What is Psychological Safety? And why is it Even More Important for minority communities like LGBTQ+

Psychological safety is the unfettered access to bring one’s whole self to work. Rather than hiding, concealing, or feigning an identity, it demands that all members of an organisation be authentic and cooperative.

When a psychologically secure environment is established, people are able to communicate and collaborate with ease while fostering an atmosphere of curiosity and creativity.

Are organisations conducive to psychological safety? Experts from many fields have their opinions on the matter, and a consensus seems hard to come by. Still, for anyone concerned about the wellbeing of those in his or her care – both peers and clients alike – it is important not only that a given organisation be psychologically safe but also one that offers an environment where people feel at ease.

In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released findings from their research, revealing that incidents of workplace violence are far more prevalent than most people might think.

“1 out of 7 employees don’t feel safe at work.”

This raises curiosity: are organisations psychologically safe?

Workplace violence refers to any form of physical assault, harassment, intimidation or other disruptive behaviour that takes place at the workplace. Stories abound of workplace brutality, yet what about instances of psychological violence; moments that alter the mental state and subsequently have an impact on other aspects of our bodies such as emotions and physical health?

When workplace violence comes up, it is common to dwell on physical altercations. However, conversations about psychological aggression are quite infrequent – instances of this form of abuse may be more difficult to pinpoint and rectify.

As such, employees are reluctant to disclose incidents of psychological violence as compared with physical ones. Every individual’s perception of security at work is distinctively unique. One employee can feel supremely confident while another might be apprehensive about the situation.

People crave belonging and to be accepted by colleagues, managers and leadership. We are all human – filled with many thoughts – so it can be difficult juggling both success and productivity in our daily lives.

We are highly sensitive to conversations with our fellow colleagues; perceiving agitation or perplexity that eludes explanation. It is hard to be ourselves in the presence of co-workers and they likewise find themselves struggling with their true identities. Conversations should be comfortable, enlightening and trustful – yet we often find ourselves frustrated as we seek this idealism!

The weight of our responsibilities can be daunting, and pressure to meet deadlines is always present – it’s no surprise that this exacerbates stress levels, which can ultimately have an effect on creativity and productivity. Additionally, when we don’t trust those around us fully with whom communication would be essential for productive interaction; expressing our opinions or asking questions becomes more inconvenient than advantageous.

If we make an error, will there be any repercussions? Might we even suffer from harsh criticism or retribution for our actions? Perhaps. However, if anything we may also fear the ridicule of our peers or the consequences of failing to live up to expectations.

To manage, we utilise a professional mask at work to safeguard ourselves. To guarantee security and remain shielded from potential dangers. We abstain from revealing too much personal data; fearing that it may be divulged to the public sphere, possibly leading to discrimination or reprisals against us all.

With such circumstances looming, apprehension can ensue – with each passing moment brought on heightened stress and nervousness.

When an organisation is psychologically unsafe, employees conceal their authentic self; from colleagues, team mates and managers. They attempt to hide any unappealing characteristic or behaviour that may be deemed objectionable by superiors.

In the workplace most people actively filter their appearance – concealing unpleasant physical features such as acne; altering complexions with cosmetics or adopting a paler complexion so as not to draw attention. Furthermore, they modulate behaviour: masking impolite gestures like eye-rolling, body movements and inflections in speech patterns (i.e., replacing them with less abrasive mannerisms). All of these acts are indicative of suppressing aspects of personality which can seem counterintuitive yet ultimately serve a purpose for those within an organisation who seek to maintain harmony between themselves and senior leadership figures.

It is no surprise to learn that the UK and US face an acute mental health challenge at work. The 2017 Thriving At Work Report states:

“There is a large annual cost to employers of between £33 billion and £42 billion, with over half of the cost coming from presenteeism, with additional costs coming from sickness absence and staff turnover.”

To put it bluntly, things do not appear to be improving.

Organisations with low levels of psychological safety are likely to encounter a wide range of difficulties, from physical, mental, and emotional health being harmed; poor performance or even declining results; an increase in grievances – conflicts and liability issues arising. Consequently, absenteeism spikes as employees try to escape the situation whilst failures remain unresolved and lamentable incidents take place. In the face of these obstacles, innovation is often forsaken – a detrimental occurrence for productivity and cost containment. This conundrum inevitably compromises turnover in any enterprise.

This could have been averted if the workplace had a secure psychological atmosphere; employees felt comfortable and appreciated to be their authentic selves within the work environment.

Why LGBT+ Employees Face Extra Hurdles at Work

In 2013, Deloitte published the report – Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion. Within this work they highlighted the notion of covering-up some aspect of one’s identity whilst in the workplace; masking up and self-censoring.

  • 61% of respondents reported covering at least one aspect of themselves while at the office. For LGBT individuals it is 83%.

In 2018, Stonewall launched their LGBT In Britain: Work Report. Their data revealed startling insights about the state of LGBTQ employment in Great Britain 

  • 35% of LGBT staff have hidden or disguised that they are LGBT at work because they were afraid of discrimination.

In Deloitte’s 2019 State of Inclusion Survey, they found that:

  • 56% of LGBT respondents said they had experienced bias in the workplace at least once a month.

Employees within the LGBT community face numerous obstacles at work. It is evident that these individuals encounter substantial challenges while navigating through daily operations in an office setting.

The origin of these norms can be traced back to a heteronormative world. As children, we are inundated with social conditioning that instils us with notions of what is acceptable and errant behaviour. Consequently, this fosters the creation of an array of filters – those cantered on heterosexuality and cisgender identities – which govern our perception; anytime we encounter something within the external environment or even within our own experience at home or at work. Ultimately, everything seen and experienced in society has been deemed legitimate according to these constructs

Unconsciously, everyone in your organisation is making decisions and engaging in their respective roles with the default heterosexual and cisgender parameters. This can be profoundly detrimental for LGBT employees within your business.

In the United Kingdom, Section 28 had a profound impact on the LGBT community. It dictated that local authorities should not intentionally advance homosexuality or disseminate material with an intent to do so; this law was in effect for sixteen years between 1987 and 2003. During this time same-one sexual relationships were effectively non-existent – neither discussed nor taught at schools.

During this era, LGBT individuals had limited resources and did not have access to any references or a secure environment in which to experiment with their sexuality. Conversely, non-LGBT individuals either lacked knowledge about the LGBT community or were denied access to asking inquiries about such matters; leaving them ignorant of the reality experienced by those within it.

The deleterious effects of this may be observed today within the office and community. Miscommunications, preconceived notions, judgments, and criticism–even hatred – all result from a lack of understanding. However, these phenomena stem not merely from ignorance but also due to people’s inability to comprehend. At times like these it is essential for us all to recognise that our actions can have consequences on others – both positively as well as negatively-and take responsibility for those effects without harbouring any ill-will towards them

Psychological safety in the workplace is crucial for your entire workforce, but it is paramount for members of the LGBT community. You have seen that they face additional hurdles in uniting as a group – more than non-LGBT staff do. Understanding this can help foster cohesion and improve productivity among all employees alike so essential to success on a global scale!

If your workplace is lacking in an atmosphere of psychological safety, it may be hindering LGBT employees from fully expressing themselves. Not only will they remain closeted but also may feel lonely and isolated as a result.

In summary, psychological safety is vital for the LGBTQ+ community in order to thrive and excel in the workplace. By implementing measures such as creating an open and accepting climate, you will be aiding your employees in overcoming many of their challenges. 

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Pinky Ghadiali

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