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Why Psychological Safety Training Is Essential to Workplace Mental Health

Why Psychological Safety Training Is Essential to Workplace Mental Health

Most HR professionals are used to putting effort into workplace health and safety training.

But as companies increasingly focus on employee well-being, psychological safety training is making its way onto boardroom agendas.

What is workplace psychological safety training, why is it important, and how can companies support employees? To find out, we talked to Mettie Spiess, CPHSA, Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor.

According to Spiess, workplace psychological safety is, “a shared belief held by team members that they are safe to take interpersonal risks, such as sharing ideas, asking questions or requesting support without fear of retaliation or consequence.”

"Workplace psychological safety training helps employees and management learn best practice strategies to support team connectedness, clear and respectful communication, and mental well-being, along with tactics to reduce the risk of mental health-related crises, such as burnout."

Mettie Spiess
– Mettie Spiess, CPHSA, Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor

Psychological safety training does address emotional wellness at work, but it differs from standard emotional health resources like employee assistance programs (EAP) or crisis lines. While those latter options are excellent for addressing an individual employee’s emotional health needs, psychological safety training looks at things from a systemic point of view, asking the question: How is our work culture hindering people from being their best?

Why Is Psychological Safety Training Important Right Now?

Even before the pandemic, America had a workplace problem. Whether in pop culture or from our own experience, we’ve all encountered workplaces where staff walked on eggshells, nobody dared disagree with the boss, and the idea of asking for emotional support was laughable.

While this model might have been gratifying for the boss’s ego, it did businesses no favors: How many millions of dollars have been lost, or how much innovation was stifled … simply because an employee was too afraid of retaliation to voice an idea, point out a critical flaw in a strategy, or ask an important question?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Amy C. Edmondson and Per Hugander highlighted how even the most well-meaning companies might not realize just how much they’re losing out because their employees are holding back:

“It’s natural for people to hold back ideas, be reluctant to ask questions, and shy away from disagreeing with the boss. Given this tendency, the free exchange of ideas, concerns, and questions is routinely hindered — far more often than most managers realize.”

This is damaging enough as is. Now, think about what your employees might be going through emotionally … and whether they feel comfortable enough to reach out.

The stress created by a global pandemic (especially for frontline service workers) has, over time, eroded employees’ optimism, resiliency, and energy. In fact, the employee mental health crisis is now referred to as the “new frontier of workplace safety risk.” And with employees dispersed in a combination of remote, in-person and hybrid environments, it’s harder than ever to recognize and address mental and psychological health issues.

If employees are reprimanded or otherwise discouraged from sharing constructive ideas, asking questions, or pushing back with concerns … how can they be expected to feel safe enough to ask for support when it’s truly needed?

Because you may otherwise have no idea.

How Do You Know an Employee Is Struggling?

While building a psychologically safe workplace is one of the best ways to support employee mental health and the overall health of the company, it’s not something that can be accomplished overnight. And in the meantime, your employees may be silently struggling.

The most common warning signs managers should look for in their employees fall into three categories–behavioral, verbal, and situational.

  • Behavioral: Employees may suddenly have a change in appearance, such as being disheveled or experiencing major weight fluctuations. They may be late to work or are more likely to miss work, and they may show signs of substance abuse.
  • Verbal: As obvious as it may seem when someone says, “I feel like I’m drowning” or “They’ll be sorry,” these signs are often brushed off as minor dramatics instead of a cry for help.
  • Situational: Employees who are struggling emotionally and psychologically overreact to comments made by team members or situations that normally are considered benign.

When the Warning Signs Are Remote

Having been on a seemingly endless loop of Zoom calls for over a year, we’ve all gotten a glimpse into the lives of our co-workers. But sometimes that view exposes the darker side of an employee’s home life. What should managers do if they have concerns? There’s a strong debate with arguments on both sides.

Spiess addresses this issue by highlighting two questions managers should consider when deciding whether to address personal and home life concerns:

  • The first and most critical question: Is the employee’s safety at risk?
  • The next question: Is the concern affecting their job performance?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, Spiess recommends early intervention as the key to proactively preventing a crisis.

