Emotional Safety at Work: Why It’s Important

Written by: Jennifer Whitacre

“Come here, Max.  C’mon kitty kitty kitty,” my son said as he patted the sofa cushion.  Max sauntered around the living room as cats do before jumping onto my son’s lap.

I was sitting on the other end of the sofa messing with the remote control when I heard Max make a gagging sound.  I looked over at my son and he awkwardly was holding-on to Max who looked like he was trying to slide off of my son’s lap.  Strange, I’ve never seen a cat do this before.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to hold him, mom.  He just started falling off my lap.”

By this time, I had dropped the remote and scooted next to my son.  When I put my hands on the cat to help my son lift him back onto the sofa, I knew something wasn’t right.  The cat was limp and floppy.  I pried his mouth open to see if he had choked and could see no obstructions.  He was getting air in just a few moments ago.

I could feel a rush of panic as I ran to the kitchen to call the vet.  When the receptionist answered the phone, I said, “Thank goodness you’re still open!”  At this point, I lost it, and I was trying to explain what happened between sobs and tears.  My poor son was crying, too.  All I remember is that she said we could see the vet if we got there before closing time.

We bundled our limp, floppy cat into a bath towel and ran to the car.  That was one of the longest 8 minute-drives of my life.  That cat is part of our family, and we were scared.

We arrived with a few minutes to spare, and the vet took us right in to an exam room.  She confirmed what we weren’t willing to admit—that our beloved Max was dead.  She surmised it was a heart attack based on what we told her coupled with Max’s age.  We left the lifeless, furry bundle for cremation and retreated back to the house with a proverbial dark cloud of sadness.

It was well past my son’s bedtime, and the next day was a school day, so I let him sleep in my room that night.  We cuddled and cried, and eventually he drifted off to sleep.  Meanwhile, I lay awake with a heavy heart and a lot on my mind.  My son was only 4 ½ years old, and I wasn’t sure if he fully understood death.  I really just wanted to stay home with him the next day so we could come to terms with all that had just taken place.

The next morning, I reached out to the principal of the school, who was also my boss.  I explained to her what had happened, and her response was cold.  Needless to say, I was not granted permission to call off work, so we reluctantly went to school that day. 

There was a small sense of comfort knowing we would be in the same building, and there was also a sense of increased anxiety because of the unspoken rule that animals are not important enough to warrant time to grieve.  We had to put on our stoic faces and trudge through the day.  The principal was a micro-manager, and that was challenging for both staff and students.

Having to hide my emotions increased my levels of stress.  Holding-in those emotions took all the attention I had, and I ended-up giving my students more study time and individual reading time than normal. 

My productivity plummeted for several days after Max’s death, and my indignation toward my boss increased proportionately.  For months afterwards, I found myself cringing at the sound of her voice.  It didn’t matter how beneficial they were, I was resistant to any ideas she tried to implement.  Her insensitivity to our grief had a lasting effect on me and my attitude towards work.

This stayed with me over time.  I had lost trust in her, and I had lost respect for her because she showed no compassion or concern for us.  It wasn’t intentional on my part to became resentful of her, but that’s what happened.   My anxiety levels skyrocketed, and they remained elevated the remainder of the time I worked for her, 2 ½ more years.

I was not a great teacher under this principal, and much of that was due to the dread and anxiety I experienced on a daily basis because I believed I couldn’t truly be me at work.  I loathed having to hide behind a mask of happiness and obedience.

That was over a decade ago, I have moved far beyond that time in my life.  I have since switched careers, and I am now a Myofascial Release Therapist and an Empowerment Strategist.  I see an eerily similar dynamic often with my clients.

What exactly is this dynamic?  It’s a lack of emotional safety at work.

What is emotional safety?  Emotional safety is an internal, positive feeling that we experience when we are able to express freely our emotions in a calm, rational way without fear.  In an emotionally safe work environment, an employee would be able to approach a manager, supervisor, or boss and explain a scenario like the one my son and I experienced, and the grief and anxiety we felt would have been acknowledged and validated, not dismissed as silly and insignificant.  Ideally, an emotionally intelligent boss would have expressed empathy, compassion, understanding, and maybe even a little time to manage our grief over the loss of a beloved pet.

To some of you, it may sound irrational to grant an employee time off due to the loss of a pet or any other seemingly minor or insignificant issue.  I’ve heard the argument that bosses don’t want to start being lenient with one employee because everyone will start to expect it.  Have you considered the benefits of implementing a flexible, emotionally safe work environment?

Employees who feel emotionally safe will express gratitude that you cared enough about them to listen, to accommodate, and to be flexible.  One of the ways they will express that gratitude is with loyalty.  When employees are treated like humans and not assets, they are more likely to experience job satisfaction which can lead to less turnover. 

Why is this important?  When employees do not feel emotionally safe, the impact can come at great cost to both the employee and the employer.  The cost happens in subtle ways and can become significant.  In my case, it was years after leaving that job before I realized this incident was the catalyst for animosity that developed between that principal and me.  Because I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my petulant and self-sabotaging behaviors reared their ugly heads when I was around her.

If my experience affected me for years, imagine how much greater the effect is in people who have ongoing issues with which to contend: maternity leave, illnesses, medical treatments, accidents, and other emergencies, to name a few.  This type of stress takes a toll on our mental health, our emotional health, our physical health, and sometimes our spiritual health.

Since this happened to us, I’ve learned a lot and have gained years of experience both personally and professionally.  Employees, who feel emotionally unsafe at work, experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.  They are less productive and more likely to develop chronic health issues.  They are less willing to cooperate and collaborate in teams or on projects.  They often miss deadlines and take more time off work.  They are less likely to have a positive attitude.  They are resistant to speaking up at meetings.  They are more likely to quit.  They are more likely to be sick with viral or bacterial contagions.  All of this creates low morale which comes at a financial cost to the employer.

How can a business create an emotionally safe environment?  Below are some tips that will help you get started.  No two businesses have identical needs.  Have conversations with your leadership team and research other resources. There are also consultants who can help you implement an emotionally safe environment. 

In the meantime, consider these points:

  • Openly discuss emotional safety at work.  Begin meetings with an open discussion about emotional safety and ask for feedback.
  • Walk the walk.  Set the example of how to be an emotionally safe employer, manager, boss, supervisor, etc.
  • Be clear, concise, and strict with policies such as sexual harassment policies or bullying policies.  Follow through with predetermined consequences when someone violates a policy.  No exceptions!
  • Discourage inappropriate, degrading, shaming humor at work.  Discuss the spectrum of words and actions that are/aren’t acceptable.
  • Discuss and encourage responsibility and accountability.
  • Make compassion and empathy part of the company policy.  Be flexible with employees who are experiencing personal struggles.  If work is a place of support, they will want to show-up, and they will be more productive.
  • Encourage curiosity and learning.  Compassion and empathy flourish in such an environment.
  • Teach employees how to listen with the intent to understand rather than the intent to respond.

An emotionally unsafe work environment affects employees far longer than you would imagine, and it costs the company valuable human and financial resources.  In my case, I know myself well enough to know that I would have been grateful beyond measure if I had been granted even half a day so my son and I could have time to grieve together.  That experience taught me how not to treat other people.  I’m grateful that I had the wisdom to see the hidden lesson in my experience and that I can share the impact and importance of creating emotionally safe environments.

Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business.” 
Richard Branson

image credit:
Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash