Workers Who Feel Psychologically Safe Less Likely to be Injured at Work

May 25, 2023

In spring 2023, SAFER conducted a nationwide survey of working adults across all industries and occupations.[1] The survey asked respondents about their safety at work, including how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements about physical and psychological safety[2] at their current job.

Survey respondents answered questions related to psychological safety, such as their sense of belonging, supportiveness of their coworkers and supervisors, and whether employees of all backgrounds interact respectfully. They were also asked about their physical safety on the job, and if they have ever been physically injured at their current job in a way requiring medical attention or time away from work.

NSC found that not only was physical safety correlated to the respondents’ history of injury, but so was their psychological safety. Of respondents working in person at least one day a week, those who felt psychologically unsafe on the job were 80% more likely to report they had been injured at work, requiring medical attention and/or missed days of work.[3]

There were also differences between respondents with in-person, hybrid or fully remote work schedules. While some work hazards (like repetitive stress injuries) are a risk for people working from home, respondents working in person a majority of the time or all the time had more occupational risks. This is not surprising given the nature of potential risks in in-person vs. remote work environments. What was unexpected was that in-person workers also reported experiencing a lower sense of psychological safety.

Remote work has been associated with increased psychological safety because working from home contributes to some aspects of psychological safety, such as fewer microaggressions. This survey supported those findings. Respondents working exclusively from home reported an overall higher level of psychological safety on the job.[4] However, for those working a hybrid schedule, their level of psychological safety was no different from respondent workers who never work from home. This might suggest that in-person dynamics affecting psychological safety at work may carry over into the remote work environment, regardless of how many days of their hybrid schedule are spent working at home vs. in person. The protective factors of working remotely may only impact workers who are fully remote.

There is a strong relationship between psychological and physical safety. Fostering psychological safety may directly contribute to a safer physical workplace by encouraging proactive reporting of potential hazards and safety issues. Psychological safety is an important factor in ensuring worker health and safety. Encouraging workers to speak up about safety issues without fear of retaliation can foster drastically safer workplaces. Workers who feel their employer discourages reporting were 2.4 times more likely to have experienced a work injury.

Workplaces can foster psychological safety by minimizing physical hazards, improving worker security and productivity, and lowering the rate of psychological distress related to work. The resulting improvements across cost effectiveness, injury rates, recruitment, employee retention and organizational excellence drives sustainability performance.

Actions for Managers and Executives to Consider

1. Support a psychologically safe workplace culture

● Assess your current policies and practices and how they contribute to employee wellbeing (positive or negative)

● Provide professional development opportunities across the organization regarding inter-personal skills, culture, communications, positive mental health and other wellbeing topics

● Foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity by valuing diverse perspectives and fostering collaboration among team members

2. Encourage open communication

● Create an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their ideas, opinions and concerns without fear of judgment or negative consequences

● Encourage active listening and provide opportunities for everyone to contribute to discussions

● Model across all levels of the organization comfort with sharing ideas and feedback, especially when they don’t align with the majority opinion or traditional way of doing things

● Ensure managers are open and available to receive feedback and questions

3. Foster a learning mindset

● Emphasize learning and growth over blame and punishment; encourage employees to view failures and mistakes as opportunities for improvement and personal development

● Engage leadership in sharing their own mistakes, challenges and learning moments to show it is safe to take risks and make errors

● Celebrate learning from setbacks and share success stories highlighting the value of experimentation and innovation.

4. Be clear about expectations

● Introduce continuous training plans and appraisals

● Communicate clear and concise expectations

● Ensure expectations are equitable and allow for communication if something changes

5. Support mental health and a recovery-ready workplace

● Implement processes to respond to issues that can impact the mental health and safety of workers

● Offer resources, such as counseling and support groups, to workers experiencing mental health difficulties related to the organization or personal issues 

● Offer treatment and recovery support, including insurance coverage of mental health, substance use disorder treatment and recovery

● Prepare managers to recognize and address signs of distress, such as mental health challenges or impairment

● Provide paid time off for mental health and recovery-related appointments

● Address bullying, harassment and stigma in the workplace

● Identify potential critical events where psychological suffering, illness or injury is involved or likely, while respecting confidentiality and privacy of all parties 

● Ensure organization-wide education, awareness and understanding regarding the nature and dynamics of stigma, mental illness, safety and health – to deliver effective psychological safety improvements, organizations must encourage top-down and bottom-up cultural change

● Review and revise organizational policies to align with inclusive language guidelines

6. Be supportive

● Allow flexible working hours, job rotations and flexible leave policies

● Take time to celebrate successes and acknowledge accomplishments

● Offer mentorship opportunities

The pandemic starkly demonstrated how connected psychological safety is to work life, productivity and overall worker health. However, following the immediate importance of the pandemic response along with a rising focus on mental health and wellbeing, psychological safety has remained a lower priority for organizations when compared to other emerging safety factors. The results of this SAFER survey suggest fostering psychological safety will lead not only to better outcomes in terms of productivity and overall health but reduce the risk of injury on the job, which suggests a compelling reason for organizations to prioritize creating a psychologically safe workplace.

[1] The survey was fielded in English and Spanish between March 31 and April 14, 2023 to a randomized nationwide sample using cell phone and landline phone numbers. Participants were adults, aged 18 to 65 (Mage = 39.61, SD = 10.5), who work 30 to 60 hours a week as an employee or contractor. 1,494 respondents met the qualification criteria and completed the full survey. The incidence rate was 82%. The demographic profile of the respondent pool reflected the U.S. workforce labor statistics collected in 2019, however women were overrepresented (53.9% of respondents were female).

[2] Psychological safety describes the social and cultural environment at work that affects comfortability of workers to express their opinions and concerns without fear of retribution. Psychological safety provides individuals with a strong sense of inclusion amongst leaders and peers in the workforce. Individuals are given a space to learn, are empowered to challenge unsafe conditions and contribute diverse ideas without fearing negative consequences.

[3] In-person workers who felt psychologically unsafe had an injury rate of 36.5%, compared to 20.2% of those who are psychologically safe.

[4] 9.2% of those who work exclusively from home reported feeling psychologically unsafe compared to 15.2% of those who work in-person at least one day a week, which represents a statistically significant association between in-person work and feeling psychologically unsafe, χ2(1) = 4.847, p = .028

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