Safety is the state of being “safe”, the condition of being protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes. Safety can also refer to the control of recognized hazards in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk.
In the last few months our personal and physical safety has been at the forefront of our minds. We have focused time, energy and attention on protecting ourselves and the vulnerable, on identifying the risks and avoiding the hazards, of reducing potential harm.
Our Physical Safety has been the reason for lockdown and social isolation, for school closure and the world coming to an abrupt halt. The Government told us to stay home to stay safe, and we complied.
In the last few weeks school leaders and shop owners have been bogged down with statutory guidance. They have spent hours updating policies and preparing risk assessments to ensure that they are compliant with revised Health and Safety guidance. Yet, there has not been a significant focus on access arrangements and vulnerabilities for specific ethnic groups who are a higher risk. If you have not yet read it please review the BAMEed guidance in conjunction with the NHS for Schools and Guidance for supporting BAME colleagues in their return to school then you can find it here.
It is hard to tell the impact on our future at the moment and which of these visible Physical Safety measures will remain. I wonder when the signs will be taken down? I wonder when the floor tape will be peeled back? I wonder when the plastic shields will be removed from till fronts?
But how focused have we been on our Psychological Safety?
In the last few months people have felt emotionally unsafe. Key workers have feared for their lives. Families have feared for their loved ones. Some children will have spent 3 months in homes where they feel unsafe. Some partners will have spent 3 months in houses where they feel unsafe.
In the last few weeks Headteachers and school leaders have carried the burden of responsibility around the decision-making to open schools. They carry the weight of creating a space where staff feel safe to return and parents feel safe to send their children to.
Our Psychological Safety has been affected by lockdown. Social isolation and lockdown will have triggered the anxieties of many people who already suffered from mental health issues. The lack of structure and routine, the loneliness and boredom, the fear and uncertainty, will also have triggered new mental ill-health.
It is clear that we should be anticipating the long term impact on our future wellbeing. Mental health was already a national focus, will it be the invisible assassin haunting us as a legacy of lockdown? There is much talk about recovery curriculae to aid the transition of children back to schools, but what about the recovery curriculum for staff, for parents, for society? I wonder how we will tackle the longer-lasting psychological symptoms long after the physical symptoms have passed?
But we are not just talking about Covid-19 here either. Yes our safety from the invisible killer has been on our minds for an extended period of time, but we have been reactive and responsive, we have taken measures to be proactive and preventative. However, there are other things that make us feel vulnerable and unsafe.
Racial tensions. How reactive and responsive are we being to what we are watching on the news to ensure the physical and psychological safety of our fellow human beings? How proactive and preventative are we being in ensuring that people feel safe in our world, in our society?
25% of the US (2016 census) are non-white, how physically and psychologically safe do they feel right now living in a country where police brutality is endemic?
13% of the UK (2011 census) are non-white, how physically and psychologically safe do they feel right now living in our country, watching the police brutality on the news?
The reality is that we have children who feel unsafe, physically and psychologically and we have staff who feel unsafe, physically and psychologically. So what are we going to do about it?
In Leaders Eat Last Simon Sinek talks about the circles of safety we as leader weave around our teams. Leaders create a sense of safety. Leaders protect their teams from danger.
“By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization … leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities.”
Our leaders may be making us feel physically and psychologically safe from Covid-19, but we need the same level of attention and guidance for ensuring that our black and brown children, families and colleagues feel physically and psychologically safe in our schools, in our society, too. Because the reality is they do not, they are experiencing fear, unrest and an additional layer of trauma. The news is triggering heightened emotions.
We need to take collective responsibility for ensuring that we create conditions for psychological safety in the workplace by providing a safe space for employees to be their full selves. Denying what is happening in the US, pretending it is not going to affect us in the UK is reckless, lazy and dangerous.
“No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe,” we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”
Project Aristotle, Google D&I initiative
Here are 10 ways to create psychological safety:
- Do you operate an open door policy?
- Do you express fallibility?
- Do you treat others as they would like to be treated?
- Do you nurture a curiosity culture and ask questions?
- Do you create conditions for the healthiest form of conflict?
- Do you give employees a voice and provide channels for feedback/ to encourage conversation?
- Do you create a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves?
- Do you promote effectiveness not efficiency?
- Do you create a culture around taking risks, where all ideas are encouraged and unpredictable paths are embraced?
- Do you offer flexible working arrangements and reasonable adjustments?
Some further reading:
How psychological safety works.
High-performing teams need psychological safety.
The psychological impact of explaining racism.
Three reasons to tackle minority stress.
Leveraging diversity through psychological safety.
6 ways to enable workplace safety.
You can also watch this 2014 TED talk from Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson on Psychological Safety. She has also written a book called The Fearless Organisation.
“Questions are really important in creating safety – they indicate to someone that you actually want to hear their voice”.
We all deserve to feel safe. It is our right.
We all deserve to be seen and to be heard. It is our right.
We all deserve to be valued. It is our right.
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