What is a psychologically safe workplace and what’s wellness got to do with it? That’s the question today’s guest, Karen Mastroianni answers. Karen is a Nurse with a Doctor of Education, Organization and HR Development. She has owned her own company, Dimensions, for 24 years.

Karen recently hosted a webinar for the NWI around the topic of psychological safety and I thought it would be a great topic for a podcast. I met Karen at our local health promotion group and she has been a wellness change agent for many years.

In this interview, she describes what it was like starting a wellness business in the 90’s, a vivid experience she had that made her stop involvement in biometric screenings and she educates us on what a psychologically safe workplace looks like. Finally, she offers tips for us as wellness pros to examine our story which can result in our own biases.

Time Stamped Show Notes

03:10 – Karen’s company, Dimensions, began in the early 90s by offering health promotion to small companies—unfortunately nobody was willing to pay for it at that time so they pivoted to safety consulting and services

04:12 – The company follows a holistic and multi-dimensional approach to health with a focus on the organization instead of the individual

04:53 – Karen was an occupational nurse and aerobics instructor when she jumped into the wellness business. She realized small companies can benefit from health and safety services

07:24 – Karen’s company has been convincing companies to take a multi-dimensional approach to wellbeing

07:45 – There is a new ISO standard coming out that integrates safety, wellness, and culture

08:26 – Karen’s decision to stop doing screenings

11:37 – Karen was heartbroken and asked herself how was that wellness and she decided then and there she would stop doing screenings

12:22 – Screenings are intimidating for those not into fitness or those who do not meet the criteria

13:50 – Karen is good at safety and enjoys doing it but wellness is her passion. Wellness is a piece of safety

16:44 – Karen says there is no need to have a big wellness initiative, it is enough to have a physically and psychologically safe space—wellness will come from that

18:12 – Psychological safety is the belief an individual won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up – ( first coined by Amy Edmundson of the Harvard School of Business). In Amy’s study, she found strong supportive teams have less medical errors because they speak up about it

20:44 – The higher the psychological safety, the more comfortable people are speaking up. If you have low psychological safety and the expectations are high, you have anxiety

23:12 – Karen was at a company that has achieved a STAR – safety excellence recognition program – and was up for renewal. It had a gorgeous fitness center and state of the art equipment and there was only one person inside. People called the facility a “fishing bowl” because if there any problems at work, management would “go fishing” at the fitness center for employees to blame. This is an example of how psychological safety impacts the wellness of individuals – there was a facility but people were afraid to use it  

24:47 – Karen says we all have frames that we view the world with based on our experiences and these form our biases. For example, the programs wellness professionals create are based on biases

26:12 – Wellness professionals should examine their own biases

28:06 – To get over these biases, Karen suggests meditation or contemplation for self- awareness – look at pictures and write down your gut reaction

30:24 – Karen had another client who offered 1.5 hours per week to their employees to do whatever wellness program they wanted to do. The employees had autonomy and time to master what they wanted to

31:27 – In doing a wellness program, just having the policy is not enough, everyone must be encouraged to use it so it becomes psychologically safe

33:05 – Another example is of a company that has a fitness center that nobody uses. It was not being used because employees had 12-hour shifts with 10 to 20 minute breaks

34:10 – The environment must also promote wellness and it has to be easy for the employees

35:27 – Jen reiterates two tips from Karen – (1) for wellness professionals to foster psychological safety within their environment and (2) examine our own story

37:33 – Model high emotional intelligence, show humility, and practice patience

38:41 – Get to the real issues people are dealing with

39:23 – Wellness is impacted by different factors and we should look at that

39:41 – Karen’s Contact info: 919-676-2877 extension 112 or email her at karenm@dimensions-ohf.com

3 Key Points:

  1. Wellness professionals have their own biases, so it’s important to be self-aware—otherwise these biases might penetrate the wellness programs you’re trying to create.
  2. Wellness programs can’t create psychological safety—it has to come from the company culture.
  3. Wellness professionals should not aim for perfection—they should embrace their flaws and vulnerabilities while modeling high emotional intelligence.

Full Bio:

Karen Mastroianni, EdD, MPH, COHN-S, FAAOHN

Karen is a principal and consultant with Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm in Raleigh, NC.  Dimensions works with organizations on a variety of issues to help create a great place to work. Our approach utilizes a multi-level, holistic, and ecological model to enhance well-being for both the individual and the organization.

Karen received her BSN from the University of Akron & her MPH from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She received her doctoral degree in Organization and Work Force Development at NC State, with a research emphasis on factors that enhance and detract from employee well-being. Karen’s experience and research led to a realization of the inextricable connection between the well-being of the organization and the employee.

This dynamic social connection enhances or detracts from thriving and flourishing for both. Dimensions applies a holistic model to enhance well-being that includes three pillars. The first pillar is fostering a psychologically, emotionally, and physically safe work environment. The second is nurturing well-being by considering all dimensions of health. The last pillar is foundational – developing great leaders by cultivating self-awareness, emotional intelligence, compassion, empathy, wisdom, and openness.

She is a Teaching Assistant Professor at NC State where she has taught an organizational ethics course. Karen is also Adjunct Assistant Professor at UNC School of Public Health. Karen is a co-author of the book, Occupational Health Nursing Guidelines, now in its 5th edition. She presents on a national, state and local level and has published several articles.