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  • Writer's picturePenelope Clifford

The 'wake up' news around psychological safety at work

Psychological safety at work: keep your fish tank clean for healthy fish

Every now and then I hear an analogy or a metaphor that just “nails it.” I’d like to share one about psychological safety at work.

Credit for this one goes to Sam Popple from the Office of Industrial relations, QLD who shared it when delivering a presentation on compliance with the new workplace psychosocial safety legislation.

One can think about the workplace much like a fishbowl. Imagine one fish is sick (mentally and physically) and the other is doing OK (so far). And yet both of them are unsafe and will suffer in this environment.

What would be your first suggestion to help them get better? There are two theories:

1 - Wait until the fish become unwell and treat the fish’s symptoms.

2 - Clean the tank and clean the water.

Most people look at the scenario and quickly determine theory 2 makes more sense. It looks at the environment (the root cause), is more sustainable, and is lower cost. Yet many corporate organisations go for theory 1. They focus their intervention on helping the individual employee to work in a harmful work environment. This is what is called a “fundamental attribution error.” Companies default to addressing the individual’s symptoms and not the cause for them. Their assumption is that the problem is the employee, not the environment in which they work.

Using the fish tank analogy, they give the fish resilience training. They set up fish assistance / wellbeing programs, and encourage the fish to seek counselling. Or they encourage the fish to see a vet who can prescribe medication for their illness.

It’s well intended, and fails the employee and the company. We know that no matter how well you feed your fish, if you neglect the proper care and maintenance of the aquarium equipment and water quality, your fish are going to die.

For some time governments around the world have seen the flow on cost of this fundamental attribution error. They measure it in terms of the cost of lost productivity in the economy resulting from work related mental and physical illness. They measure it in terms of the cost burden of work related illness on their public and private health systems. They’ve decided the current situation is unacceptable, and employers won’t change it without government policy and legislative intervention. And so, we are seeing psychological safety guidelines being added to workplace health and safety legislation in many jurisdictions.

This is “wake up” news for organisations with that erroneous thinking. The law is changing with regard to workplace psych social environment. It now clearly says it is the employer’s responsibility to clean the tank and the water. The good news for employees is that your employer must provide a work environment where they have removed or minimised psycho social hazards.

Yes we can help with this. We can measure the quality of your tank water for you, and provide the systems to clean it up.




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