Are you mentally safe at your job?
Dr Jozelle Miller
March 5, 2024
Are you mentally safe at your job?

As adults, we spend most of our ‘awake’ time at our places of employment. According to the WHO (2022), “Almost 60 per cent of the world population is employed. All workers have the right to a safe and healthy environment at work. Decent work supports good mental health by providing: a livelihood.

  •  a sense of confidence, purpose, and achievement.
  • an opportunity for positive relationships and inclusion in a community; and
  •  a platform for structured routines, among many other benefits.”

Safe and healthy working environments are not only a fundamental right, but are also more likely to minimize tension and conflicts at work and improve staff retention, work performance and productivity. Conversely, a lack of effective structures and support at work can affect a person’s ability to enjoy their work and do their job well; it can undermine people’s attendance at work and even stop people getting a job in the first place.

What does it mean to be mentally/Psychologically safe?

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, employees have a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.

Psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that everybody is nice to each other all the time. It means that people feel free to “brainstorm out loud”, voice half-finished thoughts, openly challenge the status quo, share feedback, and work through disagreements together — knowing that leaders value honesty, candour, and truth-telling, and that team members will have one another’s backs.

When psychological safety in the workplace is present, people feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to work and are okay with “laying themselves on the line” in front of others. And organizations with psychologically safe work environments — where employees feel free to ask bold questions, share concerns, ask for help, and take calculated risks — are all the better for it.

How to create a mentally safe workplace?

1. Make psychological safety an explicit priority.

Talk with your employees about the importance of creating psychological safety at work. Connect it to a higher purpose of greater organizational innovation, team engagement, and inclusion. Ask for help when you need it, and freely give help when asked. Model the behaviours you want to see.
2. Facilitate everyone speaking up.

Show genuine curiosity, and honour frankness and truth-telling. Be open- minded, compassionate, and willing to listen when someone is brave enough to say something challenging the status quo.

3. Establish norms for how failure is handled.

Don’t punish experimentation and (reasonable) risk-taking. Show recognition that mistakes are an opportunity for growth. Encourage learning from failure and disappointment, and openly share your hard-won lessons learned from mistakes. This will help encourage innovation, instead of sabotaging it. Use candour when expressing disappointment (and appreciation).

4. Create space for new ideas (even wild ones).

Provide any challenge within the larger context of support. Consider whether you only want ideas that have been thoroughly tested, or whether you’re willing to accept highly creative, out-of-the-box ideas that are not yet well-formulated. It’s fine to ask tough questions; but do so while always being supportive at the same time. Learn more about how to foster more innovative mindsets on your team.

5. Embrace productive conflict.

Promote sincere dialogue and constructive debate, and work to resolve conflicts productively. Set the stage for incremental change by establishing employee expectations for factors that contribute to psychological safety. With your employees, discuss the following questions:

  • How will team members communicate their concerns about a process that isn’t working?
  • How can reservations be shared with colleagues in a respectful manner?
  • What are our norms for managing conflicting perspectives?

6. Pay close attention and look for patterns.

Focus on team members’ perceived patterns of psychological safety, not just the overall level. Do some members experience significantly more or less psychological safety than others, or is the level even across the team?

7. Make an intentional effort to promote dialogue.

Promote skill at giving and receiving feedback and create space for people to raise concerns. Ask colleagues powerful, open-ended questions, and then listen actively and intently to understand their feelings and values, as well as facts. Provide opportunities to learn how to share constructive feedback to one another and what respectful responses look like.

8. Celebrate wins.

Notice and acknowledge what’s going well. Positive interactions and conversations between individuals are built on trust and mutual respect. So, share credit and embrace expertise among many, and the success of the collective, versus a single “hero” mentality.

Celebrate what’s going well, however small, and appreciate people’s efforts. Encouraging and expressing gratitude reinforces your team members’ sense of self. Give your team members the benefit of the doubt when they take a risk, ask for help, or admit a mistake. In turn, trust that they will do the same for you.

How to protect your mental health while at work?

As an adult with responsibilities, you might not always have the option to quit a job in what appears to be an unhealthy environment, but this doesn’t mean you should be at its mercy either. For example, if you aren’t getting enough feedback about your job — or if you’re only hearing negative feedback — request a meeting with your manager and present a list of the goals that you would like to be working toward. Even when faced with negative feedback, try to be mindful of your reaction and even view criticism as an opportunity for improvement. This approach can serve as self-motivation if used constructively.

Taking a mental health day is also a terrific option if you happen to be feeling less than enthusiastic about your work environment. You can take this time to focus on recuperation and allow yourself to temporarily block out pressures and expectations from work. Focus on activities that relax and rejuvenate you. Reading, writing, exercising, and cooking are just a few positive outlets for anxiety that nurture your mental health. These productive activities create a sense of accomplishment and help distract you from dwelling on worrying thoughts.

Tumultuous or toxic relationships at work can also take toll on your mental health. It’s common to feel like your supervisor has targeted his/her dissatisfaction at you, and work-related dread can influence your home life. Try to keep a mental distance when a supervisor’s criticism is aimed at you or seems too personal — it doesn’t define you.

Always remember that it’s business — not personal.

Here are some other tips for consideration:

  • Practice mindfulness.

Recognize the signs of stress or anxiety building up. Relieve them by exercising, for example, which can often ease depression and anxiety.

  • Bring healthy snacks.

It’s no surprise that balanced nutrition can be a mood booster. Avoid foods high in sugar that can lead to an afternoon crash.

  • Take a walk.

If you have a standard lunch hour or afternoon break, set aside that time to get outside. Fifteen minutes of sun and light exercise can help you clear your mind.

  • Get the full 8 hours.

The most stressful workdays often follow nights of restlessness. Lack of sleep can have a detrimental effect on your productivity at work (in addition to negative impacts on your physical health). To ensure you’re working to your full potential, make sure sleep is a priority.

  • Focus on Relationships

Dedicate time to building a positive relationship with your supervisor, as well as with direct reports and peers. Healthy relationships will allow you to share your thoughts and feelings more easily with those around you.

“Prioritize mental health, and you’ll see a positive shift in workplace wellness and productivity.”