Thoughts on Building a Psychologically-Safe Workplace

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Jason Hartfield smiles at the camera. Jason has fair skin, sandy hair, wears round wire glasses and is wearing a blue suit with a dotted tie.

by Jason Hartsfield


Our society has only recently begun to realize that mental health is just as important as physical health. As more and more people have taken to the internet and social media to open up about their own experiences with mental illness, the cultural stigma attached to it has gradually started to dissipate.

For too many of us, though, it still feels like something that must be handled discreetly on our own time, that there’s no room for emotional baggage at work.

But is that reasonable or fair when we spend so many of our waking hours on the clock? Our Career Advisor and Disability Inclusion Lead Consultant, Jason Hartsfield thinks not. Jason, who has personal experience with depression and anxiety, says companies must abandon the misguided assumption that a mental health condition makes an employee unreliable or unproductive.

“We’re still not at a place where taking time off for depression is seen the same as taking time for the flu,” Jason observes. “The truth is, most of us with mental health conditions aren’t asking for enough. We work through the pain because we’re afraid of being seen as less productive, like our illnesses don’t count.”

Just as a new diversity and inclusion initiative begins with an honest appraisal of the current organizational landscape, so too does a new commitment to psychological safety in the workplace.

“Adding mental health conditions to your self-identification campaign for the OFCCP is easy,” Jason explains, “but it won’t create an environment where employees feel safe asking for help or taking the time they need. You need to make a deliberate, long-term commitment.”

Jason has developed a number of tools for managing his own depression and anxiety. But despite his vigilance, the symptoms can occasionally intensify to an unbearable level. This is where an empathetic employer can make all the difference.

“We often forget that we have some ability to choose how we’re going to feel. Part of learning to live with depression and anxiety is learning how to make that choice, how to question and process your own thoughts and feelings in the moment,” Jason observes. “But once in a while a negative thought will overwhelm me. I need that time and space to process it and let it crash over me so I can emerge on the other side.”

Psychological safety means giving employees that space, creating an atmosphere where employees have the time and resources to manage their mental health, provided they are still getting their work done.

A judgment-free venue for discussing mental health issues is also paramount. The path to employment for individuals with mental health conditions or other types of disabilities can be long and arduous, often marked by instances of prejudice and discrimination.  There may be some residual pain from such a journey, and the last thing an employer should do is further contribute to that trauma by being skeptical or dismissive.

“The candidates we’ve worked with who’ve had severe, persistent mental health conditions have gone to a lot of effort in their lives to learn to function. As someone who’s been in therapy for almost two decades, I can certainly relate,” Jason concludes. “I’ve done a huge amount of work to learn how to function in a healthy and reliable way. If, after all that work, someone still writes me off as incapable of doing my job, how am I not going to get upset? How can I possibly trust them?”

Aside from offering some schedule flexibility and maybe launching an Employee Resource Group supporting employees with mental health diagnoses, how do you create a work environment that is psychologically safe for everyone? Even if you’re in a managerial or executive-level position, it essentially boils down to the Golden Rule.

“The most important thing you can do is show them that you empathize, that you understand,” Jason suggests. “Dig deep into your personal experience and think about those times you felt completely distraught or overwhelmed. How did you want to be treated in that moment? Did you want to feel judged? Second-guessed? Did you want to be inundated with unsolicited advice? Most of us just want empathy and time to process.”

Finally, it is important to remember that there is no finish line when it comes to building a psychologically safe workplace. It’s a long, imperfect process that only works when everyone is fully invested.

“It’s just like learning to live with a mental health condition. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. There are always new things to learn, new adjustments to be made. There will be mistakes and errors along the way, but don’t let them shut you down,” Jason urges. “That’s part of the process. You’re going to have slip-ups, but just keep moving forward.”

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