Psychological safety, psychological hazards, psychological injury, and psychological/mental illness are terms that are now frequently mentioned in human resource and management literature. That is because ensuring employee psychological wellness and safety is now in the top priority for many organizations. Caring for employees’ psychological well-being is even more critical during the pandemic when many employees are isolated and experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma, alcohol/substance/other dependency, and suicidal thoughts.
We have provided definitions to help you gain a better understanding of each of the term as you evaluate the situation in your organization and consider programs and services that would help your organization to establish and maintain a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.
Psychological Health (often used interchangeably with the term Mental Health)
A state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. (World Health Organization)
Psychological health is the sum of how we think, feel, relate, and act in our day-to-day lives. Our thoughts, perceptions, emotions, motivations, interpersonal relationships, and behaviors are a product of our experiences and the skills we have developed to meet life’s challenges. Psychological health includes mental, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.
Psychological illness and psychological health are not the same. The American Psychiatric Association defines psychological illnesses as conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these) and are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. Canadian Mental Health Association defines it as disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that are severe enough to affect day-to-day functioning.
We can be in a state of poor psychological health without having a mental illness, much like someone who feels unwell may not have a serious illness. It is important to look at problems and concerns objectively and within the proper context. Good psychological health does not mean feeling happy and confident 100% of time and/or not having any problems in our life. Rather, it is about our ability to cope well and live productively in spite of the normal stressors and problems in our life.
“A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” and “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” (Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor). It is also being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708).
Gary Pisano, Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Harvard Business School says, “psychological safety is an organizational climate in which individuals feel they can speak truthfully and openly about problems without fear of reprisal.” He further advised that “unvarnished candor is critical to innovation because it is the means by which ideas evolve and improve.”
Feeling psychologically unsafe would mean that one may believe, worry, or fear that they or someone on the team could be punished or humiliated for asking a question, seeking feedback or assistance, admitting a mistake, proposing a new idea, or simply being and expressing one’s self. Harassment, bullying, abuse, and violence contributes directly to employees feeling psychologically unsafe at their workplace.
When employees feel psychologically safe and operate within a safe and healthy work culture, they are much more apt to engage in behaviours and activities that foster creativity and innovation. An organization’s ability to innovate and evolve – be that to develop new products and services, adopt new technologies, or formulate new strategies – is critical to its success or even survival in a rapidly and continuously changing business environment. A 2017 Gallup report found that if organizations increase psychological safety, it makes employees more engaged in their work and can lead to a 12% increase in productivity. In 2015, Google’s Project Aristotle studied its employees to determine “what makes a good team,” researchers found that psychological safety was the most important quality that determined a team’s success.
Psychological Injury and Psychosocial Hazards
Psychological injury is considered a mental harm, suffering, damage, impairment, or dysfunction sustained by a person as a result of certain environmental, organizational, and/or individual events or series of events. According to law firm, MLT Aikins, courts and adjudicators have recognized a variety of conditions as psychological injuries – including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, panic disorder, conversion disorder, pain disorder, major depressive disorder, neurocognitive disorder and adjustment disorder.
Psychological injury is often associated with one or more traumatic events. Such includes but not limited to violet attack, serious motor vehicle collision, major physical injury, kidnapping, abuse, bullying, and/or some traumatic childhood incidents.
Psychological injury resulting from workplace psychosocial hazards could include but not limited to serious work related injury, bullying and harassment, chronic traumatic work-related incidents, poor levels of support from superiors, poor change management, high job insecurity, role ambiguity, work overload, and intense daily pressures or stressors of work.
A Psychologically Healthy and Safe Workplace
“A workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker mental health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways.” (National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace)
You can count on us to support you in building and maintaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace by mitigating workplace psychological risks and preventing employee/member psychological injury, promoting psychological safety and wellness, and fostering the recovery of employees/members with psychological strain, injury, or illness.
Contact Insight Psychological today to learn more.
 Donatelle, R. J., & Davis, L. G. (1998). Chapter 2: Promoting and preserving your psychological health in Access to health. Retrieved HERE.
 Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (nd). Learn about mental health. Retrieved HERE.
 MLT Aikins (2018). Psychological Injury and Harassment in the workplace. Retrieved HERE.