OHS Canada Magazine

Shortcut for creating a psychologically safe workplace: Key performance behaviours

Avatar photo

December 11, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Human Resources Mental Health Psychological Safety

(Biscotto87/Adobe Stock)

Key performance behaviours (KPBs) in the psychological safety context facilatate positive interpersonal interactions. KPBs can be described as leaders’ and workers’ intentional and habitual behaviours that promote postive interpersonal interactions, like acting civilly to each other, protect and promote mental health and create psychologically safe workplaces.

Every employee’s interaction in the workplace is an opportunity to experience positive or negative emotions. Employers must accept that psychological safety protects workers from emotional harm while helping them develop self-protection skills like mental fitness and help seeking behaviours.

Employees’ day-to-day experience in the workplace and home environment matters as it can impact their stress levels. Like when an employee dreads interactions with their direct leader because of fear are in less -than optimal emotonal states. Or an employee who is experiencing domestic violence can come to work traumatized that impacts their emotional well-being.

The evolution of the fight (attach) or flight (retreat) response system, working 24-7 to protect us from harm, was one reason humans became the dominant species. In modern society, people may also freeze or fawn (be overly agreeable) when faced with fear. Constant exposure to stressors and activation of the fight-or-flight response can create mental harm, as can single traumatic events.

How employers traditionally protected workers

Many of today’s employers are motivated to protect workers by using a traditional approach to creating a mental health plan. The miss is many plans do not adhere to OHS lead practices regarding a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach to ensure what is being done is working and defining the most desirable KPBs and habits required to protect and promote employees’ well-being.


Often, the traditional approach is to create a mental health policy to signal workers that the employer cares about their mental health. This approach is followed by programs and policies that typically include an assessment to get a psychosocial risk factor baseline and programs to support employees struggling with mental health concerns. Those efforts include employee and family assistance programs, access to psychological services through extended benefits, leadership development, anti-stigma campaigns, and resiliency courses.

While all these initiatives may appear proactive, information is useless if it does not create the desired KPBs and habits that protect and promote workers’ mental health. A psychologically healthy and safe workplace’s primary goal is to facilitate and maintain a psychologically safe culture where all workers and leaders believe:

  • They feel welcomed, included, and belong.
  • The employer cares about their learning and growth; making mistakes is part of the process.
  • The employer values their contribution.
  • It is safe to speak their mind without fear of retaliation or career damage.
  • It is OK to challenge the status quo, and new ideas are appreciated.

Adopting a KPBs approach

Psychologically safe facilitators (PSFs) are more effective when they have the core competency and skills to facilitate workplace mental health. Those who adopt the critical success factor of an evidence-based approach committed to ongoing auditing and measuring are positioned to facilitate KPBs and protective habits that reduce mental harm and promote mental health. Employers and PSFs must ensure that all KPB programs and policies are reinforced within the psychological health and safety context.

Considerations to help PSFs move toward a KPBs approach:

  • Set expectations for KPBs. Determine what kinds of KPBs the employer wants to promote and reinforce, like the top five behaviours required in their culture to be a psychologically safe leader and team player. Be specific and ensure these align with the organization’s values. This takes work and engaging key stakeholders. It is critical as it shapes and reinforces a psychologically safe culture by promoting habits that matter.
  • Discover drains and chargers. Understand what psychosocial factors are charging and draining workers and leaders. For example, work demand is a charge when it feels right and a drain when it feels overwhelming. The drain’s frequency, duration, and intensity can predict the risk of psychosocial hazards like stress, fatigue, and distraction that can impair workers’ judgment and potential, resulting in physical or psychological harm to themselves or others.
  • Protective factors gameplan. Determine what protective factors will be implemented to mitigate mental harm and promote mental health. Be clear on the information, desired KPBs, and habits for every program and policy. Sending workers to programs without a plan to reinforce learning, correct for the forgetting curve, and create habits will often be perceived as activity-based versus impact initiatives. Protective factor habits aim to protect and promote desired outcomes to support emotional well-being, a critical factor for predicting mental harm, injury, and risk of illness.
  • Confront barriers head-on. It is difficult to facilitate KPBs and desirable habits if employees do not feel safe participating or understand their value. One critical step before engaging programs is to work with workers and leaders to understand what kinds of barriers (e.g., stigma, privacy concerns) must be addressed. Employers must recognize that inclusion is not linear; it is complex. How workers show up and experience the workplace depends on the intersection of gender identification, sexuality, ethnicity, age, neurodiversity status, and mental health. Understanding what programs and policies protect and support workers requires a deep acknowledgement of differences to ensure they are delivered with equity.
  • Link critical KPBs to relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and organizational goals. Be clear on how each critical KPB can benefit employers’ and employees’ experiences. Map the desired KPIs and outcomes for every KPB. This can be done with leaders, teams, and employees. It does not need to be complex; it must be transparent, reinforced, and measured. For example, the help-seeking KPB can get workers the support they need early to reduce lost time due to sick days, which can drain the organization’s potential to achieve its performance results and disability management costs. All critical KPBs are protective factors that promote mental health and reduce mental harm.

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


Stories continue below