Globally, 10 October is celebrated as World Mental Health Day (WMHD). Having worked for 17 years as a therapist, it’s heartening to see more and more organisations focus on employee well-being. Yet, a need that requires focus well beyond WMHD is psychological safety at the workplace. Over the last 18 months, all of us have felt unsafe physically and experienced grief, anxiety and loneliness in our own homes psychologically. For many, the sense of community, social support and belonging has been impacted by the threat of covid-19 consuming our lives.
Amidst all this, employees have worked from home, juggling caregiving responsibilities and professional commitments. At times like these, against a background of uncertainty, our need for psychological safety is most acute.
The idea of psychological safety at the workplace has to do with the safety nets organisations create to allow employees to show their authentic selves and experience a sense of acceptance, knowing they will be heard, seen and valued for who they are. This includes a feeling and belief that the leaders and employees are aligned to building safe spaces where different opinions can be shared and conversations facilitated with dialogue and empathy. In companies with such an ecosystem, employees are more likely to take the initiative and openly voice opinions.
In a world where psychological safety is an afterthought, my worry is that more and more employees will feel under-confident, operate with a scarcity mindset, feel not seen and heard. This would have a ripple effect on productivity, innovation, engagement, burnout and their personal relationships, even narratives of purpose and ambition.
The larger diversity and inclusion conversation is part of building psychological safety, and it’s particularly crucial now, when hybrid models are taking shape. These conversations need to address bigger questions about the needs of adults taking care of an elderly family member who’s physically unwell, single parents, parents of children with special needs and in setups where house responsibilities are not equally shared, and when schools are yet to reopen.
Building an environment of psychological safety is not the responsibility just of human resources departments/business partners or chief culture officers; everyone needs to work towards it. Having said that, the process begins when the leaders and management embrace the idea, working towards practices consciously, consistently and mindfully, upholding a macro culture of safety.
When leaders embrace their own vulnerabilities, talk about their mental health journeys and pay attention to the concerns/needs of employees who may not be able to articulate openly, the narrative of safety begins to emerge. When a line manager chooses to talk about what works in the context of healthy practices, whether professionally or personally, they model what holding a safe space looks like. An environment of trust and collaboration develops when leaders recognise the value of collective team effort but acknowledge that every individual’s contribution matters. In these cultures, employees are likely to be motivated, engaged and invested as their growth needs, and those of their company, are met. Allocating funds and resources when it comes to taking care of employees and their families’ mental health is another way of providing for safety and saying you care as an organisation.
There is no better time to start building psychological safety as an organisation. It may take time but it will go a long way in aligning organisational and individual accomplishments and contributing to narratives of collective well-being.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.