How to build psychological safety in the workplace

Having a 'psychologically safe' working environment is being shown as increasingly important in augmenting employee wellbeing, retaining staff and boosting productivity.

Interest in psychological safety has grown steadily since 2016, reaching a new high this year:


- UK monthly Google searches for "psychological safety” since 2015

While organisational understanding of what psychological safety means is increasing, creating a safe workplace isn’t a quick fix and it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires strategic planning, and a willingness from senior management to lead by example.

This article explains what psychological safety is, how it can be delivered within an organisation, and how the benefits can be measured.

What does psychological safety look like?

“Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.”

- Amy C. Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and ranked #1 Management Thinker by Thinkers50.

In other words, a psychologically safe workplace is a place where all employees can admit their mistakes, give their opinions, or speak up critically without the fear of being belittled, punished, or bad-mouthed. This means that employees can be honest with their thoughts and even respectfully disagree with decisions made by senior management.

A place without psychological safety might not be obviously unethical or toxic (although it certainly can be), but there still may be subtle issues that impact overall wellbeing. For example:

  • An employee might get on well with their manager, but still feel afraid to voice an alternative opinion due to fear of appearing obstructive or incompetent.
  • An employee might also feel comfortable sharing ideas within a team but be wary of specific team members with a history of gossiping.

The CIPD’s Trust and psychological safety evidence review strongly links trust with psychological safety. When you trust your colleagues or team members, you feel safer taking risks and being yourself. It's also true to say that if you feel psychologically safe, you're much more likely to extend this trust to others, viewing their actions and intentions more favourably.

What are the benefits of a psychologically safe workspace?

Psychologically safe workplaces offer a host of benefits for both organisations and employees, including:

  • Health and safety: Whether an employee has themselves made a mistake, or if they've spotted a hazard in the workplace, psychologically safe employees are much more likely to report issues as they arise. Nottingham Business School and the CIPD found that certain management structures can foster a culture where employees, especially frontline workers, fear repercussions for speaking up which can lead to serious health and safety concerns being dangerously underreported.
  • Supporting wellbeing: The Harvard Business Review found that when people trust their companies and work in a safe space, they experience 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 13% fewer sick days and 40% less burnout. In addition, if employees are encouraged to raise concerns, about theirs or a colleague’s mental or physical health, the outcome is likely to be more favourable for the individual and the business.
  • Lifting morale: Employees who feel valued and respected, are more engaged and satisfied with their jobs and are generally happier. Harvard Business Review's study found that companies with a high level of trust have 76% more engagement and employees experience 29% more satisfaction in their lives.
  • Boosting productivity: Psychologically safe people are healthier and happier and Research from University of Warwick shows that happiness makes people around 12% more productive. Beyond this, if you’ve managed to build teams who feel safe to experiment with new ideas and new ways of working, you’re more likely to discover better solutions that lead to higher productivity. This can spread throughout organisations as free and open communication fosters teamwork and more idea-sharing.
  • Attracting and retaining talent: Being able to portray, and show the benefits, of being a psychologically safe workplace will attract top talent. Your current employees will also be more loyal. Gartner research indicates that it can lower employee turnover by 27%.

Ultimately, each of the above benefits results in higher output, fewer sick days, less presenteeism, fewer accidents, lower staff turnover and less time spent on recruitment, all of which contribute to an increased bottom line.

How to create psychological safety

To create psychological safety, you must build a culture where employees trust their managers and value colleagues’ opinions. We recommend the following:

Set psychological safety as an organisational goal

This can't be an abstract aim; it should be written down as an organisational goal. This has two advantages: first, it means that it has to be measured so that you know if you're making progress; second, it shows employees you're serious about respecting them as individuals and committed to creating a psychologically safe workplace.

Lead by example

If leaders and line managers demonstrate their own vulnerability by admitting mistakes, it sends a clear signal that to err is to be human. Leaders should also regularly ask for help and genuinely solicit and listen to opinions feedback. These actions help to set the tone, creating a transparent culture of open communication and psychological safety.

Encourage feedback

Managers and leaders are best placed to encourage feedback, publicly praising those who do speak up and spotlighting success stories that demonstrate how feedback can lead to positive change. If feedback is not considered the best way forward then this should also be explained. Ignoring feedback you don’t like is the best way to ensure you never get it again!

Include psychological safety within staff policies

Policies can remove any grey areas regarding what your organisation considers acceptable behaviour. They set established rules and helpful guidelines explaining what's expected of employees regarding respecting one another. Specifically, mentioning psychological safety can help employees understand what behaviours contribute to a safe environment, and they can be a great way of inducting new employees into your culture.

Encourage experimentation

Celebrate innovation, even when the outcome isn't perfect. This sends a strong message that progress is more important than perfection. When mistakes happen, shift the focus away from blame and towards learning. This shows that your organisation is invested in collective improvement rather than individual fault-finding.

Focus on team and individual development

Invest in team-building activities, training workshops, and mentoring programs to build a strong foundation of psychological safety. These initiatives allow team members to connect, develop skills, and feel supported in their professional journeys, all of which can contribute to a safe and innovative work environment.

Be inclusive

Being aware of everyone’s differences and ensure that people are not criticised for them e.g. those who are neurodiverse, have caring responsibilities or come from a different working culture. Equally people need to be made respectfully aware of how their actions may impact on others. Bridging the lack of in-person bonding often found in virtual teams or when working with contractors is also crucial to fostering psychological safety.

How to measure psychological safety in the workplace

There are several ways of measuring psychological safety in the workplace, including:

  • Employee surveys: These can provide both quantitative and qualitative feedback, giving you data that helps you understand year-on-year how safe employees feel to take risks, voice opinions, or admit mistakes.
  • Discussion groups: Getting employees together (not necessarily with their own teammates) can encourage open dialogue about psychological safety and allow them to share their experiences and perspectives.
  • Look at the numbers: Measuring productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover and number applicants for new positions help indicate whether the culture is helping employees to feel psychologically safe.
  • Incident reports and complaints: Reviewing incident reports can highlight patterns where a lack of psychological safety may have contributed to issues. Of course, staff need to be made to feel comfortable in reporting their experiences for this to be fully useful!

How Altruist can help

At Altruist Enterprises, we’re experts at creating safer, happier workplace environments.

Our Workplace Wellbeing Consultancy Services, can help you to assess your current wellbeing strategies and develop a plan that prioritises psychological safety. Our holistic approach will help your organisation build a strong foundation for employee wellbeing, leading to a more engaged, productive, and healthy workforce.

Get in touch, call us on 0121 271 0550 or email us

Katie Buckingham

Katie founded Altruist Enterprises in 2013. Since then, she has grown Altruist into a nationwide provider of mental health and resilience training. Katie is a seasoned public speaker and innovator of bespoke mental health courses. In 2022, Katie won the Cambridge Social Innovation Prize awarded by Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge and Cambridge Judge Business School.

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