COVID 19 and the impact on psychological safety

Written by Nisha Chandran & Neelavani

It has been an year since the pandemic COVID 19 struck and disrupted the world as we knew it. Remote work dethroned all other flavours of popular work architectures and emerged as a ubiquitous reality of professionals across the globe. Businesses world over navigated VUCA territories, many successfully creating and deploying models of work that worked. This was (and continue to be) a period of extreme uncertainty for employees, with many of them grappling with health and financial insecurities. Given this context, it is important that futuristic organizations intent on engaging and advancing talent, focus on this aspect of psychological safety at the workplace, specifically when they manage and lead geographically distributed teams.

Towards building the strength and potential of employees, psychological safety is of utmost importance in a with-covid virtual world. As per trends emerging world over, work from home or remote work is something that will be on the table for quite some time and the interaction with the world would only be through the digital space, for most of us. This calls for extra caution from the employers’ side, in adopting measures towards the well-being – both physical and mental, of their employees. And psychological safety becomes a very important constituent of mental well being, for employees.

Rigid organizational hierarchy is an important factor that prevents psychological safety. In a virtual world, even more so. There could be a sense perceived distance and reduces access between leadership and other junior employees, when communication is not transparent. The first step towards bridging the gap and enabling psychological safety is building inclusive leadership capabilities in people leaders. Regular communication to bridge any pre-conceived notions that employees may have on leadership approach, is also important. A platform that gives an employee the space to be recognized and appreciated by the leaders directly, can ensure higher employee commitment as a result of increased interaction. Recognition and acknowledgment can inturn heighten the experience of psychological safety.

Virtual world, as we know is an open space for anybody to present or act in any way, they deem fit. Of course, in a professional scenario, this is limited in accordance with the organizational policies and culture – the starting point for employers to begin their work for psychological safety. Setting sound policies and ground rules for enabling positive virtual workspace behaviour will pave the path for successful discussions, be it with internal participants or external stakeholders, or clients. Over time, people become cognizant of the virtual workplace protocols that ensures respect towards each other. 

Gender variance in psychological safety

Let us also examine the gender variance in the experience of psychological safety. Though the fatality rate has been twice higher for men than for women, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the psychological well-being of women more than men, both as frontline workers and at home. One of the reasons for this is because worldwide 70 percent of the health workforce is made up of women who are often frontline health workers (nurses, midwives and community health workers). If lay-offs disrupted the psychological safety of women at the workplace, domestic burden and domestic violence has impacted their levels of psychological safety at home. Academic research on the impact of psychological safety of women pre and post-COVID found that, women from the COVID-19 cohort as compared with pre-COVID-19 women showed higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms.

In the current climate, additional concerns such as physical safety, social isolation, and Zoom fatigue can also have an impact on perception of psychological safety. Virtual meeting experiences have changed how people work, what strengths they bring to the table, the personal challenges they experience, and their relationships with colleagues, management, and company leadership.  Social meetings are now forced to become more structured unlike when one could meet over lunch or the water cooler.  It can be challenging to learn new ways to communicate effectively, work efficiently, and connect to the collective success of the organization.

For many employees, fear is a defining factor of the current moment as they hear news of an outbreak, closures, changing health and safety recommendations, and the warning from public health authorities.  Leaders should look at each employee on an individual basis, talk to them often and understand the concerns and challenges they are going through at a personal level.

This pandemic has deeply affected social and working environments in many ways.  Workplace aspects can play a crucial role in moderating or worsening mental health of people facing this pandemic scenario.  In essence, it is important to remember that psychological safety, empowerment of decision-making and communication are intertwined, by which the perception of psychological safety is manifested.  People flourish when they participate in a cooperative system with high psychological safety. And that starts with inclusion.

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