A world-first look into the psychological safety of Australian employees

Thu 15 June 2017

Most of us understand the importance of working in a physically safe environment, but what about our psychological safety?

“Psychologically safe” workplaces are characterised by a climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect. They are places where people feel comfortable to be themselves, make mistakes and take risks in their work[i]. This type of environment is vital for innovative, forward-thinking organisations.

Disappointingly, a world-first study commissioned by R U OK? and Gold Member icare has showed that frontline lower income-earning staff feel less safe than their higher income-earning colleagues. They also don’t feel like they are permitted to take risks at work.

The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey canvassed 1,176 Australian employees and found that only 23 per cent of lower income-earning frontline employees felt their workplace was “psychologically safe” to take a risk, compared to 45 per cent of workers on significantly higher incomes.

So what does this mean for employers, and why does it matter?

We know that one in five people in Australia will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. Simply, employers who do not support the mental health of their workforce risk losing not only valuable talent, but also an estimated $11 billion every year from absenteeism, lost productivity, impeded business growth and compensation claims.[ii]

As Chief Executive of icare, Vivek Bhatia, puts it, “An investment in psychological wellness is an investment in now and the future.”

Interested in learning more about the report? Here are our four key take outs.

Mistakes at work

In response to the statement, “If you make a mistake at work, it is often held against you”, 44 per cent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Respondents aged 25-34 were the most concerned about mistakes being held against them (36 per cent strongly agree or agree), and respondents aged 45 and over were significantly less concerned (ranging between 12 per cent and 21 per cent agree or strongly agree).

Respondents on the lowest incomes (less than $52,000) were the least likely to strongly agree or agree with this statement (50 per cent), compared to between 64 per cent and 72 per cent for the other income groups.

Asking for help

62 per cent of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed that it is difficult to ask work colleagues for help.

Respondents aged 25-34 found it significantly more difficult to ask their work colleagues for help (24 per cent agree or strongly agree, compared to an average of 18 per cent). Whereas respondents aged 55-64 found it significantly easier to ask for help (73 per cent disagree or strongly disagree, compared to an average of 62 per cent).

Taking risks

Surprisingly, only 34 per cent of respondents reported feeling safe to take risks at work.

38 per cent of men strongly agreed or agreed that it was safe to take risks at work, which was significantly higher than the 29 per cent of women who strongly agreed or agreed.

Almost half (45 per cent) of respondents on incomes of $156,000 or more a year strongly agreed or agreed to feeling safe to take risks. However, only 23 per cent of respondents on less than $52,000 a year strongly agreed or agreed.

The higher education level of a respondent, the more likely they were to feel safe to take risks. Almost 40 per cent of people who had received a degree or above agreed to feeling safe to take risks at work, while only 25 per cent of people who had completed year 10 or a trade apprenticeship agreed.

Accepting difference

58 per cent of respondents felt that their colleagues often reject others for being different.

Respondents aged 25-34 (Millennials) were significantly more likely to agree that their colleagues rejected others for being different (28 per cent), compared to between 7 per cent and 18 per cent for older groups.

Looking to start your journey towards a psychologically healthy workforce? Contact us to book your Mental health and wellbeing for workforce training today.

You can read more about the report findings on R U OK?’s website.


[i] R U OK? and icare. (2017). The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey. Sydney, Australia: Author.

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