The signs and symptoms of burnout were already showing themselves on a daily basis by the time Paula Davis identified their cause.
It was 2009, and Davis was working as part of the in-house legal team for a large firm. After having panic attacks on a near daily basis for a year, and ending up in the emergency room twice, she decided to quit her job. “I didn’t understand at all what it was or what caused it,” she says.
Since then, Davis has dedicated herself to studying the signs and symptoms of burnout and teaching others how to avoid suffering the same fate, founding the Stress and Resilience Institute and authoring a book called Beating Burnout at Work. She believes there is a strong correlation between “psychological safety” and burnout prevention.
Psychological safety, a concept pioneered in the 1960s and then largely abandoned until the late 1990s, refers to an environment or relationship in which members aren’t afraid to speak up, be themselves, admit to their mistakes, or offer honest feedback.
“I used to leave ‘Paula’ in the car when I was a lawyer, and showed up as I thought a lawyer should be; I left my kindness and my zest and enthusiasm behind,” Davis says. “When we have to stop being who we are or change who we are or adapt to who we think we need to be—because we are looking to fit in—it shows we don’t feel like we belong, and it’s enormously wearing. It’s really exhausting to not be our whole selves.”
That exhaustion might only show itself in subtle ways at first, Davis says, but it compounds over time, and can eventually develop into larger problems, such as burnout. Davis adds that the biggest misconception about burnout is that the cause and solution are internal, and that it’s up to the individual to monitor, prevent, and work through independently.
“It’s become a self-help-ified individual problem, when in reality it’s more of a complex workplace-leader-team-culture issue,” she says. “That’s the lens that we need to start looking at it with, instead of thinking we can yoga our way out of it.”
Our Growing Understanding of Psychological Safety
Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor of leadership and management who is widely credited for the term’s renaissance in recent years, says our understanding of psychological safety has grown immensely in a relatively short period.
“There’s been more and more research put out there from different kinds of workplaces that show a relationship between psychological safety and other things like learning, or reporting mistakes, or innovation,” Edmondson says. “There is research that suggests it’s not about the challenge or the stress of your job that predicts burnout or leaving, it’s the absence of someone to talk to about the challenge or the stress.”
The other big change she’s observed in recent years is the growing understanding of psychological safety’s connection to diversity and inclusion. “Now that we have an even greater mandate to worry about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, a connection between that goal and a psychologically safe workplace has become an area for people to think about and study and work on,” she says.
A 2015 report coauthored by Edmondson, for example, suggests psychological safety can be an “antidote” for creating a workplace that benefits from a diversity of backgrounds, thoughts, and experiences.
Fostering a Psychologically Safe Work Environment
As our understanding of psychological safety grows so does our understanding of how it’s developed, nurtured, and scaled in the workplace.
“In particular, people in positions of power or supervision can and do create more psychological safety when they ask more questions, listen to the answers, and when they acknowledge their own shortcomings,” Edmondson says. “By shortcomings I don’t mean terrible failings, I mean saying ‘I’m not an expert on that; I’ll rely on your input there,’ or ‘I might have missed something; I’d like to hear from you.'”
Edmondson explains that these often-subtle invitations for candor and honesty breed a culture where employees feel comfortable bringing forward ideas, admitting to their mistakes, and providing honest feedback without fear of repercussion.
“Ordinary statements of opportunity for others to contribute makes a big difference; asking good questions makes a big difference; having a productive response to someone suggesting a crazy idea or admitting to a mistake makes a big difference,” she says. “These are micro-interpersonal interactions that by and large invite and don’t punish candor when it comes along.”
Psychological safety often also requires a degree of emotional intelligence on the part of the leader. Key attributes of emotional intelligence—including courage, curiosity, and self-awareness—are all important prerequisites, explains Laura Delizonna, a Stanford University instructor, speaker, author, and executive coach who specializes in helping teams foster psychological safety.
“Psychological safety is generally built in the gray zones,” she says. “It’s built in the moments where you mess up and you have to clean up your mess, in how you own that behavior, and in how you speak to your missteps. ”
Practices that Promote Psychological Safety
Delizonna explains that psychological safety can be built upon or broken down in just about any workplace interaction, but there are some specific policies and practices that can help foster a more psychologically safe working environment.
For example, she recommends hosting regularly scheduled town hall meetings where any member of the organization can pose any question or idea to upper management. Delizonna emphasizes that just hosting the meeting isn’t enough, adding that leaders need to demonstrate how they’re taking ideas, complaints, and suggestions seriously in order to encourage others to speak freely.
She also recommends instituting regular office hours, during which any member of the organization can book a few minutes of one-on-one time with senior leadership, and creating an anonymous suggestion box.
“Conduct pulse surveys asking questions on a frequent basis about aspects of psychological safety, like Do you feel like you can bring your ideas forward? Do you feel like you’re being heard? Do you feel safe bringing feedback to your boss or manager?” she says. “Getting frequent feedback can really increase the self-awareness of the leader and illuminate when and how psychological safety is being built, and when it’s being broken.”
Delizonna adds that psychological safety isn’t about being nice or polite, which is a common misunderstanding, but about being honest, transparent, and authentic. That mindset also extends to conflicts and difficult conversations, even terminations; it’s not about being kind, but about being constructive.
“Positive conflict is what differentiates a psychologically safe environment from a nice environment,” she says. “Some of the nicest environments are the least psychologically safe, but when you can engage in positive conflict and constructive feedback with care and candor—when people can say hard truths to each other—that’s when you really know you have a psychologically safe environment.”