Do you feel psychologically safe at work?

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Having spent much of our careers trying to understand what drives people and how to support individuals to identify and realise their full potential, what is clear, is that someone’s ability to thrive in a given role will be significantly impacted by their sense of psychological safety.

Very few people articulate that they don’t feel psychologically safe, but in speaking with them — the fears, pressures and concerns they have about their role, their ability to deliver agreed outcomes, their management of work and life commitments, their sense of self within a team — all feed into this concept that is gaining increasing attention.

The business community has gone through an enormous transformation to bring safety to the forefront of business and it is widely understood that all individuals need to take responsibility for workplace, health and safety issues.

Accountability metrics have been brought in for leaders, ensuring that individuals are held responsible for the safety of their people. However, we continue to consider safety through a physical safety lens.

What we know, is that feeling part of the team, feeling like your opinions are valued and respected and ‘fitting in’ impacts someone’s likelihood to succeed in a role.

Unfortunately, too many organisations have what can only be described as ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ which mean that every day, too many people are facing some form of exclusion.

At the heart of efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment, is the concept of psychological safety. When someone is in a minority group within a workplace, they are more likely to have concerns about their psychological safety. Yet instead of seeing diversity and inclusion with the priority given to safety, too many organisations still see it as a “nice to have HR initiative”. Our people are our biggest asset, and so strategies to support them to feel comfortable at work are critical.

So what works when we are talking about inclusion in the workplace context?

Investment in inclusive leadership training which challenges individuals to think about the way they lead and their own background and biases and what they might need to do differently in order to lead inclusively works.

Holding leaders accountable for the success of their diverse talent, actively encouraging people to be curious about different people and welcoming of new ideas and insights is important.

Leaders acknowledging that they do not have all the answers and that they need everyone’s contribution can foster a sense of psychological safety.

Businesses that realise the benefits of true inclusion are the ones that do not try and have a “one size fits all” response — they instead focus on giving leaders the skills to have open conversations with individuals about how they feel supported and what they need.

This week, we all have the opportunity to engage in a conversation about psychological safety through the amazing R U OK Day campaign. The campaign, aimed at preventing suicide triggers conversations across the nation which could save lives.

While we will be encouraging our peers to be having conscious conversations with all our people about how they are going, there is one group which we feel needs particular support this year.

We know that LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia. 20% of trans Australians and 15.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation.

For many of these individuals, seeking support is very complicated – relying on mainstream mental health services, rather than having specific support available. The high risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among the LGBTI community is nothing to do with sex, gender or sexuality, and everything to do with the exclusion and discrimination faced by this group – their psychological safety.

In the coming months, as the Australian Marriage Postal Survey is completed and the debate on marriage equality continues, existing research shows the attention that arguments opposing marriage equality received in the media and in community forums during this time will have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people from the LGBTI community — further excluding this group.

At a time like this, asking someone you work with how they are going and whether there is anything that you can do personally to support them, is a very easy thing to do, and could change a life.

At PwC, we know that the exclusion and discrimination faced by LGBTI people is significant and while a “yes” vote on marriage equality will not end discrimination, it will be another step towards equal rights and inclusion.

The most successful businesses are the ones that engage every employee to deliver their best work and reach their potential.

It makes complete sense that we need to be focusing more on wellbeing and psychological safety to achieve this.

Asking R U OK is a business priority — not just today, but every day.

(Julie McKay is PwC’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Marty Jovic is a Partner in PwC’s Economics & Policy Team and leads GLEE, the firm’s LGBTI Network.)

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