Lessons in Stress and Psychological Safety

Workforce stress impacts the health and performance of employees, ultimately impacting the business’s bottom line.

Stress in the workplace is still one of the most significant challenges organizations face today, and it’s exacerbated by global instability.

Despite a bid amongst government and health forums to raise awareness of the issue, the rates of chronic anxiety, stress, and exhaustion continue to rise. In a 2023 survey of global workers by US think-tank Future Forum, 42 percent of respondents reported burnout, the highest figure since May 2021.

A certain amount of stress at work is often unavoidable. However, when the pressure in the workplace becomes uncontrollable, it causes high absenteeism, dramatic dips in productivity, and employee retention issues. According toThe American Institute of Stress, a staggering 63 percent of US workers say they are ready to quit their jobs to avoid work-related stress.

It is impossible to eliminate stress completely. But organizational leaders do have the power to positively influence this toxic dynamic by creating the supportive  foundations for their organizations, and developing a thoughtful, targeted strategy.

The bare necessities

First of all, let’s establish the basics. As a bare minimum, you need some measures in place specifically to support the physical and mental health of your people.

This might include initiatives such as mindfulness apps, discounted gym memberships, or in-office yoga sessions. I am a great advocate of meditation, for example, to reduce stress-related symptoms and improve focus.

And vacation is absolutely crucial. Leaders should ensure their team members take regular breaks from work to improve mental health and morale, and take their annual leave allowance. Vacation time helps employees unplug and recharge their batteries. Consistently working long hours without a break from work can damage health and impact friendships and family life.

In fact, Gartner’s research has found no consistent correlation across employees between performance and the number of hours worked. Instead, the analyst firm maintains that organizations should rethink their approach to rest, which should be embedded in the workflow to prevent burnout.

But make no mistake, these moves won’t mean much if your people managers aren’t equipped with the skills to create an environment where people feel psychologically safe. Developing a strategy to support managers in creating psychologically safe environments is critically important.

What is psychological safety and how can you create it?  

Psychological safety is a shared belief that team members can speak out, take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, and raise concerns without fear of retribution or being shamed. The term was first used by Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson, who defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Without a culture of psychological safety, people worry about how they are perceived in the workplace. They don’t want to look incompetent so that they won’t disclose mistakes, don’t want to appear inadequate, so they fail to contribute ideas and ask questions because they are branded stupid. These all add to stress levels.

Team leaders that can develop proactive psychological safety will see major benefits in how their team members address workplace challenges and opportunities, including confident decision-making, improved engagement, and enhanced collaboration which all contribute to better business outcomes and improved productivity.

Actually creating psychological safety is difficult, and (importantly) not a tick–the-box exercise. It is a continuous journey that requires understanding and commitment. But from running workshops for major multinationals and organizations across the globe, we often find that the process includes nurturing a respectful debate culture; rewarding risk-taking and putting forward diverse ideas; celebrating openness; and creating an environment where people are not frightened to admit mistakes.

All of the above, in some way, come back to ensuring that your managers develop the interpersonal connection skills that they need to cultivate trust with their team members.

One element of this is communication, which is critical to managing workplace stress. Team leaders must keep employees informed of any changes regarding expectations, for example. This creates a sense of safety, community, and openness.

And at the same time, communication allows team leaders to get to know their teams well. The better they know individuals personally, the more trust and transparency are built.

It takes time, coaching, and frequent review to get these skills right.

A culture of psychological safety has never been more important

The world is going through an unpredictable period right now, we see wellbeing shifting off the HR agenda as other factors become a higher priority. But make no mistake, a strong culture of psychological safety has never been more important in business–underscoring success, productivity, and innovation.

Creating safe working environments where individuals can adapt and change is paramount. Wellness programs can help, but a holistic, sustainable approach must include establishing psychological safety at your organization and in your teams.

Yes, psychological safety requires investment. But organizations that invest in their greatest asset – their people – see a profound impact on their bottom line.

Cameron Yarbrough
Cameron Yarbrough is co-founder and CEO of the people development platform Torch. Prior to Torch, Cameron worked at The Stanford Graduate School of Business as an interpersonal dynamics facilitator and also built a successful executive coaching practice for business leaders in Silicon Valley.