Workplace Wellbeing

External Work Pressures Affect All Employees. Here are 4 Leadership Strategies for Building Trust and Psychological Safety.

Many employees struggle with personal stressors their managers never know about—impacting productivity and engagement. Discover how to build trust and provide the support they need.

Written by
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Dr. Amy Marschall
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
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    When you hire an employee, you’re not just adding a new team member with the skills you need.You’re also taking on responsibility for their physical and mental well-being, especially during work hours. 

    Factors like toxic work environments, unclear managerial boundaries, and overly strict policies can erode trust in leadership, causing stress, reduced job satisfaction, and higher turnover rates.

    In the current world, employees face numerous stressors and challenges, both in their professional and personal lives. Employers have a unique chance to tackle workplace stressors and extend a helping hand for personal challenges, but this necessitates a foundation of trust between employers and employees.

    It’s common for employers to feel unsure about how to create a psychologically safe workplace and establish trust within their team members. This article offers practical steps for building trust and promoting safe environments for your employees. 

    Understanding external work pressures

    The TV series Severance features a unique concept where employees undergo brain surgery, causing them to forget their personal identities while at work. But in the real world, we all carry personal pressures, stressors, and concerns into the workplace with us—whether we choose to disclose them or not.

    These personal challenges can range from conflicts at home, strained relationships, or family issues to dealing with accidents and crises, grieving the loss of a loved one, undergoing medical treatments, or navigating infertility. They often affect productivity and engagement, no matter how positive and supportive a workplace environment may be.

    While employers may not always be able to address every personal issue directly, they can still offer support and cultivate psychological safety in the workplace. By fostering an environment of psychological safety, leadership can enhance employee well-being and productivity. 

    How to build trust and psychological safety in the workplace

    Building trust at work involves many factors. Use the following tips and actionable steps to create a psychologically safe work environment.

    The role of empathy in building trust

    Many leaders take an authoritative approach to managing, emphasizing productivity over individual well-being. It’s crucial to provide training that shifts this approach toward empathy, helping leaders learn how to genuinely care about their team members’ needs and adapt to their circumstances.

    When crafting company policies, prioritize the welfare of your workers over profitability. Actively involve employees in policy development by seeking their feedback, and listen attentively to tailor the work environment to better support your team. 

    Empathy serves to cultivate a sense of security, not to exploit personal information. If employees feel safe enough to confide in you, honor that trust by never using their disclosures against them. Creating a psychologically safe workplace means respecting the sanctity of personal information and fostering an environment where individuals feel valued and supported.

    Picking up on cues and checking in

    When an employee faces difficulties, many managers resort to disciplinary measures as a solution. However, leading with empathy means approaching the situation with care, aiming to understand and address the root cause of the problem.

    Pay attention to signs that something could be wrong with an employee, and check in with them to see how they’re doing. 

    It’s important to communicate that check-ins aren’t disciplinary, but opportunities for support and guidance. Employ empathy and active listening during these check-ins, validating and addressing the employee’s concerns without minimizing them. 

    Instead of reserving meetings to touch base solely for struggling employees, integrate them into regular workplace routines. This proactive approach allows employees to share their challenges, enabling employers to address issues before they affect productivity. 

    In psychologically safe workplaces, open-door policies with Human Resources are essential. This allows employees to raise concerns as needed, knowing they’ll be promptly and effectively addressed. Taking swift action demonstrates trustworthiness and signals to employees that their voices are valued and their well-being is prioritized.

    Asking what’s going on

    To address issues effectively, encourage open dialogue and ensure employees feel safe expressing any concerns they may have.

    Recognizing the inherent power dynamics in workplace relationships is essential. Management holds authority over employees, which can create discomfort in sharing personal or professional issues. Acknowledging this power dynamic and assuring employees they can decide what they’re comfortable sharing is important. Trust is built by respecting their boundaries and choices regarding disclosure. 

    If management is concerned about an employee, initiating a check-in is appropriate. This must begin with clear communication affirming the employee’s right to control the information they share. Employers must pose non-judgmental and open-ended questions, allowing employees to decide how much they wish to disclose. 

    Transparency is key throughout this process. Managers, openly communicate your concerns and intentions, ensuring employees understand the purpose and content of the discussion. 

    How to address heavier external work pressures

    In environments where trust and safety are cultivated by management, employees may choose to disclose more severe external pressures affecting their well-being and productivity. In these cases, leadership must create safe, empathetic spaces for employees to share and receive support. 

    This support could manifest in various forms, such as FMLA leave, flexible scheduling, or other accommodations tailored to their needs. Avoid pressuring employees for further information and respect their autonomy in deciding how much they wish to share.

    However, it’s essential to note that support must hinge on an employee’s willingness to disclose personal information. 

    HR leaders can proactively ensure support systems and accommodations are in place and readily accessible to all employees. 

    Maintaining boundaries

    Establishing trust and safety in the workplace involves dismantling barriers that might hinder employees from expressing themselves openly. However, it’s essential to recognize this doesn’t imply an expectation for employees to divulge personal matters. A psychologically safe workplace respects boundaries and safeguards employee privacy, particularly concerning work pressures and personal issues.  

    Initiating discussions about an employee’s personal life can only occur if instigated by the employee. Mandating or pressuring employees to disclose personal information is neither professional nor appropriate. Respecting employees’ autonomy around sharing personal matters is fundamental to cultivating a workplace culture of trust and respect.

    Providing mental health support resources

    Creating a psychologically safe workplace extends beyond fostering open communication with leadership. Including mental health resources in benefits packages significantly enhances employees’ professional and personal well-being. 

    Innovative EAPs like Spring Health offer therapy, coaching, on-demand digital CBT exercises, manager training, and other employee resources like crisis support. 

    While many employees may have access to therapy through workplace health insurance, high copays and deductibles can financially burden these services. A comprehensive mental health benefit provides fast access to mental health support for employees and their families, demonstrating their mental health is a priority.  

    It’s just as important to ensure employees are familiar with the benefits available to them—ideally before they’re dealing with a difficult situation—by talking about them consistently throughout the year. 

    The impact of psychological safety on productivity, engagement, and well-being

    When employees feel genuinely cared for and psychologically safe, they often exhibit higher productivity levels, produce higher-quality work, and are less inclined to leave their jobs. Additionally, a workplace where people are happy is a better place to work 40 hours a week.

    Overlooking employee well-being can result in long-term challenges, such as difficulties in recruiting or retaining top talent. Prioritizing the mental health of your team members isn’t just about fostering a positive work environment in the short term—it’s an investment in the sustained success and resilience of the organization. 

    Taking this approach fosters retention and engagement, increases productivity, and enhances organizational culture. It addresses the diverse needs of your workforce, and creates a supportive workplace where everyone feels valued, respected, and motivated to perform their best.

    Go even deeper into how to unlock growth and innovation in the workplace, driving engagement and securing long-term retention.

    About the Author
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    Dr. Amy Marschall
    Spring Health Provider

    Dr. Amy Marschall is a clinical psychologist licensed in South Dakota, Montana, New York, North Dakota, and Florida. She got her doctorate from the University of Hartford in 2015 and completed her internship at the Psychology Training Consortium, Central Region. She has a full-time clinical private practice, Resiliency Mental Health, where she provides therapy and psychological assessments. She is also a speaker, educator, and author.

    About the clinical reviewer
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