Am I emotionally safe at work?

Maslow had it figured out: in order to thrive we have to first feel safe and secure.

“Only 52% of Australian employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy, compared with 76% for physical safety” — State of Workplace Health in Australia (2014), Beyond Blue

An organisation’s ability to nurture psychological safety creates individuals who feel they can be themselves — willing to share, take risks, admit mistakes, and challenge ideas.

Emotional safety is just as important as physical safety at work as both play a vital large part in how we approach each day. Too many employees arrive at work feeling dread, anxiety or uncertainty. Here are some common expressions of concerns:

“I get belittled when I make suggestions.”

“My boss has clear favourites. I’m treated like an outsider, marginalised, and not part of the ‘in crowd.”

“You can feel the negative mood as soon as you walk in to the place. The culture is toxic.”

“I have to be very careful of what I say. Things are maliciously shared, twisted and used against me.”

“Those who speak up are bullied, isolated and their jobs are threatened.”

“It is a place filled with fear.”

Our place of work can bring joy, challenge, inspiration and meaning. One factor is poor leadership and too many work environments are poisonous — a toxic environment that exhausts our psychological wellbeing and reduces our effectiveness and productivity.

It is the leader who sets the tone, creating safety or toxicity. Poisonous, harmful work relationships can produce deep personal trauma that wounds the emotions and soul. They often don’t appear on a risk register because companies are so focussed on physical or financial risk — but these wounds are very real and can last a lifetime.

The abuse of harmful
leadership and toxic work
culture can impair the
emotional well-being of
employees long after they have
left the organisation.

For some, the COVID “work from home” hiatus became a welcome emotional reprieve from a difficult place of work. But as workers return there is anxiety from some employees that they will returning to physical locations that draw them back into emotional flashbacks of previous traumatic workplace experiences.

To build emotional safety in the workplace organisational leaders need to personally embody the values of respect, inclusion, belonging and dignity. Without these qualities modelled at the most senior level it is unlikely that a workplace will be entirely free from toxic behaviour and attitudes. In short, to build an emotionally safe culture requires building emotionally safe leaders.

Avalon Smith is an intern at The Colloquium Group. She is completing her Masters in Communication at Griffith University.