STOP ‘BREAKING’ PEOPLE! The notion of Psychological Safety

Last year I was supporting David at work. He came to me and asked to have a confidential conversation. It was any ordinary day but for David it was a day that his world imploded. He sat with me sobbing in despair and feeling hopeless and ‘broken’. David was not new to the realm of mental health. After all, he had supported his brother for many years with complex mental health issues following his tours in Afghanistan in the Australian military. But for him, personally, it was new and daunting.

What was he to do? Where was he to go? How did it get to this? He had so many questions. But one thing he kept asking was why was he ‘broken’? He could no longer endure the 60 hour weeks at work and excessive workload pressures placed on him due to the client’s demands. He could no longer be the one subject matter expert in the team that everyone relied on for that ‘expert’ knowledge. He could no longer do any of it!

For David this was unique, for me this was not! Stories like David’s to me are all too familiar. I have supported so many people over the last few years that sound somewhat similar to this in that people feel hopeless, burned out, broken and not understanding how it got to this. But all in the line of their loyalty and duty to their team, to their boss, to their company.

Where do we go so wrong? Why do we keep ‘breaking’ our people like this? I mean after all we have legislation, regulations and codes of practice telling us that we must keep our people safe from injury and illness. We now have legislation that specifically highlights the need to identify, assess and control psychosocial hazards. But yet we still keep ‘breaking’ our people!

Yet so much focus is on the individual being ‘broken’ with not much focus on the system, the environment, the social setting. It’s all about the individual. Interesting the term ‘broken’ implies that there is a need to ‘fix’!

Not once did David ask himself how we can change the environment that he works in. Not once did he suggest looking at a way to do things differently. All he said was that ‘I am broken’ and there was ‘something wrong with me! This is a sad indictment of our individualistic focussed society. We believe that people are the problem therefore you can be fixed.

David had to take time off work, and everyone said, of course he’s unwell. So at least that was supportive. But no one sat and reflected and said let’s work out how we can do things differently, so David does not have to work 60 hours or be the only expert or be dictated to by the client.

David did not need to be ‘fixed’! David needed a break for sure, a well-earned break. But he came back to the workplace after his 2 months off and nothing had changed except a reliance on David to make sure he didn’t work longer than 45 hours a week (the only additional rule applied to the team after David’s leave). David had to ensure he pulled the pin, that he pushed back, that he worked on his strategies so that he didn’t burn out again.

All of this implies that David was ‘broken’, therefore he needed to work out strategies to ‘fix’ himself.

Throughout this time David reached out to me often just to talk over things that were ruminating. He felt that it was his fault, that he had let his team mates down, that he had let the boss down, that he had let the company down and that somehow, he was to blame and a lesser person because of it. It was no wonder; the burden was all placed on David. He just needed to be more resilient!

The very notion of psychological safety implies that I feel safe in a social environment. In other words, the environment is what supports my wellbeing not the other way around. Therefore, no personal blame but more of an understanding of the impact social environments have on us. If I do not feel safe enough to speak up, to ask questions, to challenge ways that are not working, then I can become unwell. If I’m asked to take some time off for a few weeks because I’m burned out or unwell and come back into the very environment that impacted my health, do we expect a change? Do we believe the individual will be well?

The philosopher, Martin Buber, got it so right with his philosophy of dialogue and i-thou; the connection and relationship between two beings (i-thou). However, often many of us live in an I and it (I-it) relationship which essentially is devoid of relating to other humans. The very essence of the risk and safety legislation. What Buber purports is that we are social beings and cannot live, work or play in a vacuum alone.

Therefore, we do not need more training programs that ‘teach’ people in businesses how to be aware of psychosocial hazards which focus on legal obligations, defining psychosocial hazards and identifying psychosocial hazards. What we do need is to educate our business owners, leaders, managers, and supervisors how to connect and engage, how people are motivated and how to provide them agency that will provide an environment of care and safety. Interestingly, this type of focus does not take any more effort than what is already on offer, it doesn’t create more work, more paperwork or less compliance. In fact, the very notion of treating our people humanly will create an environment that people will want to work and be well, therefore impact less on our operations, on our teams and more importantly to so many people, the bottom dollar!

This is what I call, social resilience!

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