People & Human Resources

One in three young workers worried about mistakes at work: Is your business “psychologically safe”?

Emma Koehn /

Every business owner knows the power of encouraging risk-taking to foster innovation, but new research suggests Aussie businesses might be scaring their workers away from making errors.

Research launched this week by RUOK and New South Wales insurance and care service provider icare suggests more can be done on “psychological safety” in Australian businesses, after finding there’s a gap between worker cohorts when it comes to how comfortable they are taking risks.

The research found 36% of workers aged 25-34 are concerned about having mistakes at work being held against them, compared with just 12% of workers aged over 45.

The survey of more than 1,000 employees also found only 23% of those classed as “low-income” employees in frontline services thought their workplaces were ‘psychologically safe’, while those on higher salaries of more than $156,000 a year were twice as likely to agree it was safe to take risks at work than lower income earners on $52,000.

Workplace mental wellness expert Graeme Cowan, who sits on the board of RUOK, tells SmartCompany the findings are a reminder for small businesses to have honest conversations with employees about their wellbeing, early and often.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of SMEs that are really well intentioned,” he says. But Cowan observes SMEs don’t always automatically have the resources and training to help staff with their mental health and check in on their satisfaction at work.

The research also found younger workers report finding it significantly more difficult to ask for help from colleagues than their senior counterparts.

RUOK and icare are encouraging business leaders to start implementing policies to encourage “interpersonal trust” to help with productivity.

However, previous studies into workplace wellbeing have suggested that on this front, many businesses are not prepared with a solid blueprint. A study by MinterEllison on psychological injury at work in 2016 found 60% of businesses don’t actually know how to track potential risks to their staff members’ mental wellbeing.

Cowan says SMEs need to understand the importance of timing when helping their staff members, and a lot of this is simply about jumping at the chance to have an honest conversation with your employees.

“The best thing you can do is to notice early when someone isn’t in great shape, rather than waiting and hoping that things will turn around, have that ‘RUOK’ conversation,” he says.

Aviation executive and former chief executive of Jetstar Australia, David Hall, has been working with RUOK to open the conversation on employees’ mental resilience. He says SMEs are “probably blessed” when it comes to empowering all workers to make mistakes and be open about their wellbeing because they are often working in intimate work environments.

“They’re probably blessed, they’re less hierarchical, they’re more empathetic,” he says.

However, one thing that can stop businesses from being truly open and supportive is a lack of time, Hall believes.

“Whether you’re a small or big business leader, make the time to have the conversations,” he says.

Often the longer term value of prioritising conversations about things other than day-to-day work gets missed, Hall says.

“When people are supported emotionally, the payback you get is very large. Make the time, it is the best use of your time — people should value the time with their people and the productivity that comes with engaging with your team will pay back multiple times.”

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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