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Psychological Safety in the Workplace

By: Maureen Paraventi

Harassment and bullying on the part of co-workers, supervisors or management are not only detrimental to a worker’s psychological well-being, they’re also illegal. © dusanpetkovic1 –

Among the National Safety Council’s (NSC) topics for National Safety Week is one that refers to the importance of feeling psychologically safe on the job as well as physically safe. Harassment, bullying and retaliation on the part of co-workers, supervisors or management are not only detrimental to a worker’s psychological well-being, they’re also illegal. Nonetheless, those behaviors are prevalent in many U.S. workplaces.

Bullying is a form of aggression, actions or comments that can psychologically or ‘mentally’ hurt or isolate a person by causing them to feel offended, degraded or humiliated. Repeated incidents or a pattern of behavior – rather than an isolated incident – constitute bullying.

Harassment is defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”1 Harassment rises to the level of a regulatory violation when enduring it is a condition of continued employment, or when it is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating, hostile or abusive work environment. “Severe” and “pervasive” are subjective terms. Unless they’re very serious, isolated or minor incidents aren’t harassment. Offensive jokes, racial slurs, intimidation, threats and ridicule are among the behaviors considered harassment by the EEOC.

Retaliation – as defined by OSHA – is “when an employer (through a manager, supervisor or administrator) takes an adverse action against an employee because the employee engaged in protected activity, such as raising a concern about a workplace condition or activity that could have an adverse impact on the safety, health or well-being.”2 Retaliation can take the form of a worker being fired, demoted, threatened, losing out on overtime or a deserved promotion, having hours or pay reduced or being ostracized or mocked. An employer may also make conditions for the worker so intolerable that he or she quits or the employer may interfere with their ability to get work elsewhere.

Let’s take a look at what happens when companies fail to address harassment and bullying or, worse, engage in retaliation against employees.

Mental health effects

Being exposed regularly to a negative environment at work can cause a host of mental health problems or exacerbate existing ones. People who are the targets of this kind of behavior may suffer from insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety, panic attacks and problems concentrating. They are likely to take their stress home, where it can affect family dynamics.

These mental health issues result in very real costs to employers because they affect productivity, absenteeism and staff retention. Costs associated with employee assistance programs (EAPs), recruitment, and retaining trained and experienced personnel increase. Poor morale can affect every part of the organization, including customer service, where it has the potential to damage the corporate image, alienate customers and reduce profits.

Conversely, promoting a psychologically safe workplace can yield benefits, like greater productivity and talent retention. If these aren’t compelling enough reasons to take action against bad behavior, consider this: both harassment and retaliation are specifically prohibited by federal regulations, harassment by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA) and retaliation by more than 20 whistleblower statutes covering many different industries. Additionally, employers who are aware of harassment and don’t take corrective action can find themselves facing hefty lawsuits based on the negative effects that harassment has on employees who are on the receiving end of it.

How to Foster a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Communicating to the workforce that bullying or harassment will not be tolerated is important, but so is making sure that everyone understands what those things are and what to do if they occur. Prevention and policies are the best tools to use to prevent a workplace from turning toxic.

  • Hold informational sessions to clarify what is and is not acceptable workplace behavior.
  • Encourage employees to act respectfully toward each other (and ensure that managers and supervisors model that behavior as well).
  • Encourage employees to tell the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop.
  • Implement a workplace policy that includes a confidential reporting system. Act on those reports as soon as possible, in order to prevent a situation from escalating.
  • Train supervisors and managers in how to deal with complaints and potential situations.

National Safety Month offers an excellent reminder that workplace safety should include psychological as well as physical safety. WMHS

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