We are living through a period of extraordinary volatility and uncertainty—about our physical safety, economic security, and the daily conditions in which we operate. One consequence is an undercurrent of emotional disturbance characterized by rising anxiety, depression, fear, and stress levels. Leaders are confronting these challenges individually, often without clear direction or support. They are also responsible for supporting their teams, who have their own range of experiences, emotions, and resources for responding— many of whom are paying a psychological toll that is still poorly understood.
To gain insights into what organizations are facing and how leaders can respond, we’ll explore Psychological Safety in the workplace, its importance, and the crucial role Emotional Intelligence plays.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological health comprises our ability to think, feel, and behave in a manner that enables us to perform effectively. This applies to our behavior in our work environments, our personal lives, and in society at large. Psychological health problems occur on a spectrum, from common psychological difficulties to severe psychological disorders.
Employers must take all reasonable steps to protect workers from being injured in the workplace – both physically and mentally. Thus, they must ensure that the workplace is ‘psychologically safe’ – that is, free from harassment, discrimination, bullying, violence, and mental stress that could cause harm to workers’ mental health.
Psychological Safety can be a big and costly problem in organizations, and this problem is growing rapidly. In Canada, financial awards for damages caused by mental injury at work have increased over the past five years by 700%. Nearly 1 in 5 US adults aged 18 or older (18.3% or 44.7 million people) reported some kind of mental illness in 2016.2 In addition, 71% of adults reported at least one symptom of stress, such as headaches or feeling overwhelmed or anxious.4 In Canada, mental health disability impacts healthcare and work disruption at a cost of approximately $51 billion a year. It has been calculated that $2.97 to $11 billion could be saved annually if mental injuries caused by the actions of employers were prevented.1This represents significant economic gains at a national and institutional level, above and beyond the humanitarian gains associated with a safe workplace. Sound scientific evidence shows that when businesses adopt policies and programs to address psychological health and safety, they incur between 15-33% fewer costs related to psychological health issues.3
“Psychological Safety is the responsibility of everyone.”
As a leader, where does your responsible lie in the creation of a ‘Psychologically Safe’ work environment? What are some things you can do to help your organization and your team? A truly comprehensive list ultimately depends on your organizational culture, in addition to your level of leadership and skills. Ask yourself, how many of these actionable tips are you already practicing to ensure your teams feel supported and safe?
- Model a culture of vulnerability and respect
- Value authenticity
- Focus on supportive and consultative leadership behaviors
- Create environments that support people speaking up and critiquing ideas
- Recognize and communicate the uncertainties and risks of any new initiatives
- Connect everyday tasks with a larger sense of purpose
- Brainstorm problems and reflect on what is, or isn’t working
“Psychological Safety is impossible without Emotional Intelligence.”
If any of the above list seemed foreign or challenging to create, you might be unconsciously affected by your limiting behavioral patterns. Awareness of how your emotions drive your decisions and behavior and how others perceive you is vital to creating authentic connections and ultimately building healthier workplace environments. A high level of Emotional Intelligence is a crucial skill set that increases our ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions in ourselves and others. Emotional intelligence behaviors are at the heart of creating a Psychologically Safe workplace.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence has two main components:
- Being aware of yourself–the way your own emotions drive your decisions and your behavior, and therefore how you connect, communicate, and collaborate with others
- Awareness of others –the capacity to perceive and understand the way others feel, that is sensing how others feel and communicate in the workplace
Emotional Intelligence skills can be learned and enhanced by leveraging our most fundamental intelligence, Physical Intelligence. We now have tools to access subconscious levels of the mind, that allow us to make directed changes to fundamentally improveour perception and connect more readily with others. We grow stronger inside which allows us to be more vulnerable, which is an important behavior to build Psychological Safety in the workplace. Vulnerability and authentic expression foster new levels of confidence that builds trust, openness, and creativity amongst our interactions. Collectively, Physical Intelligence practices help you take control of yourself– your mind, physiology, and emotions – and your interactions with others. They allow you to build the foundation required for sustainable behavior changes, and to develop new leadership capabilities necessary for promoting Psychological Safety in the workplace.
Leaders should use or invest in technologies that help assess and track KPIs, including employee engagement, turnover, stress-related leave claims, and absenteeism, when building a psychologically safe environment. Once you understand these metrics and key trends, you can more easily assess the levels of Psychological Safety in your organization and take corrective steps if required. The cost and burden of a lack of Psychological Safety on employees are high – will you need to enhance your and your leadership teams’ emotional intelligence to support any necessary organizational changes?
- Tracking the perfect legal storm.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Mental illness website. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtmlexternal icon. Accessed March 29, 2018.
- Guiding Minds at work
- American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Coping with Change, Part 1. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2017.
Martina Angelique Wagner Ph.D., ACC is the CEO of ArtesHumanis, a professional development, business coaching, and training organization serving large multi-national companies and small- to mid-sized businesses. Martina is a Physical Intelligence Expert, Influencer, Author, Speaker, and ICF Certified Executive Coach. As a thought leader and Physical Intelligence Expert, Martina has been featured on NPR and CBS amongst other news outlets. Backed by over 20 years of leadership experience in the healthcare industry and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, Martina uses her extensive knowledge of workplace challenges and the revolutionary Physical Intelligence modality to coach her clients to develop leadership excellence by helping them to meaningfully change their thinking and behavior. Her passion is to help advance female executives by helping them strengthen confidence, personal power, and executive stature.