Stumbling across another new-to-me podcast, an episode teased a discussion about the nuances of “psychological health” versus a “psychosocial safety climate.” Not 100% sure that my definition of the latter was correct, I took the bait and then re-lensed the topic from the perspective of a communications professional.
Psychological Health Versus Psychosocial Safety Climate
First, let’s clarify the difference between psychological health and a psychosocial safety climate. Simply put, psychological health is a reference to mental well-being. It involves “normal” or generally acceptable emotional, behavioral and social maturity. The kind of behavior that doesn’t cause harm to oneself or others or significant disruptions in the workplace. It’s an accepted state of being that one would exhibit in most social and professional settings. There may be an “acceptable” level of frustration, deadline stress or impatience now and then, but no violent outbursts, emotional meltdowns, or threatening, divisive or offensive language.
A psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is any environment that supports sustained psychological health. To create a PSC-friendly workplace, organizations must develop, execute and maintain programs, initiatives and policies focused on sustaining a climate that supports the psychological health of its employees. This includes providing fulfilling work, embracing authenticity, diversity and inclusion, and ensuring a healthy work-life balance. Organizations with PSCs invest in creating and maintaining a non-stressful work environment, which includes a strategic and supportive PSC communications program.
How Can Communications Support a PSC?
A psychosocial safety climate falls under an “organizational communications” bucket. It’s not simply an executive or departmental initiative. It is a commitment that permeates every facet of an organization, in every direction. For brevity, let’s focus specifically on how an internal communications team might support the PSC of an organization.
PSC or DEI Committee
First, establish a dedicated PSC committee or ensure it is a significant focus within a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) or employee wellness committee. Outline clear objectives that support overarching operational goals. Ideally, this committee includes representatives from various departments, levels, ages, ethnicities, race, gender identifications, etc., to ensure a healthy representation of perspectives, ideas and experience.
Solicit Employee Feedback and Establish a Benchmark
An internal communications team or practitioner can work with HR to solicit baseline feedback from employees. This can be included as part of an annual employee survey or a dedicated employee wellness survey. They may also be broken out into individual “pulse survey” questions or available as part of a dedicated survey space on your organization’s intranet. Solicit a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback.
Sample qualitative question:
“What would a work environment that consistently supports your mental wellbeing look or feel like to you?” Provide an open field for users to type their answer.
These responses provide communications and HR teams with a comprehensive “wish list” spanning race, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, disability, culture, experience level and age. Without this qualitative input, a PSC program isn’t inclusive and won’t feel safe for all employees. This also scrubs unconscious bias from a precontrived definition of a PSC drafted solely from an executive (or communications) point of view.
Sample quantitative question:
“A psychosocial safety climate (PSC) is any environment that supports sustained psychological health. Based on your experience, how would you rate the current PSC of your organization, based on the following scale of 1–5 stars?”
- 1 star: Mental well-being is not valued; I do not feel psychologically safe or supported.
- 2 stars: Mental well-being is rarely a priority; I do not have adequate resources.
- 3 stars: The focus on mental well-being comes and goes. I’m not sure what support is available.
- 4 stars: My mental well-being is usually supported, and I’m aware of resources.
- 5 stars: My mental well-being and psychological health is consistently prioritized and supported.
Provide clear definitions for each rating level rather than leaving it open to subjective interpretation, as that may skew results. This quantitative rating is what you’ll use to 1) analyze and adjust related communications and initiatives and 2) measure against each time you ask them to retake the survey to determine change in perception.
Create an Action Plan
Once you’ve collected feedback, discuss how you will communicate the results. If results fell short of desired outcomes, what actions can be taken, how and when? Research best practices and consult with subject matter experts as needed to create SMART goals (simple, measurable, attainable, relevant/realistic and time-bound).
This process needs to happen quickly, so that employees don’t assume their feedback was a waste of time or that their psychological health isn’t a priority. Be as transparent as possible about what’s going well, opportunities for improvement, and how and when improvements will take place. Then execute everything promised within the given timeline.
For an issue as important as employee well-being, it’s important to check the temperature at regular intervals, such as quarterly, so that timely adjustments are made and seen throughout the year versus simply checking off a box for the annual survey.
Employees don’t get survey fatigue. They get lack-of-action fatigue. When announcing the next survey, reiterate what improvements were made because of the last one to remind them of how their feedback was acted upon. This pre-framing will increase future survey engagement and demonstrate the organization’s commitment to creating a PSC.
Report Communications Impact
While many variables contribute to creating and sustaining a PSC, don’t be afraid to illustrate how internal or organizational communications contributed to business efficiencies, such as a decrease in turnover, increased productivity, fewer complaints or fewer sick days. Quantify not only responses, but also survey engagement over time. How many employees responded? If the response was low, what factors may have contributed to that, and what did you change to improve survey engagement? Did you discover and resolve message distribution issues to remote employees that also affected other organizational messaging?
There’s significant opportunity to outline the unique operational value that you contribute through communications. If you aren’t showing your value as a communications practitioner, nobody else will. This is essential when you need to justify additional resources, headcount or even your own raise.
Keep Learning and Improving
There’s no single or perfect approach to creating a psychological safety climate. It will vary significantly across the globe, influenced by cultural norms, expectations and world events. The collection of case studies and best practices is growing daily, creating a-la-carte options to meet the needs of your employee demographic while remaining flexible enough to incorporate change.
As we’ve learned across the past two years, big change happens. It’s our responsibility as communicators to support and guide change while minimizing operational disruption.
Tara Mogan Blom, MMC, ABC
A strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and certified holistic coach, Tara Mogan Blom, MMC, ABC, is the founder of DGA Communications. She is an accredited member of IABC, serving as a member of the IABC Catalyst Subcommittee.