Prioritising psychological safety in the return to the workplace

Psychological safety – it’s popular for a reason. Elizabeth McManus tells us more.

It’s now been a year since organisations worldwide entered the biggest – and longest – remote-working experiment in history. This is an opportunity for organisations and individuals to adapt their ways of working to create more human and more powerful ways of working, which will release more potential in more people.

These ways of working are beneficial to mental health as well as to the systemic health of organisations. Much has improved in recent years on the acknowledgment of mental health yet, at the same time there is still a way to go.

So, here’s another chance to take steps in the direction of creating healthier places to work for more people.

In 2021, adapting to the new world of work will be one of leaders’ and HR professionals’ biggest challenges.

If leaders seize this opportunity to address the psychological safety and wellbeing of their staff, people will feel less anxious and more empowered to speak up about concerns, bringing the organisation real benefits in increased workplace trust and engagement.

However, as businesses make key decisions about any return to the office, this is also an opportunity for organisations to act with empathy and create more human and more powerful ways of working. So, what can leaders do to navigate the ‘back to’ – or the ‘never going back to’ – transition for workplaces while creating a safe and healthy space for their people?

  1. Create an open environment. It’s important to recognise that people’s lives have changed radically during the pandemic, and this shift isn’t going to reverse overnight. The old ways of thinking and working are gone and they’re not coming back. As such, instead of going back to square one, businesses can seize the chance to shape new ways of working.

Forward thinking leaders recognise that this decision-making process cannot just take place at the top level without understanding the new priorities and expectations of the people that make up a business.

Indeed, if leaders seize this opportunity to address the preferences and thoughts of their employees, they will gain the benefits of increased workplace trust and engagement. Now, more than ever, businesses must create an open environment and listen to their people to design future ways of working that enable everyone to thrive.

  1. Transparency and communication are key. After working from home for over a year, being thrust into the office at the drop of a hat could have a damaging impact on employee wellbeing.

Whether employers choose to implement a hybrid, remote-first, or traditional office-based model, they mustn’t bring their employees back into the workplace until they have a return-to-work plan that lays out clear guidelines.

And it’s vital they communicate this strategy early on – after all, people have had their fill of uncertainty this year. Being transparent about expectations will give employees time to digest and prepare for new ways of working, whatever they may be.

  1. Spotlight support services. Now, as we transition into new ways of working, it’s crucial to be clear and communicate with employees about mental health resources. Since moving mental health support online to offer help to those working remotely, employees may be unaware of the support that’s available to them within the organisation.

As such, it’s important to re-emphasise the availability of these services – both those within and beyond your organisation – and encourage people to access them.

  1. Be human.The past year has been tough on everyone, regardless of job titles or responsibilities. Above everything it has shown that we are all only human, and this must not be forgotten as we look at new ways of working.

Indeed, leaders should try to get beyond the ‘game face’ and be ready to have the human conversations that matter most. How are your people really feeling about the return to the office? What are their main concerns? By starting this conversation, you can actively help employees feel they are working in a safe environment that encourages open communication and empathetic listening.

And, as a leader, be prepared to expose your own vulnerability by sharing your own personal challenges when it comes to the new ways of working. If you don’t have a clear plan, be vulnerable, humble and open about how you’re thinking about managing your own challenges.

It’s time to ask questions with courage, and listen with humility – you owe it to the people you lead.

In 2021, adapting to the new world of work will be one of leaders’ and HR professionals’ biggest challenges. The opportunities stakes are high for all of those involved. If businesses are proactive, thoughtful and thorough in their approach, they have the chance to re-write a new era for safety and wellbeing in the workplace.


About the author

Elizabeth McManus is Head of Research and Thought Leadership at The Oxford Group.



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