Fostering Healing Environments: The Crucial Role of Psychological Safety in Healthcare

Virginia Mason Institute

Article originally featured on HSJ.

By Wendy Korthuis-Smith, Ed.D.

Psychological safety holds unparalleled significance in healthcare. It is the shared belief that one can take interpersonal risks without fear of reprisal or judgment. In an industry where lives are at stake, we simply cannot fulfill our duties without that sense of safety and empowerment.

Psychological safety is the bedrock upon which a culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation can flourish. Its impact extends beyond mere organizational dynamics to profoundly influence patient outcomes and the overall well-being of healthcare professionals.

Building Trust among Healthcare Teams

Trust enables healthcare teams to collaborate and provide optimal patient care, and trust grows strongest in a psychologically safe environment.

When team members feel secure voicing concerns, sharing ideas, and admitting mistakes, it fosters transparent communication and effective problem-solving. It removes the doubt and other barriers that inhibit cooperation and reassures teams that they are truly “in this together.”

Improving Patient Safety

Psychological safety acts as a safeguard against medical errors by encouraging an open dialogue about mistakes, near misses, and areas for improvement.

For example, imagine a nurse notices a potential dosing error in a patient’s IV orders. In many settings, they might avoid speaking up for fear of being reprimanded. But in a psychologically safe environment, they would feel empowered to voice their concerns, potentially preventing a serious adverse event.

When we can discuss errors without fear of blame, the focus shifts from assigning fault to identifying systemic issues, learning from them, and implementing preventive measures.

Enhancing Staff Well-Being

The demanding nature of healthcare places immense strain on the mental and emotional well-being of practitioners. High-pressure situations and the weight of responsibility contribute to burnout and mental health challenges.

Psychological safety becomes crucial in mitigating these issues, by fostering an environment where professionals feel comfortable seeking support and discussing their challenges.

Promoting a Culture of Continuous Learning and Innovation

A culture of psychological safety propels healthcare organizations into the forefront of innovation by encouraging continuous learning and the pursuit of creative solutions. When we feel safe to experiment, share unconventional ideas, and challenge existing practices, the potential for breakthroughs in patient care significantly increases.

Establishing Psychological Safety for Your Teams

Leaders who are looking to foster a culture of psychological safety can begin with equity pauses. These are moments dedicated to evaluating discussions and decisions through an equity lens, through questions like “Does everyone benefit equally from this?” and “Whose perspective haven’t we considered yet?”

At Virginia Mason, equity pauses are one way we have created a safe space during team huddles, project meetings, and decision-making. Use this simple toolkit to do the same at your organisation.

A Vital Thread for Teamwork and Outcomes

In the intricate tapestry of healthcare, psychological safety emerges as a critical thread. It runs through a team’s sense of trust, collaboration, and innovation, and leads to the compassionate, high-quality care we all aspire to. Embracing and championing psychological safety will not only fortify the resilience of healthcare professionals but also enhance the overall effectiveness and humanity of our healthcare ecosystem.

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