Do we ask employees to share enough responsibility for “workplace psychological safety”?

There is a lot of great, recent research and writing on workplace psychological safety – a search engine query I just did yielded over 77M results (I’m sure of varying quality and relevance, but you get my point). I like seeing work (and especially free toolkit-type content for HR professionals to help out!) focused on seeking more ways to create employee engagement and find another business performance edge – in all the ways you can define it. Who doesn’t like the idea of creating a psychologically safe work environment so both employees and employers can thrive?

Here’s a high-level list of business case elements for creating this type of work environment (from the Am. Psychological Association – link in Resource Page): 

  • Benefits to employees including increased job satisfaction, higher morale, better physical and mental health, enhanced motivation, and improved ability to manage stress.
  • Benefits to the organization including improved quality, performance and productivity, reduced absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover, fewer accidents and injuries, better able to attract and retain top-quality employees, improved customer service and satisfaction, and lower healthcare costs.

Pretty straightforward, no? 

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) and the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) pulled together research Canadian workplace to distill their recommendations and (free!) employer resources to these 13 elements for building a psychologically healthy work environment (text from the CCOHS page):

  1. Psychological Support is an environment supportive of employees’ psychological and mental health concerns, and responds appropriately.
  2. Organizational Culture is a work environment characterized by trust, honesty, and fairness.
  3. Clear Leadership & Expectations is effective leadership and support that helps employees know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization, and whether there are impending changes.
  4. Civility & Respect is where interactions are respectful and considerate.
  5. Psychological Competencies & Requirements is a good fit between employees’ interpersonal and emotional competencies and the requirements of the position.
  6. Growth & Development is encouragement and support for the development of employee interpersonal, emotional and job skills.
  7. Recognition & Reward includes appropriate acknowledgement and appreciation of employees’ efforts in a fair and timely manner.
  8. Involvement & Influence is where employees are included in discussions about how their work is done and how important decisions are made.
  9. Workload Management is where tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.
  10. Engagement is where workers feel connected to their work and are motivated to do their job well.
  11. Balance is where there is recognition of the need for balance between the demands of work, family and personal life.
  12. Psychological Protection is where psychological safety is ensured, workers feel able to ask questions, seek feedback, report mistakes and problems, or propose a new idea without fearing negative consequences.
  13. Protection of Physical Safety is where appropriate action to protect the physical safety of employees.

Good stuff, right? And broadly applicable since we’re talking about concepts like organizational culture and leadership and physical safety that cross industry and socio-cultural lines. 

So here’s where I have a question – please comment what you think about this? The literature I’m seeing focuses on what the employer and the organization (including individual leaders) can do to foster this kind of environment. By what about the employee accountability angle? What should employers expect from individual employees in terms of effort, engagement, etc. 

The analogy I’m thinking of is the employer that provides a great wellness program and “does everything right” but only a few employees make the effort to participate. Which one has control of that – employer or employees? Some would say it’s on the employer to find a way to enagage employees in these efforts in all circumstances. I don’t think that’s realistic. 

I think there has to be some shared responsibility between the organization and its employees.  But I’m not seeing that in the literature for the psychologically healthy workforce. I know it’s not a black and white question or answer, but definitely a new perspective to explore and I would argue stands to make this type of organizational work even more powerful. 


Which works? – Chaplains vs. Counselors in workplace behavioral health

 If you know me well, you know I’m a huge advocate for Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). A well-designed, well-socialized, well managed EAP program can be an amazing tool for employee wellness, management consultations, organizational development, and part of a solid foundation to a high-performance organization.

Without being really deliberate, spirituality isn’t a “standard” part of an EAP or really any psychological or consulting services although many would (and I think, rightfully) argue that addressing spirituality as a regular part of psychological counseling is an important consideration. Many therapists aren’t well-trained in this space and if they are, it’s then often as a specialty and more in line with religion; not so much as a part of their practice, it encompasses their practice. It’s also one of those topics that often pushes buttons for therapists themselves so that adds to the challenge and might get ignored in favor of focus on the other more clinical “presenting problems.”  (Shout out to Dr. Laurie Coleman who wrote a fantastic dissertation about including spirituality in psychological practice).

