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Comprehensive Workplace Safety Programs Emphasize Psychological Safety

July 30, 2014, Karen O'Hara - Employees naturally want to feel “psychologically safe” when they express emotions, air complaints, or make suggestions.

You know your workplace is psychologically safe when employees take interpersonal risks when communicating with team members and up the chain of command.

The opportunity to embed a true culture of Learning and safety is impaired when ideas and information are suppressed. People who want to maintain group harmony at all costs or who fear being ignored, mocked, reprimanded, or even fired for pointing out unsafe conditions aren’t likely to speak up. Who wants to climb out on the proverbial limb while others are vigorously sawing at its base?

When appropriately applied, OSHA’s whistleblower protection program, federal employment laws, and state workers’ compensation rules help support psychological safety by protecting workers from retaliation and employers from false accusations. Liability risk is reduced and worker performance enhanced when psychological safety is taken into account. It goes both ways. Here’s an example:

A young crisis intervention counselor is concerned about compassion fatigue on her team. She observes a high rate of staff burn-out and turnover. This is harmful to her employer as well as clients in crisis and therapists who need to feel safe. She tells her boss: “I know I’m inexperienced. I don’t want to overstep, but I have some thoughts about our need for post-crisis debriefing and self-care for our therapists on the front lines.”

Her supervisor has a choice. He could say: “Great! I’d love to hear your ideas and explain our human resource policies around that issue. Maybe you could lead an in-service training session on compassion fatigue for the entire team?” Or he might say: “If you overstep, I will just write you up. This isn’t the first time someone has brought this issue to my attention. Our benefit plan doesn’t cover individual self-care, if that’s what you’re really asking about.”

The young counselor leaves the meeting feeling either validated and optimistic or misunderstood and discouraged.

Promoting the cycle of Learning

Researchers say a shared sense of psychological safety is an essential aspect of workplace Learning systems. In complex organizations,the cycle of Learning is most effective when it helps employees better manage uncertainly and create predictability and reliability. As a result, this methodical approach promotes psychological safety and so the cycle continues…

In a paper on relationship behaviors, John Eggers, Ph.D., says “when people feel safe psychologically, the likelihood of engaging in behaviors that lead to greater Learning and positive change are greater.” He explains that psychological safety requires trust behaviors such as being open to giving and receiving feedback, freely explaining motives and reasoning behind decisions, and aligning words with actions.

Employees may need to be shown how to express their thoughts in the most constructive manner possible. Supervisors may need to be taught how to receive and process employees’ suggestions. There are many methods available for this purpose. One commonly used tool is SBAR – Situation-Background-Assessment-Recommendation, which provides a psychologically safe way for team members act on critical information.

SBAR has been applied for years in military and industrial settings. During a recent Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) webinar on more recent use of SBAR in healthcare organizations, speakers including Michael Leonard, M.D., managing partner at Safe & Reliable Healthcare LLC, and Audrey Lyndon, an associate professor at the UCSF School of Nursing, provided insight on SBAR as a tool. The speakers stated that experience shows the final letter in the acronym (recommendation) is the most difficult to achieve – particularly when team members do not feel psychologically safe.

Recognizing the need for a way to confirm “message received,” Lyndon has developed a SBAR model with two extra “R’s” to validate the critical importance of active listening and validation as part of the process.

Sender

Receiver

Situation

Set Aside Assumptions

Background

Be Attentive

Assessment

Ask Questions

Recommendation

Reflect

Rationale

Respond

Ratification

Ratify

Dr. Leonard said the most expedient way to change behavior on work teams is by using SBAR in the context of real events. This observation applies to UL Workplace Health and Safety’s PureSafety Learning and incident management systems, which help employers react immediately to events and take advantage of Learning moments. Our studies show that when training is driven by actual incidents, lessons are more relevant for employees. Consequently, retention and training compliance improves.

A Learning and incident management system is even more effective when it operates in a psychologically safe workplace.

To learn more about instilling a just workplace culture and avoiding blame, here are two recommended resources:

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