Career Advice

Psychological Safety Is Critical for Mental Well-Being at Work—Here’s How To Tell If Your Workplace Is Helping or Hurting Yours

Photo: Getty Images / Morsa Images
You might think about your safety when you're out walking alone at night. But not enough people are giving enough thought to their safety in the workplace. No, I don't necessarily mean physical safety—although that's important too. I'm talking about psychological safety: when you feel like you belong in a workplace.

Psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson over a decade ago, essentially means an absence of interpersonal fear. In a work environment that prioritizes psychological safety, anyone can speak up about their project and share ideas or concerns without fear of being punished or humiliated. The goal: belonging. Psychological safety has been shown to help improve decision-making and leads to healthier team dynamics. And it makes sense: When people aren't worried about the repercussions of saying "the wrong thing," there's room for creativity and innovation.

People are taking note of just how important this concept is in the workplace. Just last month, the Surgeon General released a framework for workplace mental health and well-being that organizations can use to better support their team members. One key area of support in their framework is psychological safety.

The newfound focus on psychological safety at work couldn't come any sooner for most American workers. Mind Share Partners' 2021 Mental Health at Work Report found that 53 percent of respondents said their work or work environment had a bad impact on their mental health, and 84 percent said that there was at least one thing about their job that hurt their mental health.

So what should you look for to figure out if your job is promoting (or harming) psychological safety? Look out for these signs—and if you are experiencing any of them, contact human resources (and a therapist, if you have one.)

4 signs your workplace is not psychologically safe for you or others

1. Discrimination

Unsurprisingly, members of groups that contend with discrimination outside of the workplace (like racism, homophobia, ableism etc.) face the same challenges in finding a sense of safety in the workplace, too. That's why discrimination like microaggressions (verbal and behavioral exchanges that subtly put down people of color) is a major red flag for psychological safety. This is particularly common for women of color to experience. Be on the lookout for employees saying things like “why are you so angry” in reference to a Black woman, or assuming a woman of color is an assistant and not a leader. These types of microaggressions devalue the presence and contribution from these employees—which inherently others them.

One note: Yes, white woman can also feel unsafe in a workplace. Just keep in mind that they have the benefit of being part of the dominant culture (aka whiteness) in most workplaces. This proximity can allow for more opportunities for white woman to feel like they belong.

2. Intentional communication breakdowns

Generational differences (and how they're handled) can also impact psychological safety at work. This often plays out in how teams and companies handle communication tools. A failure to prioritize or understand digital communication tools like Slack, for example, might exclude younger workers from key conversations and decisions. These patterns lead to feelings of othering in intergenerational workplaces.

3. Consistent lack of disability accommodations

Many companies are getting better with accommodating folks with cognitive, physical, and invisible disabilities. But there usually is a hard line where accommodations in the workplace stop—which excludes disabled employees from fully contributing to their workplace. Lack of accommodations looks like not having captions on for all Zoom meetings, having company events in spaces that are not friendly to someone who has an assistive device, or not having an interpreter for a deaf person.

4. Constant stress and sleepless nights

Workplace stress is to be expected on occasion—say around big deadlines or presentations that periodically fall onto your plate. But if you are regularly tossing and turning about going to work the next day, then you likely don’t have psychological safety at work. A 2021 survey found that only 26 percent of workers felt psychologically safe during the pandemic; 61 percent of respondents experienced elevated stress levels.

Is there any way for me to address psychological safety at work?

Unfortunately, we cannot control the safety of our workplace, but we can determine what we need for a supportive space. Start by asking yourself what your values are and what you need to thrive at work. Values can look like: I want to be my full self at work, or I would like to share ideas in a collaborative space. Whatever your values are, make sure your workspace meets at least 75 percent of them.

From there, set expectations with your team and/or supervisor to help meet your values. Let them know how you like to communicate and receive feedback, good and bad. (For example, asking for meeting agendas in advance, or flagging that your primary communication preference is email.) Set expectations as they allow for you and your peers to be held accountable. Expectations provide the supportive environment you deserve.

Last, remember you are a human being so as much as you will learn and unlearn your supervisor and coworkers will too. Use your voice and advocate for yourself if you experience a microaggression or unfair treatment. Hold people accountable, as many of us don’t know what we don’t know. Make sure you give yourself and others grace as long as they have not created harm.

If these improvements are not possible in your workplace, or do not help your situation, then it's time to plan an exit. Set an end date, whether that's six months or one year from now. Remind yourself of that date and your plan to leave when you start to feel the stress and fear rise. Start to network and update your LinkedIn profile. Slowly start applying to other jobs and with every interview, ask questions that support your values to see if the work environment provides the supportive environment needed for your psychological safety.

We spend the majority of our days working and each day should be safe. The world may not be safe, but you can at least be safe in your workplace.

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