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Let's Talk About Psychological Safety at Work

Once upon a time, I was “quiet fired” for explaining to a CEO, clearly and kindly—during Mental Health Awareness Month, after being invited to do so—what she could personally do to better support the mental health of her employees.

I’m still stunned, to be honest. After all, I hadn’t asked for anything she wouldn’t find in 1000+ breezy #management posts on LinkedIn every day.

The written summary I provided following our meeting included items like:

Keep feedback kind, specific, and constructive. We are all on the same team.

When negative feedback is necessary, use 1-1 channels, not group email threads or public Slack channels. A group meeting is never the right setting for feedback on individual job performance.

When making a request, be specific and detailed. Don’t ask employees to guess what you want, then punish them for guessing incorrectly.

Apologizing for unkind words after the fact is important, but genuinely recognizing the impacts of those words and taking steps to prevent future harmful behavior is even more important.

What I was asking for is basic psychological safety at work.

And what is missing from most workplace conversations about mental health is an acknowledgement of the relationship between the two.

Not too long ago UKG's Workforce Institute published research showing that our managers can impact our mental health as profoundly as our spouses/partners. The LinkedIn community responded with lightbulb emojis, but we all deeply understand the truth of that finding, especially if we’ve suffered at the hands of a careless or unkind leader.

For an organization to function effectively, employees must feel safe taking risks without fear of retribution or ridicule. Without that safety, true innovation is impossible. Decisions are made without adequate consideration of all viewpoints. Morale suffers, and turnover follows. New employees are onboarded, quickly internalize the culture of silence, and complete the same cycle. It never ends.

More importantly, the humans at the heart of the organization suffer the long-lasting negative impacts of fear and uncertainty on their mental health.

The CEO mentioned above happens to be a master of retribution and ridicule. It is well known within her company that getting sideways of her is a professional death sentence, a fear that she stokes on the daily through snide comments about employees she finds “annoying” and how she might “manage them out.”

(“Managing out” is what we old folx call quiet firing. It’s how bad managers get rid of high-performing employees they don’t want around anymore.

And let’s be clear: It’s abuse.)

I was targeted because I’d asked for leadership’s support in managing work-related stress. Stress that was profoundly and negatively impacting both my mental and physical health. Stress that was entirely preventable and 100% attributable to leadership’s failure to provide an environment in which I could reasonably expect kindness and respect in exchange for fresh ideas and a job well done.

It's really not such a big ask.

Yet day after day in my practice, I work with smart, talented people who are paralyzed by fear: fear of losing their jobs, of damaging their reputations, and of tanking their future employability if they don't comply and stay silent in an unsafe workplace.

Toxicity is positively epidemic. Just this week, Arthur Chan shared an insightful list of symptoms common to toxic workplaces, including resource- and information-hoarding, micromanagement, gaslighting, and lack of trust. If you’ve ever described your own persistent mental health challenges as “work stress,” there’s an extremely good chance you’re familiar with those symptoms.

If you feel psychologically unsafe in your job, you’re at increased risk for anxiety, depression, problematic substance use, burnout, and even self-harm.

An unsafe workplace (they’re called “toxic” for a reason) can even wreak havoc on your physical health:

  • Lowering your immunity.

  • Causing GI problems and headaches.

  • Making it harder to concentrate and sleep.

  • Causing neck, shoulder, and back pain.

  • Exacerbating chronic illness symptoms and allergies.

  • Even increasing your risk for heart problems or stroke.

Each year when May rolls around, our employers encourage us to share our stories:

How have our lives been affected by our struggles with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions?

How have we overcome those challenges?

No more stigma! Share your truth!

But for a great many of us, that truth is inconvenient.

Our mental health is in the toilet because our workplaces are toxic cesspools. There will be no “overcoming” because there is no way out, and we will absolutely be stigmatized—even targeted—if we share openly about our experiences.

So instead, we drink too much.

We can’t sleep.

We snap at our kids.

We get sick.

We get sad.

May comes and goes, and (surprise!) we’re no better for the group meditations and pithy social media posts. And the company that cared so much about our mental health last month continues to do nothing to create the kind of psychologically safe environment that might meaningfully improve it.

If you have the power to improve psychological safety within your organization (without risking your own job or mental health), you have a moral obligation to do so. Your employees and their families are counting on you.

Bonus: It'll be good for the bottom line.

If, as is more likely, you don't have that power, there are things you can do to reduce the long-term impacts of your harmful environment:

  1. Seek validation and support from within your organization. Talk about your experience with a trusted coworker. Sometimes a simple "That happened to me too" is enough to erase the self-doubt and self-blame that pervade cultures of silence and fear.

  2. Seek professional support from someone who can create a safe and affirming space in which to process your difficult emotions about work and help you problem-solve.

  3. Make a plan—even if it's very long-term—to remove yourself from the harmful workplace.

  4. Attend daily and intentionally to your frazzled nervous system. Practices that build resilience include:

    • Gentle movement (walking, dancing, Hatha yoga).

    • Cuddling with a partner or pet.

    • Singing.

    • Spending time in nature, especially barefoot.

    • Cold showers.

    • Meditation and breath work.

Here's the TL;DR: A toxic work environment is bad for your health. Period.

I’m not a big fan of ingesting poison every day if I can help it. You?

You deserve to feel safe at work.

Need some support with this? A 30-minute free consultation is a great way to explore some ideas and see if I might be the right coach for you.


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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