Chaplains often find a way to approach the whole person in counseling and, like pastoral counsellors or clergy, do have some counseling or psychological training but they’re focus is spirituality. In US military settings, a conversation with a chaplain is protected with the same broad definitions of confidentiality as in the civilian outpatient psychological counseling space. Conversely, a conversation with a military behavioral health officer isn’t protected by as much confidentiality. Generally, the conversations we have with our clergy in most settings are considered to be the most guarded by various privacy protections. Interesting, but not what this post is ultimately about.

This post is about the workplace chaplain role and programs that look a whole lot like EAPs but are sourced by clergy and much more influenced by religion than by business performance or health and wellness. That’s not to say business and employee performance aren’t still important to the workplace chaplain – they are for sure. But the “starting point” and context for engagement is spiritual, not employee health and performance. A lot of us are familiar with the chaplain role in a military setting and with first responders – police and fire – and certainly in a hospital setting. But what about for the workplaces aside from these settings? There are vendor groups out there providing these services in workplaces regardless of industry or setting. (See example:

Anything health-related attached to religion raises concerns in my mind about appropriate training, scope of role, and whether everyone will feel comfortable accessing the services. That said, I admire and have an affinity for the chaplain role especially having worked alongside some wonderful chaplains while with the National Guard. I don’t think I’d pick a workplace chaplain program over an EAP when I’m worried about employee emotional health and impacts on performance. I’m also not as versed in chaplain programming for the workplace as much as EAPs – big caveat to my assumptions here.

So what do you think? Please share your thoughts and especially if you have experience with the two types (EAP and workplace chaplain) that you can share some comparisons. I’d love have more of a conversation about when a workplace chaplain program might be a better fit than an EAP.

Say more on motivation!

“Pop psychology” articles on motivation appear all the time and seem a dime-a-dozen to me. Often they’re pretty simple and straightforward, which seems like a good thing right? Making “motivation” as a concept as accessible as possible to as many people as possible seems like it would be helpful. These types of articles tend to focus on specific and behaviorally-focused things a reader can do to maintain or increase motivation for certain tasks or work that has become “boring” and a lot of articles focused on procrastination (my favorite “enemy” – ha!).

In making the conversation around motivation accessible though, these types of articles always leave me feeling disappointed because, although simple behavior modification techniques can be helpful, the rest of the beautiful cognitive and emotional concepts involved in motivation are glossed over at best, ignored completely at worst. For example, how much more helpful might it be to provide at least a context for behavior modifications ideas to help interested readers make sense of achievement vs. performance motivation, extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations, Maslow’s hierarchy (when you really want to get nerdy!) etc.

I think being able to explain a bit more about how and why certain techniques work might be helpful if not at least a little more interesting. No, I’m not advocating for dissertations on this topic every time out and I realize web content is meant to be bite-sized and digestible in a way the generates article and site hits sometimes.

In my very humble opinion anyway….

Would love to hear what you think!

The hardest manager conversation (hint: it’s not “letting someone go”)

There was a great article this week on HRDive about training HR and others to spot depression and suicide risk in employees.  The original article is here: How HR can step in to help prevent employee suicide.
It’s a brief, good read and I recommend checking it out.

As I was reading through the description of training ideas to help managers and HR recognize mental health and suicidality risks in their organizations, I started thinking of a presentation I did a couple months ago where I was advocating for EAP involvement in disability leaves. Part of the great discussion we had was around the difficulty and discomfort most of us have for addressing employees about medical and personal issues. Reading the HRDive article, I kept thinking how great it would be for more work forces to be aware of what depression and other mental illnesses look like, how they manifest in the workplace. But once you have that knowledge and know what to look for, how in the heck do you approach anemployee you’re  concerned about to have that conversation?

