Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace

Patricia-Lynn (Trisha) Tallon believes that everyone deserves to work in a place where they are psychologically safe to be their whole self. And as Covenant Health’s new manager of psychological health and wellness, she spends time helping people understand what that means.

“A psychologically safe environment is one where all basic needs are met and where every reasonable effort is made to protect mental health,” she says. “[It] allows you to be yourself, where you speak up without fears of negative consequences and where the organization promotes mental health.”

Covenant Health has been promoting psychological safety and mental health for its workforce for many years. It is now recommitting to creating a healthy and safe workplace for everyone — staff, physicians and volunteers. This work connects to many initiatives already underway within the organization, for example, existing occupational, health, safety and wellness; quality; and diversity and inclusion programs.

“I look at this as being a shared responsibility; it’s something every staff member is responsible for in their own way,” says Trisha. “It’s how we treat our co-workers, and it’s how we work together as teams. It needs to be everywhere in the organization.”

Part of Covenant Health’s work ahead is countering myths about psychologically safe workplaces, Trisha says. One common idea is that in psychologically safe workplaces everyone is “nice” and agrees with everything. In reality, these are workplaces where people are comfortable disagreeing while knowing they’ll be respected for having a different viewpoint. They are places where people and teams work through disagreements.

Another misconception is that work standards are lower in a psychologically safe workplace. Yet research shows that organizations with high levels of psychological safety are more innovative, says Trisha. 

“When employees work in a system that is psychologically safe and healthy, they are more likely to be healthy themselves,” she says. “People want to come to work, they feel fulfilled and they’re more engaged in their work. They have higher self-esteem because they feel like they’re contributing. At Covenant Health, this means you feel connected to the mission and that you are part of something greater.”

Employers also benefit from creating psychologically safe and healthy workplaces, says Trisha. Some of the benefits for healthcare organizations are:

  • Improved recruitment and retention
  • Increased staff engagement and morale
  • Improved creativity and innovation
  • Increased patient safety and quality of care
  • Decreased workplace conflict
  • Increased engagement with patients, residents and families

Rewards and recognition enhance positive mental health in the workplace as well, says Trisha. “Some teams [at Covenant Health] have created walls of appreciation in their areas where they write messages of support and kind messages to each other.”

Trisha says some Covenant Health teams are developing purpose statements to enhance psychological safety.

“Leaders have recognized that they’re a new team or there’s been a lot of change on their team and that they need to clarify their purpose together,” she says. “This helps people understand what’s expected of them and what their role in the team is.”

To help build a psychologically safe workplace, Covenant Health also has:

  • A workplace abuse and harassment policy
  • A workplace incident reporting line — to report abuse, harassment, injury, near misses or psychological distress
  • A commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • A just culture policy and guide — to outline a work environment where individuals believe they will receive fair and just treatment when involved in an adverse event
  • An employee and family assistance program
  • An ethics centre and clinical ethicists
  • Chaplains to support spiritual health
  • Wellness resources and more than 200 wellness partners across the organization
  • Crisis management support through Homewood Health

“Every action or inaction we take in the workplace has a consequence for others,” says Trisha. “We can act in a way that lifts others or in a way that does not. Is what you’re doing making others feel included or excluded? If we have any concern about how a colleague is doing, we should feel comfortable to have a conversation with them.”

To move the work forward, Trisha has created an advisory committee with representatives from different roles across the organization. This group will help develop and guide new efforts to enhance the workplace.

“There is no quick fix or magic wand to create a psychologically safe and healthy workplace,” she says.  “It takes intention and time, but the results can be very positive.”

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