OHS Canada Magazine

Plan for resistance: A critical success factor for creating a psychologically safe culture

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September 6, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Human Resources Mental Health Psychological Safety Solving the Puzzle

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Solving the Puzzle: How to facilitate psychological safety at work’ is a monthly series published by OHS Canada and Talent Canada, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting in Ottawa.

How often have you had a great idea that ended with disappointment in another’s response? Think about the ideas you were so excited about that became frustrations at home and work.

A critical step often forgotten by psychologically safe facilitators is planning for resistance. The unpinning of this approach is that employees may not well receive ideas that appear promising.
Consider the challenge of getting 75 per cent of a workforce to complete a psychological health and safety assessment like the Mental Fitness Index (MFI).

Employers who want to mitigate workers’ mental harm and promote mental health require data like the MFI provides to fully appreciate and understand what they can do better and what works well. The motivation is to educate employees on their overall mental fitness and employers on employee experience regarding a psychologically safe culture, the workforce’s mental fitness profile, and how effectively programs are working.

Psychological health and safety initiatives like resiliency training, EFAP, leadership training, and mental health apps are intended to protect workers and maximize potential.


Frustration is a pain point for many psychologically safe facilitators after they review the utilization and participation levels of programs (for example, EFAP) they invested energy getting into the work culture. Lower-than-desired engagement levels leave them wondering why and what to do.

Coaching tips to increase workplace mental health programs engagement

Psychologically safe facilitators who anticipate and prepare for resistance increase the opportunity to remove engagement barriers and understand how to best engage workers in new programs. Following are two factors that can increase engagement and program impact if dealt with before launching any new program:

More is not the answer — Too often, instead of understanding why programs or policies are not getting much buy-in, engagement or participation, the solution is to “do more stuff,” hoping that something new may catch the workforce’s interest. Unfortunately, this becomes more noise, costs, and frustration. It often is not what the organization is doing but how.

Considering the how would be evaluating the employer’s commitment to a Plan – Do – Check – Act approach for each workplace mental health initiative. Recent CSA research found that employers may benefit from focusing more on the “Check” step to fully understand workers’ thoughts on the benefits of all programs and policies to support workplace mental health.

Anticipate resistance — There are a few things to consider regarding resistance when an employer wants to add something new. A large percentage of human behaviour is programmed and run by the unconscious mind (e.g., daily routines and habits). Anticipating something requires psychologically safe facilitators to step back and seek to understand the kinds of resistance that impede workers from engaging and participating.

  • The unconscious mind’s daily routines are prioritized as the most important actions. Some workers may be interested in improving their health, but because of their workload do not think or feel they have the space or time to focus on something new, even if it is good for them. Why? Doing something new requires taking energy and attention away from something else.
  • Another reason can be confusion or lack of clarity over when the worker has permission to access a support resource or program during working hours. If there are no clear lines, a worker may never attempt to access a program at work. When they go home, they cannot use the support or resource because of home responsibilities like childcare or parental care.
  • The lack of trust regarding what the average worker believes is the employer’s true intentions for offering a program (e.g., MFI) can be a deterrent. Cultures with fear and concern that an employer is out to get a worker can create massive resistance to participate in an MFI or other program.
  • Unwanted change. Most workforces have change and uncertainty happening every day. Any new program is another change-management element. Why? Because the purpose of any new workplace mental health program or policy is to engage workers to stop or continue a behaviour, start a new behaviour, or some combination. A successful workplace mental health program results in new habits. Understanding potential barriers, threats, and opportunities are common change-management considerations. Others are leveraging common change management tactics like senior leadership in messaging, creating a thoughtful communications strategy that allows space for questions and support opportunities, and following up and obtaining feedback on how a new program or policy is proceeding.

Build a game plan for managing resistance — Putting the above information into a game plan requires curiosity about the resistance and opportunities for navigating it. Build managing resistance into the planning step of the Plan – Do – Check – Act framework. Managing resistance requires engaging the target audience to discover the potential opposition and opportunities. This step helps to promote the program’s benefits and find the potential, unintended consequences and resistance.

Resistance is human nature and a normal part of any change management process. Not considering resistance and planning for it is a common miss for psychologically safe facilitators. Planning ensures workers are fully engaged and their opinions are heard and considered. Planning is a critical recommendation in the CSA Z1003 Standard on Psychological Health and Safety to engage workers in creating a psychologically safe culture.


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