Psychological safety is achieved when an employee feels that they can be their authentic self, especially in a team setting, and not suffer any negative consequences as a result. The realization that an employee should have a safe environment where they can be who they are every day at work is something that became especially important due to the pandemic. As companies and employees had to adjust to a variety of circumstances, a more open atmosphere was essential.
“When I think of psychological safety prior to the pandemic, it was always important to me as a leader,” explains Jean Angus, president and CEO of Saint-Gobain Life Sciences, a Solon, Ohio-based manufacturer of materials and solutions for the pharmaceutical, medical and biotech industries. “When I became the director of innovation processes at our Performance Plastics group, our goal was to help everyone be creative. I quickly realized that in order for everyone to bring their best ideas to the table, they had to feel they are working in a safe environment.”
A Baseline of Security
“Safety is one of the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it applies to the workplace as well,” says Angus. “Psychological safety is tied directly to a company’s culture. At our company, which is over 350 years old and has been built on a foundation of deep respect for others, it’s easy to leverage that culture into an inclusive workplace.”
An example of how this culture is codified can be found in specific programs. “The deep respect we have for each other has resulted in Employee Resource Groups (ERG), which are grassroots organizations that allow leaders, like me, to access input from a variety of groups. It expands our perspective and makes us truly diverse, inclusive and equitable,” says Angus. The ERGs include networks for women, veterans, LGBTQ, Asian Americans and a multicultural group, Leading Efforts to Ancestral Diversity (LEAD).
Employee Engagement Leads to Innovation
“If people come to work exactly who they are, they are going to be more engaged. And engagement is a global metric for the company. It’s also part of every leader’s performance metrics at our company,” Angus notes.
To measure engagement, Saint-Gobain deploys an annual engagement survey.” Each year, this survey has shown higher levels of employee engagement. This is especially important in a competitive job market, as a 2021 Gallup survey showed that 80% of all employees are not engaged.
And there is a strong business case for ensuring that employees are engaged. As mentioned earlier, innovation becomes easier with a psychologically safe environment, in that employees are less likely to fear failure and more likely to challenge the status quo. This helps with tackling complex problems and uncovering new ways of working.
Angus feels so strongly about the connection between this type of security and its link to innovation that she posted the following on LinkedIn:
At one stretch of my 11-year career with Saint-Gobain, I was responsible for running a very technical area of our business. In this role, I saw firsthand how psychological safety supported employee engagement—because I was not as technically savvy as other members of my team. Despite lacking certain technical skills, I felt empowered to ask questions, try new things and bring a fresh perspective to the team. Most importantly, I knew I could share when I didn’t understand something without being judged or dismissed. We had each other’s full support, which created a collaborative forum for knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer encouragement. We leaned on each other’s respective expertise and, as a result, it was one of the most productive and innovative teams I’ve ever been a part of.
Psychological Safety Requires Specific Actions
When the pandemic began, companies had to ensure a variety of safety measures, both physical and mental. Saint-Gobain was able to leverage an existing safety structure. “We have always had specific tools, such as a robust EAP [employee assistance program], ERG groups and a strong EHS culture,” explains Angus. “So, we created a COVID taskforce as a way to leverage those tools to address workforce needs during the pandemic.”
Part of the process was to empower individual sites to make decisions for their own facilities. For example, one of the Midwest facilities was having trouble with childcare, so the employees created a community-wide program to address that. “We had sites that shifted their schedules to accommodate family needs as well,” she says.
And now as the shift is moving from a pandemic to an endemic, the company is increasing awareness of its mental health benefits, letting employees know that there are still unlimited counseling sessions.
Like Saint-Gobain, other companies are using a variety of tactics to address mental health issues, which have increased as a result of the pandemic.
LuAnn Heinen is vice president of Business Group on Health, a nonprofit organization specializing in optimizing workforce strategy through health, benefits and well-being solutions. She notes that this year's winners of the Best Employers Award for Excellence in Health and Well-Being used a variety of tactics as follows:
- Well-being/engagement platform (98%),
- Assessing employee experience with health and well-being benefits (95%),
- Using employee testimonials to communicate health and well-being benefits (91%) and
- Deploying a network of well-being champions (89%).
Another important tactic for addressing the pandemic and one that will continue is the increase in both the method and quantity of communication. “We had ‘CEO chats’ over coffee, which created an open dialogue where employees could ask anything,” Angus explains. “Similar forums were conducted by plant managers. And for employees who aren’t comfortable in group settings, there is a hotline where they can express their concerns. Our message is that if you have something to say, speak up—we are here.”
This rang true across the Business Group on Health winners as well, with practices that include:
- Cascaded communication campaigns using senior leaders, managers, well-being champions and ERGs;
- Fireside chats with company leaders, such as CEOs;
- Weekly messages from CEOs to all employees, encouraging them to share personal stories, such as family members’ health challenges;
- QR code utilization for quick access to targeted resources; and
- Well-being platforms and hubs.
Mental Health as an Important Component of Psychological Health
As well-being and wellness programs have been part of corporate offerings for years, there has been more emphasis—even before the pandemic and continuing to the current day—to focus on mental health, which can tie into psychological health. EHS Today’s 2022 Mental Health in the Workplace Report found that a large number of employers say they are prioritizing mental health as part of their wellness programs, with 81.8% saying they have a program in place that focuses on mental health and 6.3% saying they have one planned.
The Business Group on Health is also seeing a high interest in mental health. “Mental health is top of mind for employers in 2022,” says Heinen. She provides some statistics based on the winners’ profiles:
- 91% have made changes to address burnout;
- 88% offer support for family, adolescent and/or pediatric mental health;
- 86% have initiatives and benefits that address suicide;
- 82% have mental health allies or champions in place; and
- 80% have initiatives and benefits that address substance use disorders.
While those statistics apply to that specific group of winners, the EHS Today survey found that structured policies are lacking at many organizations. In fact, 33.9% of respondents said they either don’t have a mental health policy in place or “don’t know” if they have one. Of the companies that have a program, respondents rate those programs as merely adequate (21.7%) or poor (13.7%).
This will be a hurdle for companies to overcome as the uncertainty with regard to the COVID-19 virus will be a continued factor in planning, both from a physical safety and a mental safety aspect.
For Saint-Gobain, adjusting to whatever the future holds will be somewhat easier given the company’s response to the pandemic. “We have created very clear guidelines on how to respond during the pandemic, so those will be used going forward as well as continuing to assess the situation,” Angus says.
That level of security, combined with an acute awareness of the importance of simultaneously providing psychological security, is the key to success for both the individual employee and the company at large. “When employees can bring their best self to work, they prosper—as does the company," Angus says.