Coaching Up: A Pragmatic Technique for the Shared Responsibility of a Psychologically Healthy and Safe Workplace

Recently, ISO 45003:2021 Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work — Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks, was created. Prior to, leading the way was the 2013 the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) (CAN/CSA-Z1003–13).

Psychologically healthy and safe workplace

A workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.

Psychological health and safety management system

An organizational management system consisting of policies, procedures, and practices put in place to assist organizations in creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

Among the guiding principles of the Standard and a psychological health and safety management system, psychological health and safety is a shared responsibility among all workplace stakeholders. This means active participation with all workplace stakeholders. Not solely leaders and managers, but employees or workers themselves, too.

Three reasons why the guiding principle of shared responsibility is vital for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace include:

Findings from the Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey for 2019

1) As shared by The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey for 2019, Canadian employers underestimate the presence of chronic disease in the workforce. The survey uncovered that 54% of plan members (employees) have been diagnosed with at least one chronic disease or condition, increasing to 69% among those aged 55 to 64. Whereas plan sponsors (employers) estimate that 39% of their workforce has a chronic condition. I think much can be similar when we think about psychological health and safety in the workplace and thus the psychological well-being of employees. One can only imagine how this is magnified in a remote work environment where physical presence is not always readily available nor timely.

2) Further, even with the most well-intentioned leaders or managers, actually knowing how to respond to changes in a workplace in terms of psychological health and safety, and the downstream effects on employee psychological well-being and harm, may not be adequate. This is because there is a sense of training and best practices which comes with supporting employees. All to say, leaders and managers themselves may not know what to do, although they do want to support. This is why management of the relationship upward could be as important as managing the relationship below, or even across.

3) When action planning, experience would suggest for who the action planning is intended for, the target audience, for them to be a part of the process. ‘Them’ in this case being employees. To co-create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace together, achieving commitment over compliance, can help ensure a sustainable action plan. A notable process to do so through participatory planning with employees themselves is the SOBANE strategy (screening, observation, analysis, and expertise) (Malchaire, 2004). Such thinking could also be relevant for accommodation, stay-at-work, and return-to-work plans, when it comes to absence and disability management in the workplace.

The SOBANE strategy by J Malchaire.

The inspiration for this article comes from a piece by Mary Ann Baynton titled, Coaching Up: Help your supervisor support you through your mental illness.” In the piece, Mary Ann explains coaching up occurs when we provide skills training through discussion and suggestions to those we report to rather than those who report to us. Mary Ann makes it evident how the supervisor’s job is to help you to remain productive, so remember to focus your efforts on workplace issues. She says to offer your supervisor suggestions and assistance on the best ways to help you at work. After all, no one knows better than you what will help you to remain productive and get your job done, and further, consider what your supervisor can control, and what is outside their control.

As other resources created by Mary Ann suggest, such as Supporting Employee Success, this entire process focuses on workplace function and issues, and respects confidentiality by not requiring medical information. The conversation is around abilities and strategies that support work success rather than diagnosis or symptoms. It is a balance between employee comments on how their current ability might impact their job, with the employer expectations for the job.

Examples of abilities and strategies that support work success shared by Mary Ann may include:

  • Concentration — when is your concentration at its best? When is it most difficult?
  • Fatigue — when are you most tired? What part of your job energizes you? What part of your job drains your energy?
  • Irritability — if so, what exactly triggers it?
  • Conflict — where does interpersonal conflict exist in your workplace for you?
  • Deadlines — are you having trouble meeting deadlines? If so, which ones and why?
  • Memory — are you forgetting things? Do you have trouble recalling facts or figures? How often and when?
  • Emotions — do your emotions overwhelm you? If so, what triggers them?
  • Change — are you able to adapt to and accept change? If not, what makes it difficult for you?

For initial steps on Coaching Up, in the form of a checklist, “Managing Your Boss” was published in the Harvard Business Review in January 1980, by John Gabarro and John Kotter. These two gentlemen shared how the first step is to understand bosses and their context, including:

  • their stated and unstated goals and objectives
  • the pressures on them
  • their strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots
  • their preferred work styles

The second step is to be introspective and assess yourself and your needs, including:

  • your own strengths and weaknesses
  • your personal style
  • your disposition toward dependence on or resistance to authority figures

The third step is to incorporate the first two steps and develop and maintain a relationship that:

  • fits both your needs and styles
  • is characterized by mutual expectations
  • keeps your boss informed, bosses hate surprises
  • is based on dependability and honesty
  • selectively uses your boss’s time and resources

All to say, psychological health and safety is a shared responsibility. One pragmatic technique for shared responsibility called Coaching Up can be leveraged to help with the employee accountability within shared responsibility. This is about the involvement of employees on what is good work, adapting to a remote working environment along the way.

Nathan Kolar



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