Only 50% Of SA Workforce Believe Their Workspace Is Psychologically Safe

Find out what this implies for you and ways to improve your workspace for your employees.

Research conducted by organisational culture experts The Human Edge shows that only half of the South African working population sees their work place as psychologically safe, with only 24% of these people surveyed ready to recommend their current employer as a location to work to a pal.

“Frighteningly 46% of participants said outrightly that they might not be ready to recommend their company as a location to work,” said Helene Vermaak, Business Director at The Human Edge.

Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, first coined the word of psychological safety in 1999. She describes psychological safety as a shared belief a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

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“When a worker feels psychologically safe, they’re ready to speak up without concern with negative consequences – which is crucial to overall organisational effectiveness,” says Vermaak.

“This research has given us disturbing insight in to the South Africa work place, showing that folks don’t currently feel secure enough to speak up and become heard without criticism or consequences.”

Brené Brown, an American research professor in The Graduate College of Social Just work at the University of Houston sums up the essence of psychological safety, “If we wish people to fully arrive – so that we are able to innovate, solve problems, and serve people – we need to be vigilant about creating a culture where people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

Vermaak says there are 4 levels that are accustomed to indicate the degrees of organisational safety within a company’s culture.

Level 1 being the worst, is referred to as a culture where many people are fending for themselves with hardly any concentrate on psychological safety.

The behaviours within this type of culture usually include some degree of bullying, verbal and physical harassment, abuse, ridicule and sarcasm.

On the contrary end of the spectrum, Level 4 is a culture where the freedom to voice ideas is a means of life and teams are focused on working together for mutual success, along with the success of the organisation.

“Typically, in South Africa, organisations are sitting at a rate 3 that involves small ‘islands’ of safety. Not many people are on board, hence the hawaiian islands, but psychological safety is recognised within pockets of the business enterprise as a simple cultural element resulting in higher performance,” says Vermaak.

Sadly, she says that it’s a function that’s largely addressed by HR, rather than C-suite executives, as is essential to operate a vehicle it as a bottom-line interest.


Discussing the study, Vermaak says a staggering 30% of employees surveyed remain sitting on the fence with regards to assessing psychological safety.

“Ambivalence often means the difference between an excellent result and an emergency. There’s a higher price to be paid when harbouring fence sitters,” says Vermaak, “all due to having less psychological safety.”

To boost the perception of psychological safety for employees within an organisation, Vermaak says that it should be a high down process. “The attention of the CEO is crucial in this process along with the understanding that that is a bottom-line affecting problem.”

She suggests the next pointers as a starting place to shifting the pin on perceived psychological safety within the organisation:

  • Make sure that the organisational values support a culture of psychological safety
  • Translate values right into a few observable behaviours
  • Over-invest in skill building: Ensure all training and development is associated with your values and behaviours
  • All leaders must model and coach the required behaviours
  • Ensure clear individual and team goals that aligned to organisational goals
  • Reward and recognise the proper individual and team behaviours
  • Align all policies, procedures, structures, processes and information flow to aid a culture of psychological safety.

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