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Signs of a toxic work environment: The lack of ‘Psychological Safety’.

Signs of a toxic work environment: The lack of ‘Psychological Safety’.
Signs of a toxic work environment: The lack of ‘Psychological Safety’.

In the first article of this series on the signs of a toxic work environment, we explored the ‘glorification of overworking’, a cultural expectation to work long hours with the belief that in some way this is an outward indication of the value of an individual.

As a practise, working long hours really only serves to burn out employees rather than build them up and contribute to a more successful organisation.

In this article, we explore the concept of ‘psychological safety’ and how the lack of this can be a sign of a toxic working environment.

What is ‘Psychological Safety?’

According to the MITSloan Management Review, 40% of employees were thinking about quitting their jobs in 2021 and as 2021 played out there was a huge level of attrition in the US.

The article goes on to say that one of the main reasons for people leaving their jobs is a toxic culture as opposed to lower levels of remuneration.

If we don’t feel ‘safe’ in our work environment then why would we want to stay in it?

‘Psychological Safety’ is a term that encapsulates an aspiration for the workplace and it has the following definition:

“Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”

When I think about psychological safety with reference to disability, I anecdotally know that there are lots of people in the workplace who are reluctant to ask for support regarding their differences for fear of judgement from their managers and peers. Whilst the UK Government supports disability in the workplace with their Access To Work Scheme, there are many who simply do not engage with the process of getting support as this feels like ‘breaking cover’.

The Mental Health Foundation says this about fear:

“Fearing failure can make you try to do well so that you won’t fail, but it can also stop you from doing well if the feeling is too strong.”

Taken from the Mental Health Foundation.

This quote is useful in that it reminds us that fear at a normal level can be useful and can motivate us to do better, but when ramped up to high levels it can incapacitate us from working at our best. When this happens the stress hormone, cortisol, floods our body and produces a response that seeks to protect us thus taking one’s focus away from productivity and creativity.

Managers have a duty of care to their staff and as such if their actions result in excessive fear taking place in response from the workforce then they risk the workforce not working at its best.

In aiming to get the best from staff, the company as a whole will perform better, so it makes sense to consider the working environment and do one’s utmost to promote psychological safety.

Here are three strategies that we employ at Aventido to promote psychological safety:

1) Make it clear that as an organisation difference is welcome and support is available for managing difficulties.

It is always better to encourage staff to ask for support rather than have them struggle in fear and silence.

2) Promote dialogue and listen without judgement.

At times, we can all be quick to judge the ideas of others, judgement is useful in terms of evaluating ideas, but sometimes how we present that judgement can have a debilitating effect on future ideas being shared. We should listen first to all that the employee have to share and then, with respect, discuss the merits of the idea whilst always encouraging the sharing of new ideas.

2) Check in regularly with staff on their well-being.

It is useful to take time to check in with staff on how they are. Scheduling time for one-to-one meetings is important and can be a valuable tool for building rapport and promoting psychological safety.

3) Give the staff opportunities to demonstrate their strengths.

Giving staff the opportunity to shine at what they are good at brings about an enormous sense of well-being. It is rewarding, builds confidence and positively impacts on self-esteem. When staff feel good about themselves then they are more likely to share what they find difficult and why. As managers, we need to know this information so that we can do something about supporting our staff to be at their best. In terms of disability, making a provision for the use of assistive technology could be essential for unlocking potential. Sometimes we all need the right tools for the job otherwise if our workplace doesn’t provide them then as managers, we are setting our employees up for unnecessary failure and potential negative knock-on effects on self-esteem.

What are your thoughts about psychological safety and disability within the workplace?

What are your thoughts about this topic? If you are looking to do more in your workplace in terms of supporting disability with the use of assistive technology, then do get in touch as a member of the team will be able to share some insights on available technologies and how they benefit the workplace and promote psychological safety.


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