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Dr Amra Rao

The delicate dance of workforce wellbeing and psychological safety

07 July 2017 | by Dr Amra Rao

A culture of openness and psychological safety promotes wellbeing and acts as a buffer to stress, as well as helping improve organisational effectiveness and job satisfaction.

This is the message which came out strongly in a recent meeting of the Collaborative Learning Network (CLaN) - a reflective learning community working towards raising awareness and finding ways to improve workplace wellbeing and resilience.

At this event at the University of Central Lancashire, the CLaN pathfinder sites were invited to share their learning and consider what constitutes psychological safety.

The discussion was designed to explore the values needed within organisations to facilitate a culture of openness, and an open conversation session was set up on psychological safety - largely in response to the findings from the BPS/New Savoy Conference 2016 annual staff wellbeing survey which showed that depressed mood and stress amongst staff is continuing to rise [1].  

The comments from the survey highlighted that a high proportion of staff feel isolated and do not have structures within their organisations to talk about the emotional impact of the work on their wellbeing, and how this effects their ability to be effective practitioners.

Not only this, but the current climate of political and global uncertainty and turbulence has been unsettling, with events such as Brexit, Grenfell Tower fire, and the ongoing threat of terrorism serving to further raise anxieties already heightened by the everyday financial pressure and risks we are all faced with.

As a result, many organisations and their staff are feeling these pressures with a compromised capacity to offer a secure base.

The lack of psychological safety often leads to the formation of subgroups and/or the fragmentation of the main group if no accountability is in place, ultimately leading to negative effects on both leadership tasks and organisational performance.

Openness, transparency and collective responsibility are all important for psychological safety. Competition and commercial sensitivity, where rife, can silence staff and thus reduce their ability to problem solve and engage with the challenges of their work.

Open conversations are important to facilitate understanding of what comes with a role, and to separate the personal from the professional. Participants in these conversation frequently expressed concerns with issues such as the targeting of whistle-blowers for speaking out, and the fear that expressing personal vulnerability could lead to being isolated by the group.

As the personal barometers and thresholds to take up challenges differ, the group emphasised the need to pay attention to the domains of concern and influence, and suggested that investing in buffers to tolerate stress and uncertainty can help protect wellbeing and morale, while also emphasising that emotional intelligence, transparent communication, and the engagement of those in leading roles are all instrumental in cultivating trust and building effective working relationships.

So what can we offer to support the creation of safe structures for staff?

The CLaN is set out with an open invitation to all to play a role, at individual and collective levels, in cultivating a culture of psychological safety.

At times of vulnerability it is often tempting to displace the responsibility for a collective endeavour onto others. We surely need to take our own wellbeing seriously in order to be taken seriously. Holding one self & others in mind can go a long way to promote wellbeing and the facilitation of shared learning and reflective communities. Engagement at individual, collective and system level is likely to make us all feel more accountable and safe.

The CLaN is offering such a network to mobilise influence for personal & collective safety and to empower people to take risks with mutual support. There is a need to lead the way towards self-care and compassion, as this is instrumental to work performance and the delivery of effective outcomes. 

Can we dance together to step up and step forward?

‘The Direct Action Dance’ emerged as a powerful metaphor at the event to move forward both with the action and strategy. Access to the highest leverage influence and the use of diverse means to create an appetite for change was regarded as a way forward to creatively engage with the challenges before us. Such dance routines were described as:


  • To understand the rules and be strategic about following these while smiling
  • Wait for the opportunity and push / move when permitted then lead


  • Focus on small initiatives and enjoy them
  • Build confidence as you learn and progress

The CLaN members and its pathfinder sites are to work towards the three key areas.

  1. Set out safe spaces for staff to share work and role dilemmas
  2. Make a clear evidenced-based case for why wellbeing is important
  3. Wider sharing of good practice (electronically, conferences, google groups etc.) and collating of resources

Play your part for your own good, growth & wellbeing even when it means us all coming out of our comfort zones.

Wellbeing Steering Group Members:

Amra Rao (BPS Steering Group Lead)

Jeremy Clarke (New Savoy Steering Group Lead)

Gita Bhutani

Neelam Dosanjh

Esther Cohen Tovee

Adrian Neal


[1] 48% of 1,227 staff who responded to the 2016 survey reported they felt depressed in the last week some, most or all of the time in comparison with the figure of 46% in 2015 & 40%  in 2014.




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