OHS Canada Magazine

The dark side of the psychological health and safety conversation

May 17, 2024
By Bill Howatt
Health & Safety Bill Howatt Health & Safety Mental Health Psychological Safety

Getty Images/Belyaevskiy

These days more employers positively impact employees’ experiences through psychological safety and inclusion practices. But when asked if more employees use psychological safety as a sword versus a shield, many employers answer “yes.”

They report employees blame others to avoid conflict instead of taking responsibility for failing to fulfill reasonable work commitments and expectations. When challenged to take accountability for their behaviour, they make statements like “I don’t feel psychologically safe” to shift the focus and blame.

When an employee raises a concern about how they feel, a leader should listen without judgment, take the issue seriously, and focus beyond their emotions to the behaviours. Skipping this fact-finding step can increase the risk of facilitating the dark side of the psychological safety and inclusion conversation by forming the perception that employees can no longer be held accountable for their behaviour.

Leaders and HR professionals who focus on employees’ feelings over facts increase the risk of creating power dynamics that can negatively influence how leaders make decisions and manage.

The literature continues to highlight workplace mental health programs that enhance psychological safety and inclusion to mitigate mental harm and promote mental health. Researchers report employees with low well-being are likely to develop mental illness.


Helping employees develop resiliency protects them from mental illness and motivates employers to invest resources to create and maintain psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces.

Addressing the dark side of the psychological safety and inclusion conversation

Nowhere does it say holding employees accountable means they must always feel good. People tend to be frustrated when they don’t get what they want, but the fact is employees can’t always get what they want. Holding employees accountable for their behaviour requires the employer to focus on that behaviour. Trusted leaders who lay the foundation for a psychologically safe relationship anchor their and employees’ roles for making decisions, providing feedback, debating points, and correcting behaviour.

When this foundation is absent, leaders and employees risk struggling through challenging moments involving unpleasant emotions. Holding employees accountable does not necessarily require they be comfortable, but it should not be punitive, demoralizing, or abusive.

I am uncomfortable when my personal trainer pushes me to do 12 reps when I would rather stop at eight, but we are aligned with the value-based outcome of helping my health. I had to agree to the terms and roles of accountability for this relationship to work.

The dark side of psychological safety and inclusion is more likely to surface when employees, leaders, and peers lack clear guidelines for accountability, expectations, and behaviours.

The dark side flourishes if implementation and facilitation regarding occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation are not managed. Most provincial and federal jurisdictions set expectations that employers have a policy and training on safe and respectful workplaces and a process for conducting investigations when complaints are made. The aim is to protect employees from bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, and workplace violence.

OHS legislation has been developed and implemented with good intentions. However, as it matures, another workplace phenomenon is occurring. A power shift is significantly impacting employees’ and leaders’ relationships, along with productivity and employees’ commitment levels.

This power shift provides both positives and complications for leadership. Power shifts in workplaces that have not laid a solid foundation for psychological safety risk breeding behaviours and unhealthy habits that promote the dark side of psychological safety and inclusion.

Most OHS safe and respectful legislation clarifies that managers have the right to manage. The goal is to offset the dark side of psychological safety risks by inhibiting employees who do not want to do what they are asked from claiming they are being picked on or bullied. Another protection most policies mention is that making false allegations, such as unfounded or false complaints about another person, is unacceptable.

Unpleasant emotions can be expected when a leader challenges performance or holds an employee accountable for a workplace infraction. However, these emotions do not mean the employee is being bullied or not being treated with respect.

Employers can anticipate the psychological safety and inclusion conversation’s dark side by making maturity and accountability core pillars of psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces.

  1. Define a psychological safety and inclusion North Star — Do not assume employees understand why the employer wants to create a psychologically safe and inclusive workplace. Ensure all employees know the bright and dark sides to illustrate why accountability and learning from mistakes are necessary for a psychologically safe and inclusive culture.
  2. Anchor accountability and roles — Ensure employees clearly understand their roles, expectations, and how accountability will be enforced. Check in regularly to ensure employees know what success looks like and how they are being held accountable.
  3. Set clear consequences for faulty allegations — Educate employess and ensure everyone understands their rights and the consequences of making false allegations to hurt others (i.e., sword). A person’s feelings do not give them the right to make false claims to get out of something or not take accountability for their actions. Remember to promote upstanding behaviours.
  4. Train leaders to become trusted leaders — A psychologically safe leader who builds trusted and safe relationships mitigates the risk of employees who are corrected or challenged making unsubstantiated claims.
  5. Get facts before reacting — Simply saying something does not make it factual. Thoughts are not always facts. Focus on behaviour, not emotions. It’s reasonable for a person who does not want to accept accountability to place blame. Focus on the organization’s values and move towards creating a culture that is caring, accountable, and open to learning.


Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.


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