ill-being: through giving access to occupational health services (in the case of the impact of work on physical health in particular), and via Employee Assistance Programmes to counselling and support on issues relating to mental health.

But Psychological Safety and wellbeing comes from a good workplace culture, not just the potential for access to services. Honesty and maturity is needed among both line managers and their reports to have conversations  about work and the impact of work without there being a constant fear of implications on both sides: a practical language for dealing with truth rather than the clichés and buzzwords around drive and excitement and commitment that have become an insidious feature of 21st century organisations.

For HR that means having good skills and processes. Soft skills like listening, empathy, self-awareness and curiosity (and how to use them to deal with more difficult conversations) are increasingly critical in our hybrid, dislocated workplaces. As a backbone of support: access to mediation and neutral assessment as the norm rather than as a response to a potential crisis or collapse in relationships.

Only when a routine of good conversations and practices around disputes are the distinguishing feature of a workplace can there be a genuine sense of safety.

Photo by Jopwell