She’d worked there for 3 years already, but going by her stress levels, it could have been her first day. Finally, the time had come to pitch her idea to the guys in the C-Suite and she knew that the next 40 years of her career could rest on this one moment. Talk about pressure!
The year? 1990.
Thirty years later, another big pitch, and another young woman is feeling the same pressure, but for wildly different reasons. Even as she steels herself to begin she’s wondering…is this job really going to allow her to follow her passion? Will it allow her to show up authentically? Is there any hope for work/life balance and her overall wellbeing? Does it really fit with the long-term life she envisions?
And this time, she’s not the only one feeling the strain. Her bosses are also stressed — whether they accept or reject her pitch they know they need to be aware of how any reaction on their part might be misconstrued as a violation of the implicit or explicit rules of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Yes, workplace stress is nothing new, but the variety of stressors faced by workers at every level, from the C-Suite down, has exploded.
We’re seeing an increasingly diverse workforce, with needs, wants, and desires that might not have been expected even 30 years ago. And if we want to promote a healthy work environment for employers and employees alike — an environment that maximizes the potential of every individual while supporting several new forms of in-person and remote collaboration — we’re going to need a particularly nuanced plan.
It’s a daunting task, no question, but fortunately, psychological science holds several keys to help us navigate the complexities of the 21st century workplace.
1. Foster a psychologically safe workplace using a holistic perspective of wellness.
A psychologically safe workplace isn’t just one where employees are able to manage stress—it’s one where they feel secure enough to risk putting themselves out there to generate ideas and execute exciting new plans. It’s one in which staff work together more cohesively and trust the decisions of leadership. It’s generally a place where employees display greater productivity and willingness to try novel approaches to solve old problems.
At the heart of building a psychologically safe work environment is an understanding of how the workplace can trigger different fears and hopes based on who a person is and how their life experiences have shaped their perspective about the strategies they use to maintain emotional stability and connectedness to others.
If you want to foster a psychologically safe work environment, you might want to try:
a. Upgrading the staff lounge and other spaces in the office to soothe the senses. Sensory input from sounds, smells, touch, and sight can either trigger a stress response (for example, fight, flight, or freeze) or provide a gateway to self-regulation. Try creating spaces where staff can access sensory calming tools routinely during the day. For instance, a room that encourages periods of rest, with dim lighting, sweet-smelling incense, and even play dough or sand that employees can fidget with when they have excess anxious energy, can help calm the natural stress response.
b. Developing processes that allow staff at all levels to disagree with their colleagues in a way that promotes trust-building and psychological safety. For instance, introducing concepts from a radical candor approach—which allows opportunities to share honest thoughts as part of the workplace culture—into communication between staff.
c. Learning how to support emotional recharge that is connected more directly to the whole person.
2. Find opportunities for leaders and employees to express their authentic selves.
We all have a biological need to belong, to connect with others who’ll help us navigate the world safely, and the desire to feel valued is an extension of this. As a result, when we feel under-valued, threatened, or afraid, it causes a stress response. Conversely, feeling whole or fulfilled leads to an increase in motivation.
One of the most important filters for understanding whether we are valued and safe are our social identities; according to identity-based motivation theory (and probably most of your real-life experiences of rejection), few moments feel as stressful as when something happens to make you feel inadequate as a father, a woman, a Black person, a Christian or any other social identity that is salient for you.
Unfortunately, the workplace can inadvertently create spaces that constantly invalidate individuals’ social identities, and in the process, increase the likelihood that staff feel underappreciated. And when this happens, leadership often misses the chance to enrich the work environment with the unique talents that manifest when individuals are able to reveal their authentic selves.
Some strategies for creating spaces that promote authentic expression of self include:
a. Letting principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion lead the way.
b. Inviting weekly brief readings about an event or experience that illuminates the authentic.
c. Promoting a growth mindset about self and relationships.
3. Imbue workplace duties with meaning and build compassion into the fabric of the organization.
Effective workplace wellness isn’t about merely reducing stress — it really emphasizes workplace fulfillment. Feeling psychologically safe as one’s authentic self is an important foundation, but connecting the workplace to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose is a key factor for many young adult professionals to remain at a job.
Connecting work duties with meaning and purpose becomes easier when the workplace culture involves compassionate interactions between leadership and staff. Compassionate interactions have been associated with increased feelings of trust, openness, and a host of other attributes that may facilitate staff sharing ideas about how their work can be made more meaningful.
Suggestions for infusing workplace with purpose include:
a. Letting healthy emotional contagion take control.
b. Promoting work/life alignment.
c. Honoring mental health with intentional actions to maintain wellbeing.
Creating an inclusive, psychologically safe workspace that helps employees find meaning in their work, while staying true to their authentic self might sound like a gargantuan task — but it certainly doesn’t have to be. And there’s little doubt that the benefits will outweigh any effort. Emotionally fulfilled employees, who feel secure in their identity, will be more productive, more motivated, will be less inclined to jump ship, and will become an asset to any organization.
If you want to learn more about tackling work-based stress, maximizing the potential of your workforce, and promoting workplace wellness, join us for our Free Minds Workspace Wellness programming.