What About When the Issue Involves a Family Member?

If the concern pertains to a member of the employee’s family, it does muddy the waters a bit. However, it’s important to remember that workplace wellness applies to the whole family: Something that’s impacting an employee’s family member is undoubtedly impacting the employee as well.

For example, if an employee’s child expresses suicidal thoughts or looks to be self-harming, there’s no doubt your employee is deeply impacted by the weight of worrying about their child and trying to determine how to help them.

In that case, Spiess recommends that managers talk with employees about the issue, research, and share resources (such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or a Crisis Text Line), and help the employee navigate how to mitigate their family member’s crisis.

What Does Psychological Safety Training Look Like?

Psychological safety at work is a complex topic. As such, psychological safety training is not a one-and-done endeavor. It can take a considerable amount of time, commitment, and in-depth (sometimes humbling) work to spot, examine, deconstruct, and improve workplace behavioral patterns.

Through her company, AWWS, Spiess helps organizations foster mentally resilient employees, create stigma-free work environments, and develop psychologically safe leaders.

She created the Mental Health Safety Training to address the demand from companies struggling to address psychological and emotional health issues effectively, comfortably, and confidently.

“Employers who reach out to me for training are struggling with employee turnover related to burnout, productivity issues due to mental health challenges, and concerned managers who feel uncomfortable addressing these issues.”

Mettie Spiess
– Mettie Spiess, CPHSA, Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor

Since the start of the pandemic, she’s delivered over 200 Mental Health Safety Trainings to employers in 20 industries. What may surprise you is her favorite format: virtual training.

“When people are in a room together, they are fighting self-stigma and wearing many masks. The virtual format allows people to be anonymous and it makes space safer for trainees to come as they are,” says Spiess.

Another thing that may surprise you? This type of training isn’t just for managers.

In fact, Spiess offers employee-level training that works well for employee resource groups (ERG): Showing them the larger picture of psychological safety in the workplace provides important strategic context for their arsenal of mental and physical wellness services. Conversely, employers may want to create an ERG specific to workplace psychological safety and train that group of employees. The idea is to promote the stigma-free, inclusive communication that should be used to create a safe, connected environment.

Learning How to Help a Struggling Employee

In Spiess’ training, she details five steps managers can take to de-escalate a crisis.

Step one: Inquire about the employee’s well-being, but in a non-confrontational way. No one is going to respond well to “What’s wrong with you?” But employees might be more open to, “I noticed you haven’t been yourself lately, can we talk and see if there’s anything I can do to support you?” From there, the conversation and intervention continue until the issue is resolved.

During training, Spiess always ends up answering the same question: “The most common question I get asked is, ‘What if the employee is resistant to getting help? What if you know they need help, but they don't want help?’”

It’s inevitable that some employees simply won't want to talk about what’s going on with them, especially when they’re at work. They may even get upset that their manager brought it up. In this situation, Spiess suggests leveraging “what” versus “why” questions, so the employee doesn’t feel backed into a corner.

For example, instead of “Why won’t you connect with our EAP?” try “What are some of the concerns you have about reaching out for support?”

By making the question about finding solutions and not assigning blame, this communication technique can reduce stress reactions.

Psychological Safety Training Benefits Everybody

Psychological safety has definitely become a necessary workplace training—as necessary as any other management and ERG training available.

“There’s no way to attract and retain employees without allocating the same level of resources to support employee psychological safety as we do to support employee physical safety.”

Mettie Spiess
– Mettie Spiess, CPHSA, Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor

By fostering a corporate culture that encourages employees to be vulnerable and candid, you’re not only creating a workplace where great ideas and important questions flow freely. You’re also creating a workplace where your people can freely—and without worry—reach out for the help they need to be their best selves.

If your company is interested in learning more about psychological safety training or workplace mental health, our workplace wellness experts can help you promote a healthy and safe working environment for your employees. At WellRight, we’re here to help.

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