Most leaders – seasoned and newly-minted – are familiar with the importance of workplace safety, especially in health care.

The costs of mental illness

It turns out that psychological safety is so important that Health Canada created the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

The standard – a global first – is a set of voluntary guidelines, tools and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work.

Those in health care know firsthand the human cost of mental illness, let alone the financial one. Even before the pandemic, mental illness affected 20 per cent of Canadians and cost $50 billion annually.

Promoting the mental health and psychological safety of those you lead is a critical part of any leader’s job. Now more than ever, a good leader needs to know how to guide people though change, both everyday change and large-scale crises (hello, pandemic). That means making them – and their brains – feel safe.

This is your brain on change

The brain doesn’t like change. In fact, according to Noesis Learning, a Calgary-based consultancy that uses neuroscience to help its clients improve leadership and navigate change, it’ll do whatever it can to avoid it and sees occurrences outside of the norm as threats. That’s because its default setting is its reptilian brain, which relies heavily on its fight or flight instinct in challenging situations.

Because the brain’s main objective is to keep us alive, it needs to feel safe before it can do its best work. You can say goodbye to rational thought and critical thinking if your brain perceives any threat, whether it’s a new protocol, a new team member, or a literal matter of life and death. So just imagine what’s happening to your brain – and the brains of the people you lead – these days. Danger! Danger! Danger!

The brain thrives on predictability, preferring to stay safe in its comfort zone and conserve energy whenever possible. Left to its own devices, the brain would happily do the same thing over and over again, reducing as many variables as possible while searching for the familiar.

That’s why creating a psychologically safe workplace is key to creating the conditions that help your brain feel safe and perform optimally.

Psychological safety

In her book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson outlines that psychological safety doesn’t mean handholding or bubble wrapping, or that everyone is in agreement at all times, but rather there exists a culture of mutual respect.

“In a workplace, psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns — without being shut down in a gratuitous way,” Edmonson writes. “Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.”

Five ways leaders can promote psychological safety

According to Noesis Learning, when people feel safe and engaged in the change process, it doesn’t just give them comfort, but also an incentive to take on new or challenging situations. Here are five ways leaders can promote psychological safety:

1.     Talk about the changes

2.     Name the emotions

3.     Validate what people are feeling

4.     Assure them however you can

5.     Connect with them as a human, not just as a leader

Saying there is a significant amount of change and uncertainty in the world today is like saying the sky is blue; it’s just a fact, one that is particularly true for those in health care, where mental health and change management skills are put to the test every day.

Learning how to become an engaged, effective leader means creating an environment where people don’t just feel physically safe, but psychologically safe, too. And it starts with the brain.

For a boost in brainpower, and to take your leadership to the next level, explore graduate programs in Health Sciences.