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Why your psychological safety at work matters

Why your psychological safety at work matters

Dr Sarven McLinton at the ANMF (Vic Branch) Psychological Hazards in Healthcare Conference Photograph by Chris Hopkins

There are clear links between healthcare workers’ physical and psychological safety, and burnout, bullying and the emotional demands of the job, the Psychological Hazards in Healthcare Conference heard.

Dr Sarven McLinton, research associate and lecturer at University of South Australia’s Asia Pacific Centre for Work Health and Safety, described research on healthcare organisations’ physical and psychosocial safety ‘climates’ and their impacts over a five-year period.

Other research findings were:

  • a clear link between psychosocial safety climate and absenteeism – low-risk environment workers took 2.5 fewer sick days per year on average
  • high skill discretion (latitude to tackle tasks in creative ways and develop as a worker) led to higher staff engagement
  • bullying led to lower engagement
  • teams with high burnout also had high staff adverse events (like needle stick injury)
  • physical safety predicted staff adverse events but not patient adverse events
  • psychological safety climate predicted absenteeism and patient adverse events.

The link between workers’ psychological safety and patient outcomes should make healthcare organisations sit up and take notice, Dr McLinton said.

‘When we’re talking about organisations not caring about workers’ psychological health, we are literally making a prediction that two years later they are going to have poorer outcomes for the patients – poorer quality care,’ he said.

There were also economic costs to employers of not managing psychosocial safety hazards. Sickness absence costs Australian employers with low psychosocial safety climates $2.4 billion per year and presenteeism $3.6 billion.

Half of Australia’s healthcare workplaces had a high-risk psychosocial safety climate when benchmarked against other industries, Dr McLinton told the conference.

The Asia Pacific Centre for Work Health and Safety research involved doing interviews with some of the 1250 healthcare workers involved. Eighty-five per cent were nurses.

One nurse said that on nine out of ten days, she felt pressured, unsafe, overworked and her patients were lashing out at her, ‘and I’m the person who takes the brunt of that home’.

‘They don’t want to talk about feelings or psychological wellbeing of staff. That’s not comfortable for most workplaces – it’s always about patients and families,’ one nurse commented.

Dr McLinton said organisations may have clear policies and processes about how to deal with physical risks like moving heavy patients but not necessarily how to deal with managing psychological hazards like excessive workload.