212 May 2023
The relevance of psychological safety in construction

In the past, we’ve written a lot about the prevalence and severity of mental health issues in construction. Many reasons for this have been offered by researchers and experts in the field – for example, the male-dominated nature of the industry, the pressures of a high workload and – importantly – a management culture that stigmatises those who speak out and express their opinion.

Today, we’re moving on to something slightly different but most certainly related – the concept of psychological safety and how this can improve health, wellbeing and safety in the construction industry.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is when a person feels able and empowered to speak up, ask for help, admit mistakes and raise concerns without fear of humiliation or punishment.

In work settings, people on a team possess psychological safety when they feel able to challenge one another, suggest new ways of doing things and admit when they are out of their depth. So, how does this translate to construction settings?

How psychological safety translates to health and safety

When workers feel unable to speak out or admit to near misses or errors, health and safety failings are less likely to be reported for fear of reprisals, meaning lessons can’t be learned. And failing to report a near miss now could result in a much larger and more devastating accident down the line.

Indeed, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) believes that this is one of the biggest pitfalls in accident and incident investigation.

To put this into context, let’s look at the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when a nuclear power plant near the city of Pripyat (in modern-day Ukraine) suffered a catastrophic failure that directly killed 31 people and is estimated to have indirectly killed thousands more. In the fear-driven culture of the then Soviet Union, speaking up and raising concerns could have severe and even deadly consequences. So, when operators had safety concerns ahead of a simulated power shutdown, they stayed quiet instead of speaking up. And the outcome was so disastrous that even today, Pripyat and Chernobyl remain uninhabited.

Now, very few people in the modern United Kingdom work in such an inherently flawed and unstable environment, with such a high potential for devastation, as the Chernobyl power plant in 1986. Still, the story serves as a good example of the dangers posed by a lack of psychological safety, especially in riskier industries (such as nuclear power or construction).

The benefits of psychological safety in the workplace

In addition to promoting good health and safety practices, implementing a culture of psychological safety across your business can have numerous positive impacts, for example:

  1. It improves employee engagement
  2. It fosters an increased sense of belonging and inclusion
  3. It increases productivity
  4. It can lead to better, more efficient systems and processes
  5. It can encourage curiosity, creativity and new ideas
  6. It promotes good employee mental health and wellbeing
  7. It reduces staff turnover.
Promoting psychological safety in construction businesses

So, we understand the concept of psychological safety and its benefits – but how do you go about actually building it within your business?

A recent article published in Construction Management suggested a four-pronged approach centred around communication, respect, response and approachability.

  1. Communication – removing the barriers to communication and effective discussions across the whole business by promoting honest dialogue and debate.
  2. Respect – ensure people across your organisation feel included and feel able to contribute their opinions and ideas. Respect means that you welcome different opinions, even if you disagree with them, without going on the defensive or harming the unity of the team.
  3. Response – this is to do with how you respond when things don’t go to plan. Instead of responding negatively and apportioning blame, businesses who foster psychological safety respond to safety failures and other issues that arise in a clear, constructive way.
  4. Approachability – leaders who listen to concerns and take feedback constructively are already well on their way to implementing a culture of psychological safety in your business. By responding positively to honesty and candour, your workers will feel listened to and you’ll get a deeper insight into how well your safety and other processes are actually working.
What do you think?

In the spirit of the blog, we’d love to hear your feedback! Did you enjoy this blog? Is there anything you’d like us to write about more – or less? Just let us know! We’re always happy to talk.