Creating a psychologically and emotionally safe organization
- 7 Min Read
Practical and actionable ways you can foster an environment of both psychological and emotional safety within your organization.
It has been over two years since humanity was shocked into submission with a global health crisis that has fundamentally shifted the way we all live and work. My prediction in 2019 was that 2020 would be a “defining moment” in the history of humanity.
2020 was not only a defining moment, but a microscope of epic proportions that has unapologetically shown us what has been taken for granted, neglected, and even abused in our individual lives and certainly societally. While infectious disease loomed, there was another familiar foe planting deeper roots than ever before amidst the looming fears surrounding our collective impermanence.
Confidentiality and trust are paramount
The lack of proper attention towards mental and emotional health has been unfolding for many decades courtesy of increasing misinformation, societal, cultural, religious, familial dissociation from the reality of mental illness, and individual shame only being most palpable for those who suffer with mental illness acutely while everyone else has otherwise pretended to be okay.
Finding statistics that tell a comprehensive story on the state of mental health globally is a challenge as many of the studies and segments are fragmented. What we do know based on 2022 data via United Nations is that about one billion people globally live with some form of mental disorder.
It’s worth considering that this number could be conservative as we can reasonably assume (especially since the start of the pandemic) that many more people suffer with mental and emotional health outside of the parameters of a diagnosable disorder and never disclose preliminary symptoms so that preventative measures can be employed. The numbers we have available to us are because someone was brave enough or in dire need necessitating the disclosure of their mental health status.
Confidentiality and trust are paramount if we are to substantially support the mental health and emotional well-being of our employees. Yet, with current discussions of mass resignations and quiet quitting it is evident confidentiality and trust are severely lacking in the employee experience among other factors.
Long before the pandemic, employees struggled to feel empowered enough to speak their truths as it pertained to everything from a salary increase to unsatisfactory conditions at work. Where the voice of the employee has been ignored, suppressed or stifled, we have seen through the years a gradual erosion of trust in the workforce, especially where it concerns being candid with leadership.
With that knowledge, we cannot be surprised that mental health and well-being overall has flown beneath the radar of countless organizations until now. From a purely common-sense perspective, there have been no genuine assurances put in place to date that would encourage an employee to trust and divulge the details of something as vulnerable as their mental health status where there is still a palpable stigma and a lack of current knowledge surrounding what employees need at work to feel supported.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are the most common and tried mechanism within an organization for providing employees with assistance with personal matters such as mental health, addiction, and financial wellness just to name a few, but there have been some disadvantages to this approach. According to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association, the current industry average for EAP utilization is 4.5%.
While this number is apparently low, the underlying story is there is clearly a reluctance to utilize their services despite the prevalence of these programs. With global rates in depression and anxiety up 25% as a result of the pandemic, the issue isn’t a decrease in the prevalence of mental health issues, the issue is something more sustaining and dare I say insidious.
Some of the criticisms of EAPs through the years has been that one, they aren’t intentionally or properly marketed internally. For something as pervasive as mental health in our collective population, you would think that this sort of support and service would be the cornerstone of any benefit onboarding conversations or discussions of perks.
The second criticism, in my experience, has been that there is a lack of confidentiality and trust in dealing with EAP staff. I can attest to personally knowing of certain employees who were utilizing services via the EAP at some of my former employers and that is with me working in HR. If rumor mills are going to be commonplace once someone has shared something as delicate as their mental health status, we are doing more harm than good in supporting our employees’ well-being.
Peruse any number of social channels or Reddit threads, it isn’t hard to find transparent conversations happening daily surrounding mental health and the long-term effects of global infectious disease coupled with prioritizing company expectations and societal hustle and grind culture over individual well-being. These conversations are raw, uncut, and gut-wrenching. The question is are employers doing enough reflection and having tough discussions about their part in this discussion?
Creating an emotionally safe organization
To get you started, here are some considerations for how to create a more psychologically and emotionally safe organization for your employees:
- Before you roll out any initiative to support the mental health journey of your employees, be sure to examine and poll for sentiments pertaining to confidentiality and trust among your workforce. Do people trust their co-workers and leadership generally? Are relationships in departments and among teams fragmented? Is your organization one where gossip about individual employees’ personal affairs thrive? If yes, all of these circumstances are reasons why people will not feel compelled to utilize any offered services or divulge their mental health status honestly.
- Be intentional and seek proper consultation about any offerings or programs you are thinking of launching. Living with a mental disorder is a task in and of itself. You want to be careful that no aspect of services, care, or support will cause any further burden, revictimization, damage or harm to your employees. If you can’t do it right and put the proper budget behind it, maybe your assistance can look more simplistic where you offer people “don’t ask, don’t tell” time off to manage their mental health and wellbeing. Most employees would appreciate less invasion of their private life and more support where possible.
- As with most things in the workplace, it helps if there is a genuine and action-oriented discussion that starts from the top. Employees need to know that leadership not only prioritizes mental health and psychological safety at work, but they are also looking for honesty from that level about the ways the operations of the organization may be creating or exacerbating these challenges. If your employees wake up to an alarm realizing they have to get ready to come serve you and that causes panic attacks, that is a problem. If they are having to work with co-workers and leaders who don’t respect them and bully them daily making them feel uninspired to come to work or function in life, that is a problem. If an employee requires additional time to complete tasks, but are continually buried under mounting tasks, how do you think that affects their mental and emotional states?
Like so many of the topics we are having to face as a human collective currently, mental health is a nuanced and tender subject. Let’s all be brave enough to continue reflecting on how we impact one another and work collaboratively to create healthier and safe conditions where we all can thrive.
Janine Dennis is the Owner/Chief Innovations Officer for Talent Think Innovations, LLC, a multidisciplinary business strategy and management consulting firm. Janine is author of “The Absurdity of Doing You: Rebel Elegance for the Evolving Soul” Follow her across social media at @MzJanineNicole.