What is psychological health and safety?

Psychological health comprises our ability to think, feel, and behave in a manner that enables us to perform effectively in our work environments, our personal lives, and in society at large. Psychological health problems occur on a spectrum, from common psychological difficulties such as fatigue, to severe psychological disorders.  

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Psychological safety is different – it deals with the risk of injury to psychological well-being. Improving psychological safety in a work setting involves taking precautions to avert injury or danger to employee psychological health that is within the influence and responsibility of an employer.  

While psychological health and safety (PHS) are deserving of equal protection, it is important to note that, from a strategic perspective, taking action to ensure safety – in the sense of preventing psychological harm – should be done before promotion of health.  

A psychologically healthy and safe work environment is one that promotes employees’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to employee psychological health due to negligent, reckless, or intentional acts.

Why is psychological health and safety important?

There are many reasons employers should assess and address the PHS of their workplace:

  • Current and emerging legal and regulatory mandates articulate employer responsibilities in this area
  • Compelling financial incentives exist for employers to reduce costs and improve the bottom line
  • Scientific and practical evidence exists that demonstrates the impact psychosocial factors have on employee well-being

The argument for addressing PHS varies across sectors, regions, companies, and teams or branches within organizations. For many, the incentive is a desire to provide a great and safe place to work for all employees. For others, the strongest driver will be financial, including productivity, growth, and attraction of talent or investment. Still others will be motivated by the need to comply with organizational, legal, or regulatory obligations.  

Psychosocial risks are the class of hazards in the work environment known to represent threats to the PHS of employees. Psychosocial risks are now recognized scientifically, and their reduction is seen in the context of the emerging legal duty to provide a psychologically safe work environment similar to the duty to provide a physically safe work environment.

Basic human rights and needs

The psychosocial factors also support certain basic human needs at work. Only those needs that can reasonably be addressed in the work environment are included. These basic needs can also be represented as rights that are protected in one way or another by various provincial and federal statutes. 

Stated in this manner, the organization can be seen to have a crucial role in at least protecting, and possibly promoting: 

  1. Dignity and respect for the person – The need for a sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and inclusion 
  2. Security, integrity and autonomy of the person – The need to feel safe both physically and psychologically 
  3. Organizational justice – The need to feel that one belongs to a community in which there is respect for due process and fair procedures 

To one degree or another, the psychosocial factors described in Guarding Minds at Work (Guarding Minds)1 all revolve around the protection and promotion of these three major clusters of needs and rights.

Employer liability

Some of the psychological distress observed at work is brought in by employees, while some is created or at least aggravated in the course of the work experience. The concept of psychological distress must be distinguished from the concept of mental illness. For example, a person may experience harassment and suffer psychological distress as a consequence, but may not be diagnosed as mentally ill. Psychological distress, as reported by employees, includes sub-clinical depression and anxiety as well as severe demoralization, disengagement, and alienation.  

Psychological injury should also be considered when assessing your organization’s PHS. The defining aspect of psychological injury is that some person or persons are responsible for it in whole or in part. Psychological injury involves harm to a person that results from someone else's negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct.  
When such conduct occurs at work, the employer may face some liability for it, either directly or by association.  

Guarding Minds helps employers maintain a psychologically safe work environment, which may assist in meeting evolving legal requirements.  

Psychological health and safety cost benefits provides more information about the legal and business case for psychological health and safety.

The health case

Guarding Minds is based on the premise that psychosocial factors can influence psychological health in either a positive or negative direction. Each factor can act as either a risk or protection for employee well-being. 

Risk factors increase the likelihood that an individual will experience increased stress, which in turn increases the likelihood of developing or worsening a mental or physical health condition.

Physical and mental health is the result of a complex interplay between a range of individual and environmental factors, including but not limited to: 

  • Family history of illness and disease 
  • Health behaviours such as smoking, exercise, or substance use 
  • Health risks such as exposure to harmful chemicals 
  • Genetics 
  • Personal life events, circumstances and history 
  • Access to supports such as timely healthcare or social supports

Does work cause psychological health problems?

Work can contribute to psychological health problems in the following ways:  

  • With the exception of psychological trauma related to an extremely stressful event such as being robbed or assaulted on the job, it may be difficult to draw a conclusive link between a person's work situation and their developing a mental disorder. 
  • Work environment factors may increase the likelihood of a mental disorder, make an existing disorder worse, or impede effective treatment and rehabilitation. 
  • Work environment factors may contribute directly to psychological distress such as demoralization, depressed mood, anxiety, or burnout. Psychological distress may not reach the level of a diagnosable mental disorder, and yet be a source of considerable suffering for the employee, productivity loss for the employer, and legal consequences if work conditions are judged to have contributed to an employee's suffering and disability. 
  • A supportive work environment may help reduce the onset, severity, impact, and duration of a mental health disorder. 
  • Organizations that make the effort to identify psychosocial risks and to create a psychologically healthy work environment see benefits in productivity, sustainability, and growth.

Explore more information or begin using the survey tools.

1. © Samra, J., Gilbert, M., Shain, M., Bilsker, D. 2009-2020, with amendments by Stuart, H. 2022. All rights reserved. Website development and data storage by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).
Guarding Minds at Work was commissioned by Canada Life and additional resources are supported by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.

Contributors include.articlesDan BilskerDavid K. MacDonaldDr. Heather StuartDr. Joti SamraDr. Martin ShainMary Ann BayntonMerv GilbertPhilip PerczakSarah JennerSusan JakobsonWorkplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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