If you ask any manager about the hardest conversation they’ve ever had with an employee, I’d guess you’d hear a lot about having to let someone go, personal hygiene issues (ah yes, my favorite), etc. I’m sure there are way too many who’ve also had conversations about substance abuse and having to make “mandatory referrals” to the company’s EAP or face termination. I don’t think too many have ever thought to approach an employee about a mental health issue.

Mental illness is a whole new ballgame when it comes to learning how to have “challenging conversations.” Throw in confidentiality concerns, ADA, union-represented employees, stigma (and I’m sure there are other variables to consider)  and even the best leader/communicator would turn pale.

So how can we better support our managers, HR professionals, well-meaning colleagues to have these conversations? How can we help them know what to do when they see the signs? My first call would be to the EAP – this is their space, their specialty. My guess is that any number of great EAPs are starting to get these types of requests for training. EAPs are mental health professionals that have these conversations all the time, have trained years to be able to have them and know what to do. This is a fairly “clinical” space in my estimation so your regular “organizational development” professional training won’t do, I’m afraid.

I’d love to get this discussion going about how to bridge this important skill gap. I think it’s fantastic that we’re trying to talk more openly about mental illness in the workplace and build awareness. But how does the mental health community best partner with HR and organizational leaders to support them finding a way to intervene when they have all that great awareness we’re helping them have?

APA awards for “healthy workplace practices.”

NOTE: Highlight of employees surveyed at the award companies citing their perception that their employers provide adequate mental health support and services and care about “stress management.”

Makes me think about what practices and workplace/workforce variables exist that we could all learn from… for example:

  1. What are their mental health/substance abuse benefit designs?
  2. What are their FMLA and leave management policies for caregivers?
  3. Do they use an EAP? What program components do the EAPs include?
  4. What are the communications strategies and tactics about services?
  5. How does the employer combat stigma so that there is open communication about employee needs and program capabilities?

I know there are more variables we all try to attend to and address given ROI and impact on what we’re trying to do… any other ideas out there?

Link to the APA’s original announcement on their website:


Workforce vs. workplace

Let’s do a quick concepts check…

I attended the 2016 Annual IBI Forum ( last week in San Francisco. There seems to be a lot more behavioral health  content on the agenda this time around, although of course there’s never enough of that content on any employee health agenda for me!

In reading through the text descriptions I noticed both “workforce” and “workplace” used interchangeably. So where one presentation noted “workplace health” another talked about “workforce health” and with similar overall assumptions around definition for either.

I think both are relevant and decidedly not interchangeable – when I’m talking about “workforce” behavioral health, for example, I’m talking about the relative emotional well-being of the collection of humans working in a particular organization, yes? And when I talk about “workplace” behavioral health, I’m talking about the work environment and how it impacts, impedes, encourages, etc. the behavioral health of it’s employees. The one you’re talking of drives your focus, your assessments and intervention. 

What do you think on this? I’m curious if anyone’s ever noticed this and whether maybe I’m just splitting hairs… I’ll still do it, but I am curious…

What is this about & why should you care?

If you’re here, you found the blog on purpose through a link or search engine maybe? Or perhaps you found this by accident and the really snazzy blog title intrigued you (if the dryness of it didn’t totally turn you off). Whoever you are, whatever you do and however you found this – I’m glad you’re here!

You can read about my background on LinkedIn so I won’t belabor that here. This blog isn’t about that, but please do reach out and connect if you like.

This blog is about all the tags you see noted and facilitating conversations and sharing resources among like-minded, interested people: HR professionals, EAP partners, consultants, practitioners, academicians, occupational health and leave management professionals, etc etc. This blog space is for you and I hope you’ll read and participate when you can.

Thank you for reading and your interest in this space.