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Group of diverse colleagues working together in team meeting

Being able to speak up at work can help employees to thrive

Experts say creating a psychologically safe environment leads to a more engaged staff—and more productive teams

Group of diverse colleagues working together in team meetingIn a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel free to speak up without fear of reprisal (Getty Images/10’000 Hours)

Imagine a workplace where everyone can share ideas, ask questions, raise concerns, and even disagree—all without undue repercussions. 

More idyllic than realistic? Not necessarily. In fact, the idea of psychological safety is one that experts recognize as an important element in building a successful team. 

“Psychological safety is about having a culture where people feel they can speak freely without fear of reprisal or humiliation,” says Jocelyn Bérard, president for Optimum Talent’s central region, and a speaker at The ONE Conference + Expo 2021.  “[In those workplaces, people know] their voice is respected, encouraged and appreciated.” 

The benefits of giving a voice to employees have been well documented. For example, a 2017 Gallup report found that if organizations increase psychological safety, it makes employees more engaged in their work and can lead to a 12 per cent increase in productivity. 

Ultimately, then, having a workplace where people feel they have the safety to voice their ideas, take risks or admit errors can not only lead to a more creative team, but one that is more productive. As Bérard puts it, “Good debate will bring good ideas, even [better] team performance.”

Here are some ways to create a safe space in the workplace.


For leaders, it's important to start by gaining an understanding of what it means to be a psychologically safe leader. And that’s where training comes in. 

For instance, the University of New Brunswick has a self-paced certificate program in psychologically safe leadership, where participants can register for individual courses or a full curriculum. Canada’s Mental Health Association (CMHA) also offers a training program for those looking to help an organization improve its psychological health and safety.

FCPA Stephen Shea, managing partner of talent at EY Canada, advocates for this type of upskilling. “It trains people to understand how to work in teams and how to work and think inclusively,” he says. 


Before creating a plan for improving psychological safety, leaders must understand the foundation of the company’s culture, says Dr. Bill Howatt, president of Howatt HR, which specializes in workplace health and safety. The first step, he says, is to measure and acquire data by asking questions: “What is the leadership like? What is the workload? What is creating fear in the culture? Find the baseline and then understand the sources to make a plan.” 

The answers to these questions and impending needs will vary from workplace to workplace—there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, Howatt says. But the important thing is to check in with employees throughout the organization to better understand what is happening at each level. The formula, as Howatt explains it, is: “Get your data, find out your root cause, make a plan, implement a plan and then measure.”

At EY, says Shea, this data gathering is conducted by way of regular employee engagement surveys that assess company culture and employee morale. “At various levels, you’re giving people a voice and creating an accurate dialogue,” he says.


Once you have a baseline understanding of the company culture and how you want it to evolve, you need to introduce practices that will bring about the desired change, say experts. 

“You need to be vigilant and have processes in place to stop the unhealthy attributes of a workplace from festering and growing,” says Shea. “You emphasize the positive, but you have to have a way to identify when the negative is happening and deal with it right away.”   

Some of these processes, he says, can be as simple as understanding and respecting the hours that people are working, creating an open-door policy and having regular one-to-one check-ins where employees can be heard without judgment. 

CPA Richa Khanna, partner at Baker Tilly Vaughan LLP, is also a firm proponent of these kinds of initiatives. She especially likes open-door policies that let people know you will take the time to hear their concerns. “When you listen, you can actually take actionable steps,” she says. 

Showing empathy can also have a huge impact, not only on individual employees, but on the organization in its entirety. As Bérard explains, “It’s about being a leader that has a bit of compassion. That’s the most critical contribution the leader can have.”


“Looking after each other is probably the most critical success factor for an organization,” says Shea. 

EY, for example, has introduced a mental health program called “Are you OK?” that has given managers and colleagues the green light to check in with each other in a meaningful way. Sharing experiences in an honest way leads to better collaboration and camaraderie, Shea explains. In turn, this feeling of belonging and inclusivity helps create that opening for a psychologically healthy workplace. 


It’s critical to remember, however, that any initiatives aimed at creating a psychologically safe workplace should be ongoing; there should be no finish line. As Howatt explains, “It will be like electricity. You’ll always need to pay for your electricity bill. If you want a psychologically safe workplace, you’ll always need to invest in it.”


Find out how to foster an inclusive workplace, become an ally and avoid toxic positivity at work. And don’t miss Jocelyn Bérard’s session, Emotional health at Work: How to be a psychologically safe leader, at this year’s The ONE Conference + Expo.