Why psychological safety is critical for wellbeing during lockdown
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Why psychological safety is critical for wellbeing during lockdown

Home-schooling is a challenge to wellbeing

Here’s why psychological safety is vital. The matter of wellbeing at work has re-emerged as a concern due to the recent high-level ‘lockdowns’ across Australia. In an attempt to minimise transmission of the rampant Delta-variant of COVID, huge numbers of children are being ‘home-schooled’. Even with prior experience (from earlier lockdowns) and improved processes from lessons learned, many parents are finding it challenging to juggle home-schooling and work expectations.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Jordan Baker, shares ‘Alice’s story’. She recounts that Alice, and all the working parents of primary school children she knows, feel like they’re inside the Star Wars garbage compactor. Pressing in from one side, there are the challenges of facilitating virtual learning for the children. But there are other parenting responsibilities to be managed at the same time, since the children are physically present, not at school. From the other side, work demands continue to press in too.

For some, there is an ability to be a little more flexible and defer some work to later in the evening, but others must attend virtually to ‘business as usual’ during the day. Just how long can we expect people to maintain mental and physical wellbeing when they’re burning the candle at both ends? This was undoubtedly a huge challenge in early COVID times – people were just frazzled- and it seems to have emerged again with extended lockdowns.

UGM also believes it’s important to acknowledge the impact this is having on women in particular. Research showed that women were more impacted than men during earlier lockdowns, one of the reasons was because they were landed with more household responsibilities. From Baker’s news article and our own anecdotal evidence, it seems clear that this lockdown is no different in terms of its unequal impact on women. Organisations and men should take note AND take supportive action!

Working in lockdown isn’t the same as working from home

Most organisations, it seems, have learned well from past experiences and are now in a position to support their people working from home (or not in ‘the office’). The fact that so many are only attending the office once or twice a week, without any drop off in productivity, speaks for itself. However, what seems less clear is whether there is a willingness for organisations and managers to accommodate what is tantamount to legally compelled (by Health Order) home schooling, endured by parents ‘for the greater good’.

What seems to be missing from too many organisational responses is acknowledgement that ‘lockdown’ for many implies significantly changed working conditions, especially if involuntary home-schooling is involved. COVID lockdowns with home-schooling are a form of ‘force majeure’. Australian law firm MinterEllison notes that “a force majeure clause relieves a party from performing its contractual obligations due to an event outside the reasonable control of the affected party”. While most people working under lockdown conditions are not asking to be completely relieved of their work commitments, many need at least some leeway in what they deliver and when.

The sentiment around workplace and management support during the first tranche of extended lockdowns seem to be overwhelmingly positive. For example, a McKinsey study released in June 2020 indicated that 78% of people felt their organisation had responded appropriately to the crisis and 80% indicated that the leadership in their organisation had acted proactively to protect their health and safety. With such convincing management support recorded previously, why is it then that in mid-2021 so many are feeling as if work demands are seriously challenging their wellbeing?

Psychological safety is an essential aspect of hybrid workplaces

UGM has long advocated that ‘psychological safety’ is important and, at the very least, ought to receive as much priority at work as physical safety. For the latter, many organisations have express safety policies and committees to help ensure it, but the same cannot be said for psychological safety. In fact, repeated studies across multiple sectors suggest that psychological safety is frequently low or missing in organisations and teams. This is surprising, since psychological safety is simply the belief that one can speak up without the risk of punishment or humiliation.

The lack of psychological safety is a concern because of the business benefits it supports. Research in the field shows clear links between psychological safety and quality decision making, greater innovation, healthier team environments, improved interpersonal dynamics and improved implementation. Which of those, as a manager, would you not want among that substantial list of benefits?

And, it does come down to managers (and their teams). Edmondson’s research shows that psychological safety attaches to teams (groupings) in which people work, rather than applying broadly to organisations. People assess psychological safety within each of the groups they work – all the time. This is a result of our brains being hardwired to protect us and the fact that speaking out has potential risks attached. The default position is generally ‘not to speak up’, since doing so risks punishment, humiliation or ruining business relationships.

This changes when the context is experienced as psychologically safe. People are more willing to express their thoughts and feelings openly and honestly, where there is potential benefit for the team or organisation. Even if turns out the idea doesn’t deliver, there is no sanction for having had the idea in the first place. In any case, it’s often a combination of different ideas and efforts that delivers good solutions.

Returning to the context of unexpected, imposed lockdowns and home-schooling, one would hope that managers will be supportive in any recurring emergency, as they were during the initial COVID lockdown. Now though, the concerns may be more about regular levels of psychological safety within teams. Do people feel they can speak up – including sharing the lockdown challenges affecting ‘work as usual’, such as home-schooling younger children – without risking any form of punishment or humiliation? Building psychological safety will reap rewards not only for lockdown contexts but, as we go forward, it will be essential for hybrid workplaces.


Ways to support working during lockdown

  1. Spend a little time clarifying exactly what needs to be done and by when. It may seem challenging to set aside time to do this, but not spending that time is likely to cost you more than it saves! Ideally, you’ll be able to clearly link what you’re doing with the overall purpose and that connection will serve as a bit of an energy boost when needed.
  2. Prioritise your activities and plan accordingly. While this may appear obvious, when we come under pressure sometimes even the most obvious solutions become obscured by the context. Check that your priorities align with those working to/for you.
  3. Assess the level of psychological safety you believe is present in the work group/s where you need to make requests about changing a schedule for deliverables. If you asses the climate is positive, then definitely speak up (maybe even with one request to test the water). If it’s not favourable, you’ll likely not speak out, and thinking through this in the future may be something for your ‘To Do’ list once the emergency passes.
  4. If you are a manager, you should definitely consider how psychologically safe you believe your people feel your various work groups/teams are (remember this is particularly workgroup focused, rather than the organisation more generally). Research shows that managers are heavily implicated in the extent to which their people feel psychologically safe. It might be worth checking this out with team members on a one-on-one basis at an appropriate time, to be certain. Bear in mind that, if they’re don’t feel psychologically safe, they probably won’t state this to you directly. So, a useful indicator can be whether your team members generally speak up with their opinions and ideas.

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