By creating a psychologically safe workplace in which employees can feel free to be their authentic selves, employers can encourage increased communication and collaboration, said Paola Ardiles Gamboa, a senior lecturer who served as special projects advisor to the vice-president of people, equity and inclusion at Simon Fraser University, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2024 Vancouver Benefits Summit in May.

“Authenticity is being true to who you are with all of your own unique characteristics that you bring and also making sure that you are able to work in an environment where you can take risks, be yourself and you’re not going to feel that you’re going to be punished for it.”

While psychological safety is often framed around mental health and not intentionally causing psychological harm to others, it’s important for employers to consider diversity, equity and inclusion factors within the concept, by fostering an inclusive organizational culture that promotes a sense of well-being, belonging and job satisfaction.

Read: Telus Communications’ commitment to psychologically safe workplace leads to award win

At SFU, this approach has brought together a workforce representing people of all genders, abilities and racial and ethnic backgrounds. By breaking down silos, the community of practice has built solid relationships and a trusting work environment that has resulted in employees collaborating more frequently.

A psychologically safe workplace also offers a financial incentive for employers, she said, noting mental-health issues cost Canadian workplaces more than $6 billion annually. “A hostile work environment can lead to decreased job satisfaction and decreased engagement, which often leads to increased absenteeism and turnover.”

In addition, poor mental health can also impact employees’ physical health. “We know that there are impacts that are affecting people in terms of depression and anxiety. We already know about stress and burnout. But there’s also a lot of research that’s connecting [these conditions] with chronic health conditions. . . . We know that there’s also consequences of post-traumatic stress in the workplace because of bullying and harassment that are also leading to, unfortunately, cases of substance use and overuse and suicidal ideation.”

Read: How to build a psychologically safe workplace

Citing a 2022 study that found two in every five racialized Ontario employees experienced race-based discrimination in the workplace, while three in 10 Ontario women experienced gender-based discrimination, Ardiles noted across Canada, there’s often a lack of workplace policies and reporting mechanisms for workplace harassment. Conversely, many employees fear repercussions as a result of reporting such incidents.

“[Some employees feel] if [they] go to [their] boss and tell them what’s going on, they’re not going to take [them] seriously, or worse, they might even retaliate. There’s a lack of trust to be able to speak up about these issues. It’s very sensitive, it’s very personal. Sometimes it goes on and on and on and on for years.”

Similarly, it’s incumbent on employers to recognize that violence in the workplace — as well as the stress caused by having to repeatedly counter these assumptions — can have a cumulative effect on employees’ mental health, leading to physical impacts as well as financial consequences for employers.

Read: 60% of Indigenous workers feel psychologically unsafe on the job: survey

“I was born in Latin America and people sometimes will say, ‘Oh, but your English is so amazing.’ And I respond, ‘Yes, because I came to Canada when I was five years old.’ That’s an example of a microaggression, when people make assumptions about you because of the colour of your skin, because of the country you were born [in or] because of the way you express your gender.”

In order for employers to promote a psychologically safe workplace, it begins with creating a culture of respect and inclusion that recognizes diversity and actively works to eliminate discrimination, harassment and bias. This is followed by ensuring that policies and programs are designed in ways that take into account the diversity of employees’ needs, including employee benefits, workplace retirement plans and training and resources, said Ardiles.

It’s also important for employers to examine their own biases and assumptions. “’Who are the people that are going to be impacted by my decisions and how am I treating them? Do I understand the power that I have or that we have on the team, or that others may have? How do I use that power? How can I be a better listener, create spaces for others and perhaps even serve as an ally?’ [It’s also important for employers to] promote trauma-informed practices . . . [and] design policies that consistently promote equity and inclusion.”

Read more coverage of the 2024 Vancouver Benefits Summit.