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As part of my GP training a number of moons ago, I undertook a 6-month rotation in obstetrics at a small community-based hospital.

There’s nothing on earth that can beat the feeling of assisting with the introduction of a new human being into the world. It’s brilliant. But with obstetrics, while it’s enormously rewarding work, when things go wrong and sometimes, they do, things have a nasty tendency to crater very quickly unless appropriate action is taken fast.

On one particularly busy night shift as the only medical staff member on duty in the labour ward (that was the normal arrangement) I had already delivered a number of babies. But for one young mother-to-be, her labour was not progressing as expected. When the baby started showing signs of fetal distress, I knew I needed urgent advice from the senior registrar who was on-call from home.

There was just one problem. The SR had made it very plain he didn’t expect to be called unless it was “absolutely necessary”. While technically brilliant and loved by his patients, we, the junior medical staff and nurses were all terrified of his caustic tongue and fierce temper. We feared his contempt, of being made to feel foolish and incompetent.

Which meant I hesitated before deciding I had to call. My concern for mother and baby being far greater than my fear of incurring my senior’s wrath. I took a deep breath and dialled his number.

Hearing a groggy “Yes?” when he answered, I bumbled out the history and my concerns into the empty chasm of dark stony silence on the other end of the line.

Finally, there was a long sigh followed by a curt “On my way.”

To give him his due, he was there in 5 minutes having I suspect broken a few speed limits on his way to the hospital. Fortunately, all went well, and the baby was safely delivered shortly afterwards.

Have you ever been in a situation where it didn’t feel safe to speak up?

Have you ever deferred pointing out an error or shared an idea because you lacked the confidence in your own judgment and knowledge?

Psychological safety is a term coined by Amy. C. Edmondson who defined it as

“A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

No matter who you are or your job description, chances are you work alongside others whether as part of a defined team, a department or other working group.

Feeling safe at work is hard if you’ve always got one eye over your shoulder watching out for that potential knife in the back or find yourself worrying about how you’re going to cope with that difficult colleague who seems hell-bent on making your life miserable every day.

“Safety is not a gadget, it’s a state of mind.” – Eleanor Everet

The brain’s primary objective is to keep us safe. This means it’s essential to feel you’re in with the right tribe who you consider are like you, that you like and like you back. High-performing teams have got this right and experience high levels of trust and mutual respect.

Safety matters because to be your best self and do great work you need the security that others will have your back, that you feel cared for, respected and acknowledged for what you do.

The brain’s second objective is to help you to find reward. Having a sense of belonging, being acknowledged and appreciated leads to more dopamine the brain’s reward neurotransmitter being released. This makes you feel good and motivates you to repeat the initial rewarding behaviour.

Creating a culture of psychological safety at work takes time but is well worth the effort.

Google’s Project Aristotle so named for his quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” found that psychological safety was the single most important success factor underpinning high performance teams across the organisation. The ROI being it assists in reducing the human business costs of absenteeism, high staff turnover and stress related illness while boosting productivity, performance and happiness at work.

When work is psychologically safe

It’s easy to have the confidence to speak up when you’ve noticed something isn’t right.

It feels good to be able to voice an opinion or share an idea even though others might not like because it leads to more robust and honest conversations.

You know you have permission to experiment and fail without being made to feel a failure and be congratulated on your successes.

How does your workplace or team stack up safety wise?

  • Is there an air of trust between colleagues?
  • Is there a willingness to be open to change and new ideas – an adaptive and resilient approach?
  • Do you and your colleagues enjoy a strong sense of purpose and meaning for the work you do?
  • How curious are you to ask questions, to what could be done bigger and better?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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