OHS Canada Magazine

The protective role of leadership

April 20, 2022
By Bill Howatt and Troy Winters
Health & Safety Mental Health

Photo: Feodora Chiosea/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The degree the average worker perceives their boss as a psychologically safe leader (for example, being open to feedback) helps predict a psychologically healthy and safe culture.

Leaders who show up consistently with defined and understood worker expectations and provide positive, constructive, and meaningful feedback are positioned to reduce mental harm and promote their teams’ mental health.

Leaders can be perceived by their workers as a source of energy or a negative drain.

A negative drain is unwanted stress due to reasons such as fear of speaking up, making a mistake, or asking for help. Fear happens when a worker perceives or experiences a threat.

Humans are not machines

Leaders must move past an operational to a human mindset to become a protective factor. Humans are not machines; they have emotions that never turn off.


Psychologically safe leaders do not assume their workers’ experience is the same as theirs. They make protecting workers a part of their job by helping them feel safe, welcomed, and included.

Amy Edmondson reminds all leaders of three fundamental behaviours that promote a psychologically safe mindset: admit mistakes first; make space to speak; everything is an experiment.

When considering psycosocial factors through an OHS lens, it is frequently only the hazard side of the coin that is considered. However, many factors related to mental health, including leadership, can either be a hazard that causes harm, or a true benefit that helps protect from psycosocial hazards, and in the best form, acutaly help the worker thrive. Consider how a leader shows up daily as being a drain or a charge.

Be specific about the behaviours a leader can engage in to move them towards being a psychologically safe leader. One goal is to have all workers feel a sense of belonging and value and are clear on their purpose toward the organization’s success.

Behaviours for psychologically safe leaders

A recent study in the SA Journal of Industrial Psychology looked at authentic leadership and its influence on psychological safety, trust in supervisors, and work engagement. The results indicated that authentic leadership is a significant predictor of trust in supervisors and psychological safety. This study further found that authentic leadership influenced worker engagement because leaders could build trust.

Employers and leaders committed to becoming psychologically safe leaders prove they are trustworthy, honest, and open. They build trusting relationships with their workers by reassuring them of their value.
Leaders can practice three Cs to gain their workers’ trust:

Consult. Ask your team members what is and is not working regarding their workplace experience. This can help you know rather than guessing how they are doing. The ability to drive out silence is the mark of a psychologically safe leader. Their workers feel comfortable speaking their minds even when it is not positive. Leaders must not assume workers have the skills or confidence to self-advocate. Asking questions one-on-one and in groups can enable workers to provide their thoughts.

Consistency. Check in with workers regularly and make meeting with them a priority. Meeting with team members and committing to one-on-one personal check-ins on a set schedule works for both workers and leaders. It creates structure and predictability. Empower workers not to wait for a one-on-one meeting if they need to talk.

Care. Respond with compassion, empathy, and understanding when a worker brings concerns to you. If you’re tired, frustrated, or down, listen and tell the worker you want to think about your response. This can avoid being dismissive or short. Leaders’ self-care provides the energy to show up the best they can each day.

Authentic leaders are protective leaders

In addition to workers feeling safe coming forward, a positive relationship between leaders and their team allows leaders to recognize when negativity and psychosocial factors creep into the workplace.

A leader in touch with their team’s capacity and workload reduces harm by knowing when work can be added. They also know when it is most beneficial to the organization and workers to re-organize work by lowering risk by reallocating tasks or bringing in extra help.

Authentic leaders anticipate or recognize conflict developing in their teams. Being proactive positions them to ease tensions and diffuse unproductive conflict that could create stress that distracts work or causes mental or physical injury.

CEOs and senior leaders must not underestimate the protective influence an authentic leader can have on facilitating psychosocially safe teams and culture. Leaders who practice the three Cs can reduce hazards such as burnout, loneliness, fatigue, and stress by helping workers make better choices. They can support workers to have the most positive work experience with the context and challenges they all face.

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


Troy Winters is a senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa.


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