OHS Canada Magazine

Introducing one missing competency gap for facilitating psychologically safe workplaces


November 18, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Health & Safety Bill Howatt editor pick Mental Health Psychological Safety

A growing movement sees employers creating psychologically safe workplaces, much like the modern-day universal corporate initiatives of inclusion, diversity, and employee engagement. Many employers would never want to be viewed by their current and future workforce as not caring about such issues.

A critical objective for creating a psychologically safe workplace is driving accountability and learning for all workers and leaders to reduce mental harm and promote mental health. Flourishing workers are more likely to show up each day because they want to work with a sense of belonging and purpose than languishing workers.

If your employer cares about psychological health and safety and workers’ mental health, they must know how to create a culture where all employees feel welcomed, have a sense of belonging and purpose, and feel safe to speak up without fear of retaliation or retribution.

The CSA Z1003 Psychological Health and Safety Standard promotes the north star for what employers can do to create psychologically healthy and safe workplaces by leveraging a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach.

Both ISO 4503 Occupational Health and Safety Management — Psychological Health and Safety at Work — Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks and U.S. Surgeon General Releases New Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace provide recommendations for employers.

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Many employers wanting to adopt or adapt any of the Standard’s guidelines, ISO or Surgeon General recommendations need to be clear on how to proceed. Individuals who have been designated or volunteer typically facilitate workplace mental health. Many do not have credentials or formal educational backgrounds; they are self-taught. The risk is individuals making decisions without the knowledge and skills required to maximize the available budget and resources.

How prepared are your psychologically safe facilitators?

Psychologically safe facilitators (PSFs) are persons assigned or volunteer to spend 5% to 100% of their time on workplace mental health. A PSF can be an HR or OHS professional, union member, worker, leader from any level, an external subject matter expert, or consultant supporting the organization.

PSFs’ primary role is facilitating workplace mental health strategies, programs, policies, and initiatives that the employer supports to mitigate mental harm and promote mental health. They typically do this through implementing and facilitating programs and policies to offer resiliency training or support an EFAP.

Missing competency gap for creating psychologically safe workplaces

The level of knowledge and skills in those assigned to facilitate psychologically safe workplaces and mental health (i.e., PSFs) is a core competency gap in creating psychologically safe workplaces. Information on what employers can do is available. However, training and guidance are lacking. Work Safe Prevention Services (WSPS) of Ontario invested resources to create a framework to help PSFs to take proactive action to protect and promote workers’ mental health, regardless of their size, sector, budget, or resources.

One lesson observed in the development of the WSPS Roadmap over the past two years is the benefit of providing PSFs with knowledge and skills to develop their confidence and core competency in facilitating psychological safety.

This observation was strengthened upon reviewing the results of our recent CSA study that showed more employers are addressing workplace mental health with planning and doing. However, there are gaps in measuring or checking what is and is not working. This may be partially explained by a lack of awareness of the benefits of implementing a PDCA approach.

The workplace environment impacts employees’ experience and mental health. This suggests having PSFs trained and prepared to lead effectively and facilitate the resources available is good for business, protects workers, and helps them flourish.

Self-reflection quiz

The following self-reflection quiz will allow you to evaluate your confidence in facilitating psychological safety in your workplace.

For each item, rate your confidence on a scale of 1 (low) to 7 (high) in your PSFs’ knowledge, skills, and competency. The higher the score, the more confidence you have in their ability to facilitate psychological safety and workplace mental initiatives.

 Item # PSFs’ core competency evaluation Item Score

1 (low) to 7 (high)

1 Can they explain psychological health and safety and have a solid foundation in global trends and lead practices?  
2 Can they articulate the differences between mental health, mental harm, mental injury, and mental illness, including substance use disorders and neurodivergence?  
3 Can they articulate what workplace assessments and audits are for and how to conduct them?  
4 Do they understand a trauma-informed workplace and the employer’s role in providing support?  
5 Can they articulate current suicide research and the roles of employers, leaders, and employees in preventing death by suicide?  
6 Can they determine what protective factors can prevent mental harm and promote mental health in the workplace?  
7 Do they understand how to align psychological safety with diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives?  
8 Can they influence senior leadership to get their buy-in and involvement?  
9 Can they define the types of data (quantitative and qualitative) required to design a mental health game plan that fits the employer’s needs and budget and promotes psychological safety?  
10 Do they understand impairment in the workplace context and what employers must do to mitigate it?  
11 Can they identify psychosocial chargers and drains and the most concerning psychosocial hazards?  
12 Do they understand the types of workplace mental health policies that support psychological safety?  
13 Can they adopt or adapt the CSA Z1003 Standard or implement a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach that supports building an evidence-based workplace mental health game plan and scorecard?  
14 Can they effectively operationalize workplace mental health by budgeting, resource planning, communications strategy, reporting, facilitating a mental health workplace committee, or partnering with work-safe committees and OHS?  
15 Can they identify barriers beyond peer, self, and organization stigma that impede workers’ participation in workplace mental health initiatives?  
16 Do they know how to design and implement workplace mental health prevention and support programs using adult learning lead practices that correct the forgetting curve and facilitate habit development and program adherence?  
17 Do they know how to align key performance behaviours (KPBs) to targeted key performance indicators (KPIs) that predict desired outcomes?  
18 Do they understand how to conduct value of investment (VOI) and return on investment (ROI) calculations and reporting?  
19 Do they understand how to manage change and facilitate corrective action within the context of psychological safety?  
20 Do they understand how to validate the credibility of external programs (e.g., digital mental health apps) before purchasing?  
 Range 20 to 140 Total Score  

How did they do?

Many PSFs have not been developed or trained and are unaware of what they do not know. Employers can use training, knowledge, and skills to help move their PSFs along a learning continuum. Employers and PSFs should seek training to help them mature and move psychological safety along as a profession through a credentialing process.

Through training and mentoring, PSFs can obtain the knowledge and skills to improve their ability to facilitate and move workplace mental health toward an evidence-based, continuous improvement versus a check-the-box approach.

Employers are encouraged to budget dollars for internal capacity building to help their PSFs obtain knowledge and skills to make evidence-based decisions. For workplace mental health to have an impact, employers must move from information sharing to habit creation, which is at the core of OHS management systems that promote ongoing learning, continuous improvement, and corrective action.

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

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