We should all be greatly troubled by the tragic death of Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey from Lincoln University and the alleged workplace toxicity that led to her suicide earlier this month. Her death and the reported adverse interactions she suffered through from university leadership stress the urgent need for HR leaders to prioritize psychological safety in the workplace.

Psychological safety at work allows employees to express themselves without fear of reprisal or disdain. It is more than just a buzzword; psychological safety is crucial for fostering innovation, delivering high-quality products and valuing employee wellbeing. The American Psychological Association’s Work in America Survey reveals that nearly 60% of workers surveyed consider psychological safety very important, with an additional 35% considering it somewhat important. These statistics demonstrate the significance of valuing employees’ emotional and psychological wellbeing in the workplace.

When employees’ emotional wellbeing and mental health suffer, it directly impacts psychological safety. The APA survey highlights alarming figures, with 31% of respondents reporting emotional exhaustion, 26% experiencing decreased motivation and 25% desiring to withdraw from social interactions. The U.S. Surgeon General even declared toxic workplaces as dangerous and hazardous to Americans’ health. These issues hinder creativity and problem-solving and damage staff morale, productivity, customer service quality, company reputation, hiring and retention, and the bottom line.

Factors undermining psychological safety at work

Lack of transparency, biases, discrimination, fear-based management styles and external events like financial insecurity, family issues, trauma and societal tensions all contribute to an unsafe work environment. Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone; they must lead by example to empower and inspire their teams and avoid micromanagement and neglect.

Leaders can cultivate a caring ecosystem that values employee concerns by embracing a learning mindset and promoting solution-based attitudes for their teams. Leaders’ actions and reactions profoundly impact the psychological safety of entire departments and the overall company culture. Given the weight of their influence, psychological safety should be inherent in leadership characteristics.

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If trust is a central component of a company’s values, leaders from all levels should demonstrate it through active listening. Engaging in dialogue with team members to understand their concerns, soliciting their experiences and feedback, and identifying any obstacles to their wellbeing are essential. This requires leaders to be present, undistracted and dedicated to meaningful interactions over the deluge of messages, emails and meetings.

By expressing interest and allowing time for reflection, leaders can better grasp the issues employees are facing and respond more effectively. This approach reinforces validation and respect, while dismissive or formulaic responses discourage employees from sharing their genuine concerns, thus deteriorating psychological safety.

Companies often boast about hiring diverse talent. However, creating an equitable and inclusive environment is equally critical to establishing a safe and caring work environment. Sadly, prejudice and discrimination persist both in society and the workplace. The same APA survey shows disheartening evidence, indicating that 15% of respondents experienced discrimination at their current workplace, and 30% felt unsupported due to aspects of their identity.

Certain demographic groups, such as Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ employees, face even higher levels of unsupportiveness based on their identity. To harness the immense benefits of diversity, leaders must be able to recognize bias and directly address it while intentionally promoting equitable treatment. Implementing a comprehensive company-wide strategy to tackle prejudice and discrimination is paramount. Leadership training, team discussions, resources for learning and allyship, tracking accountability and diversity metrics, and employee experience surveys can all contribute to creating a more inclusive workplace.

Leader traits: authenticity, vulnerability and transparency

Leaders who lack compassion or emotional intelligence fail to inspire trust or instill a sense of belonging, shared value and responsibility. Building authentic relationships, understanding team members personally and fostering human connectivity engender openness, cohesiveness and a culture of willingness to experiment, fail and learn. Transparency is another significant aspect of psychological safety; leaders must openly communicate successes and challenges within the team and company. This approach slows the rumor mill and makes employees feel valued and aligned with the larger mission.

Valuing diverse perspectives and creating space for contributions are also essential. People leaders must create safe spaces for others to voice their opinions and encourage introverted or timid team members to contribute. Leveraging team dynamics, leaders can prompt individuals who may want or need to speak up to share their insights. Moreover, providing validation and praise to encourage those hesitant to contribute can cultivate an inclusive and psychologically safe work environment.

Psychological safety is a shared responsibility

Everyone has the power to build safe relationships, voice their opinions openly and intervene in unhealthy situations. This includes workplace bullying. Real change starts with humility, empathy and a willingness to learn and adapt. As Humana’s Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, I recognize that it is our collective goal and responsibility to create a culture where all employees feel a sense of belonging, connection and opportunity.

Psychological safety serves as the foundation for achieving these goals. This is critical for a health and wellness company like Humana, as our customer base includes vulnerable populations, seniors, Medicare and Medicaid members, families, military personnel, primary and specialty medical care patients and several other communities nationwide. Their care is directly connected to how we care for our employees.

America is at a pivotal inflection point in workforce relations. As a nation, we must recognize the significance of psychological safety at work and take proactive steps to nurture it in all workplaces. Doing so can create inclusive and thriving environments that benefit employees, companies and communities.

The described horrific experiences of Dr. Candia-Bailey underscore the importance of this issue. Failing to address and advance psychological safety at work can have detrimental and tragic consequences for all involved.

Learn more about the role of psychological safety in creating people-centric cultures at HRE‘s upcoming EPIC Conference, April 24-26 in Las Vegas. Click here to register.


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