Psychological Safety vs Psychological Hazard

These two concepts have been common for language in organisations across Australia since the rise of Burnout due to COVID-19, and the introduction of psychosocial hazard laws in many states across Australia. But individuals and organisations can be mistaken in thinking that these concepts are the same thing. There is certainly overlap, as psychological safety is part of a hazard free working environment, however, they are in fact quite different.

The correct definition of psychological safety is “the shared belief of employees that their team (and broader organisation) is a safe place to take interpersonal risks”. These interpersonal risks are classified as

  1. Inclusion safety: I am able to interact with my team members without fear of rejection or embarrassment.
  2. Learner safety: I feel safe to engage in the learning process, I can ask questions, receive constructive feedback, and give feedback.
  3. Contributor safety: I feel safe to contribute, take initiative, use my skills, and make a meaningful difference.
  4. Challenger safety: I feel safe to challenge the status quo appropriately and constructively (e.g., think for alternative ways of doing things).

A psychological hazard is a danger a person faces whilst completing their work which primarily stems from:

  1. The design and management of their work
  2. The physical and mental safety of the workplace (e.g., exposure to traumatic material or physical danger)
  3. Workplace interactions and behaviours.

Despite psychological safety referencing “psychology”, it is not directly referencing the mental health and well-being of staff. It is “safety” that is the primary component in defining the concept. A psychologically safe workplace is more likely to contribute to an overall positive state of well-being amongst employees.

In my professional opinion, the psychological hazards present within an organisation and its environments are more directly impacting the mental health of staff. The catch for organisations is that to appropriately address these hazards, you need to have in place a positive state of psychological safety.

The Safe Work Australia Code of Practice highlights that an organisation (PCBU) needs to directly ask its employee base for their observations and opinions on the risks that present through their job design, physical environment, and interactions. This data can be collected in a variety of manners, but the idea is that it is a true reflection of the business environment. The consideration is that an organisation needs honest and open feedback from employees to recognise and understand the psychosocial risks they are encountering. However, this is not possible if employees don’t feel safe enough to speak openly and honestly about their experiences, and if they fear backlash from leadership.

For organisations that do have a solid foundation for psychological safety, collecting accurate and informative data is not an issue. However, for those without a solid foundation of psychological safety, it is going to be difficult to get the information you need to appropriately identify and then manage the psychosocial hazards in your workplace. Building psychological safety is not a quick process. In order to comply with psychosocial hazard laws, it’s probably going to be best to develop data collection methods which account for this. For those business leaders who are unsure of the psychological safety within their business, there is a quick and simple method which can assist you to get a high-level indication of what your employees are feeling. This will allow you to account for psychological safety in your broader psychosocial hazard assessment.

Assessing your Psychological Safety

The Edmonson Psychological Safety Scale, developed by Amy Edmonson from Cornell University is a widely accepted and easily administered way of quickly assessing the psychological safety of your organisation. The questionnaire is only 7-items, responded rating on a Likert scale, and provides an overall snapshot of the psychological safety of your organisation. This scale can also be used in a test-action-retest model to gauge transformation towards improved psycho-safety environment.

“Members of the team are able to bring up problems and tough issues”.

Example question from the Edmonson Psychological Safety Scale

My suggestion is that if you are unsure of the psychological safety of your organisation, ask either the whole organisation or a “snapshot” population to complete this questionnaire. Ensure that answers can be collected and returned in an anonymous manner and ensure that all data collected is respected (e.g., viewed, stored, and destroyed appropriately).

Indicators of poor psychological safety include:

  1. Low completion rate (below 60%)
  2. Poor results on the scale itself

How to gain adequate psychosocial hazard information from staff if you know the psychological safety of the organisation is low, or the results of the Edmonson scale indicate so.

  1. Confidentiality: You need to ensure a confidential process. This may seem like a basic suggestion, but ensure that the process is confidential, and ensure that all marketing of the assessment highlights that all data is going to be confidential. This may also mean that you won’t be able to collect departmental or other demographic material as people could be concerned that providing any demographic information will expose them.
  2. Use questionnaires, do not interview: Usually a thorough assessment process of psychological hazards involves an interview of employees to provide more in-depth data. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to conduct a series of interviews anonymously. You are going to be reliant on a questionnaire that individuals can complete confidentially. Ensure that the questionnaire houses questions with enough variety and space to get expansive and detailed answers. Remember, design the questions to encourage people to discuss the negatives, not just the positives. Receiving only glowing reviews of the psychological hazards in the environment, is likely indicative of only a part of the story being discussed.
  3. Acknowledge the purpose of collecting the data: Having leaders openly discuss with employees that the purpose of the psychosocial hazard process is to identify the problem areas helps give people permission to answer openly and honestly.

Without a foundation of psychological safety, the requirement for organisations to identify, assess and manage psychological hazards becomes a much greater task. Unfortunately, for those organisations whose psychological safety is not currently in a positive place, it will fast become too late to appropriately address psychosocial hazards before the laws begin to be enforced more vehemently by Safe Work.


Oliver Brecht, Managing Director of Veretis Group