Workplace Well-being: How psychological safety & great managers create the best places to work

Workplace Well-being: How psychological safety & great managers create the best places to work

Table of Contents

“Workplace well-being”, “psychological safety” and “employee mental health” may be buzzwords of the moment —but for good reason. 


  • Anxiety and depression continue to siphon a trillion dollars annually from the world economy.
  • 1 in 5 adults suffers from a mental health challenge (and less than half are receiving care). 
  • Mental health conditions are more common in the workforce than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

Nearly 2 in 3 organizations report they’re worried about employee mental and physical health. And nearly 90% of employers agree that mental health, stress, and burnout are a priority. 

Increasingly, leaders are awakening to the fact that when it comes to creating better experiences at work, the onus is on them. The workplace can either be a powerful force for employee health, or it can be a source of chronic stress, burnout, and dysfunction. What kind of employee experience will they create?

With an ongoing global health crisis, rising inflation, military aggression unprecedented since WWII, and personal rifts caused by political silos, it’s time we take the issue of mental health very, very seriously. 

No more stigma. No more silence. Whether injuries are mental or physical, emotional or material—it’s time to do something. 

But where do we start?

Psychological safety is everything

If you had to guess which single attribute 90% of employees named “essential” for work, what would you say? 

The answer: psychological safety.

It’s that quality of knowing that you won’t be punished, shamed, or marginalized for speaking up, standing out, taking chances, asking questions, or making honest mistakes. 

Psychological safety is the required ground for true diversity, equity, and inclusion. It gives stability in times of crisis, eases fears in times of change, and is the necessary ingredient for thriving employee mental health.

Here’s a staggering fact: almost half of recently surveyed employees say they’re aware of their company’s mental health benefits, but only 1 in 3 would feel comfortable actually using them. That’s a symptom of a lack of psychological safety — and it’s a big one. 

The truth is, psychological safety doesn’t just happen; it takes work to build an environment where people feel safe. 

Looking for more tactics? We’ve got you covered. 6 Ways Psychological Safety Affects Your Company Culture

How great managers promote mental health awareness and workplace well-being

Once you’ve built a solid foundation for workplace well-being with psychological safety, it’s time to turn attention to the times when, despite a healthy workplace culture, people may still struggle. In the whole of an organization, managers are the very best positioned to serve employees who find themselves suffering under the weight of work, personal life, and circumstances beyond their control.

Here are a few tips for managing in a way that promotes employee health:

Sync-Up consistently

HBR surveyed workers during the peak of the pandemic and found that “nearly 40% of global employees reported that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK.” Those same employees were 38% more likely to have experienced mental health decline than those who had support. Asking “How are you? and listening closely to the answer is a powerful intervention.  

Ideally, managers should have one-on-one Sync-Ups with their direct reports at least twice monthly. (Weekly is even better.) Their conversations should include time to talk about personal life, stress and burnout levels, engagement and interest levels, and team dynamics. It’s important for managers to listen without interrupting, ask clarifying questions, look for ways to remove barriers to thriving, and take notes to circle back to in the next meeting. Empathy is key. People need to know that their manager genuinely cares and is positioned as a partner and an ally for their workplace well-being.

Model transparency

A recent study by Predictive Index asked employees “What do you want most from a manager?” This is how they answered:

  • Confidence
  • Communication
  • Honesty
  • Asks for feedback

People feel emotionally safe with a manager who owns mistakes, names their struggles, and talks vulnerably about their own mental health challenges. Along with that, employees are looking for transparent communication — especially about organizational change. According to a recent survey by HBR, people who felt their managers were poor communicators were 23% more likely to suffer mental health challenges during the pandemic. 

But when leaders offer transparent answers to questions and keep communication flowing, people feel safer, more engaged, and less burned out. 

Set a sustainable pace

Great managers set the pace. It may mean logging off at 5:00, ignoring email on the weekends, taking mental health days, and incorporating mindfulness moments into meetings. Leaders serve as gatekeepers for their team members, advocating for their needs and ensuring that work demands stay reasonable to support workplace well-being. 

Sidenote: a manager’s mental health directly impacts their direct reports. Those with a burned out manager are 51% more likely to say that others on their team seem burned out, too.

Set goals collaboratively

When team members set a fresh round of goals with their manager, it creates a future-oriented mindset, instills ownership, and can clarify the ways in which a person’s work supports their most deeply held values. It also provides an opportunity for recognition along the way as employees expend effort and achieve. That’s a powertool for mental health.

Challenge: encourage individuals to set a personal well-being goal during your organization’s mental health month. You can even gamify it with an incentive.

How to support psychological safety and well-being during a crisis

Ok, so we’ve talked about routine support for employee health. What do you do when the world erupts, leadership announces a shocking change, or there’s an act of violence in your city? How do you build and support workplace well-being and employee resilience?

You double down. Here are 9 tips for taking action: 

  1. Increase communication. Anticipate and respond to employee questions with detailed, transparent answers. 
  2. Increase access to mental health support, and incentivize using it. 
  3. Supply more outlets for personal connection.
  4. Encourage managers to meet with individual team members, asking “How are you?”, “What do you need?” and making maximum accommodations.
  5. Increase flexibility (assignments, work hours, etc.) and communicate to your employees that their thriving is your primary concern — not a byproduct or a peripheral agenda.
  6. Listen. Survey to keep a pulse on employee sentiment, measure and monitor changes, keep digging, keep asking, and act on people’s suggestions. 
  7. Keep recognition and gratitude flowing in all directions.
  8. Provide PTO for volunteering. Giving back gives us all a boost. 
  9. Know (and communicate) that you will get through it together. 

The business case for psychological safety and well-being in the workplace 

Need one more great reason to prioritize mental and workplace well-being? Studies show that for every dollar you invest in addressing employee mental health conditions, there’s a 4x return in productivity. That’s pretty powerful ROI.  

If you’re ready to build the kind of employee experience that leads to true thriving, we should talk.


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