Creating an emotionally safe space for employees at the workplace

Soumya Samuel
6 min read
A safe space where employees can voice their emotions.

Let’s acknowledge our collective moment of truth

The pandemic has shown us, in more ways than one, that emotions can't exactly be checked at the doors of our offices.

This year has been a difficult one for all of us. Just as we were getting back to some normalcy after the first wave of the pandemic, life was upended again. And this time, it was more devastating than the last. While we were all in the same storm, everyone experienced the impact of this in different ways: recovering from the illness, having to take care of sick family members, getting by with the available finances, grieving the loss of colleagues and loved ones, managing work pressure and family, and so much more.

There was a lot of fear, concern, loss, grief, anxiety, and uncertainty everywhere.

Including our workplaces.

At the end of the day, a workplace is a collection of people. And where there are people, there is bound to be emotions. No matter how well your people were putting on their prim-and-proper professional mask, beneath it, everyone was dealing with some form of crippling emotion with all that was going around.

We learnt that we can’t always keep going as if nothing is happening.

Even if in a hard way, organizations realized that not acknowledging people’s emotions won’t cause it to naturally ebb away. Suppressing or avoiding emotions can show up as nervous breakdowns, poor performance, fall in productivity, absenteeism, low morale, interpersonal issues and more. And that does not help anyone.

The pandemic has made us realize that even in the workplace, people want to lean in on each other and have a safe space to let go off their masks and embrace their emotions.

What Can Organizations Do to Manage All These Emotions?

People experience a range of emotions. 

Not everyone deals with any given situation in the same way.

You will find around you every type of response to a crisis you can possibly have. Some are unable to be their productive best while there will be others who are over productive. Some choose to go completely silent and not discuss anything while some others may seem like they can’t stop talking.

So how can you make room for all of them?

No, you don’t have to be your employees’ therapists.

Emotions can seem too wishy-washy for a workplace and we get it. And conversations around emotions, especially during crisis situations, can get hard. But here’s the thing: emotional safe space at work doesn’t require you to become a counselor or therapist. Rather, you create a culture of emotional safety where the idea of self-expression is normalized.

What then is an emotional safe space?

  • An environment where employees feel comfortable to express their emotions with peers, managers, and others.
  • The freedom to openly express their concerns, deep thoughts and find a sense of acceptance and understanding among people at work.
  • To know that this form of self-expression and exposure will not jeopardize their respect or worth at a workplace.

Assess Your Organization’s eSSQ – Emotional Safe Space Quotient

Can your employees communicate what they truly feel?

In a lot of organizations, emotions are checked at the doorstep. And for most people, sharing emotional content among a few peers is okay, but reaching out to managers or leadership is a big no-no. Then, and unfortunately so, there are also organizations which choose to sweep emotions under the rug, or see expressing a lot of these emotions as unprofessional too.

So, where do you stand?

Take a hard stock of your organization’s safe space quotient. As an HR, I’m sure, you’ll already have a fair picture but here are some questions that can help validate your thought. Ask these to your leaders, managers, and your own team.

eSSQ Questionnaire for leaders

Do employees at all levels feel comfortable expressing themselves?
Are employees skilled at managing their emotions?
Are there leaders who set example for emotional self-expression?
Do employees feel they can have an honest conversation with their team members?
Are managers equipped to support people’s emotions?

If your answers to most of the above questions is a ‘YES’, then you are doing a pretty good job when it comes to creating an emotional safe space at work. Just keep at what you are doing and introduce practices that can enable you to deal with the current crisis.

If you had equal number of ‘YES’ and ‘NO’, let’s say you are doing a good job but there is scope for improvement. And this means, now is a good time to strengthen your practices around emotional safety.

And if you responded with more ‘NOs', then consider this a red flag. It is time for your organization to step up the emotional safety.

For those of you who are still wondering, why create emotional safe spaces? Here’s our answer.

You can also go the transactional way if getting work done from your employees is all you are aiming for. But keeping the human side out of the equation in a crisis is next to impossible. Enabling an emotionally safe space has a direct impact on the engagement and wellbeing levels of your employees.

A research by Great Place to Work shows that crisis times provides organizations with the opportunity to deepen trust and commitment with employees in ways that not only ensure employee wellbeing but also position the organization for better business success when the crisis is over.

Empathy, Certainty & Trust Can Go a Long Way.

At an organizational level, the key to building an emotional safe space lies in demonstrating and driving empathy, certainty and trust. And how can you do that?

  1. Maintain consistent and regular communication: Be transparent and share organizational updates with employees. Even when you don’t have all the information, employees will appreciate your efforts to share whatever information you have handy right now.
  2. Show that you care: In your words, actions and deeds, let employees see and know that the leadership is always taking into account the impact of their decisions on the employees. And establish policies and practices that see people as human and not just resources for the organization.
  3. Tell employees about the employee wellbeing resources that you have: Make a list of existing resources that employees can make use of for their emotional wellbeing. This could be counseling via your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), discounts on medical bills, any new policies introduced and more.
  4. Lead by example: If, as a leader, you seem collected and in control, your people are going to find it difficult to be vulnerable themselves. So if you are afraid or uncertain, or going through personal challenges yourself, share it with your team. Being vulnerable is the most courageous thing you can do and that will also instill trust in your employees to go ahead and be their vulnerable selves. And encourage discussions that go beyond work and deadlines. Check in on how employees and their families are doing.
  5. Know what your employees need: There is no space or scope for assumption here. It is important to know the overall sentiment of your employees and understand what they expect from you. And for this, pulse surveys are the best. Pulse surveys are regular, short surveys you can send to your employees to gauge the pulse of the organization.

If there is anyone who can be the flagbearers of building an emotionally safe workplace, then it is got to be your managers. Your managers interact directly and daily with your employees.  

So, how can you empower managers to drive the kind of emotional safe space that will make employees feel cared for and supported?

  1. Resources, resources and resources: Make resources around emotions, stress management, conflict resolution, mindfulness and more available to managers. And open up forums on any of your communication channels for managers to discuss and get advice from one another on matters affecting their team. Peer support is crucial.
  2. Encourage managers to conduct frequent check-ins: Given the current crisis, it is ideal to have daily 1-on-1 check-ins with your team members. And by check-ins, we encourage you to help your managers to drive conversations beyond work. Ask about an employee, their wellbeing, their family’s wellbeing, their mental state, their ability to work, and more. Also, as an advice to managers: listen more, talk less during the check-ins.
  3. Ensure managers are aware of the resources & policies: Give your managers an update on any latest policy that has been introduced for employees. This way, managers will be able to guide individual members of the team towards the right resources.
  4. Have no-agenda get-together: Not all talk needs to be around work, and not all conversations need to be about deadlines. Get together to talk about common interests, play games or just have coffee together. Finding and celebrating togetherness can be de-stressing for employees.

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Soumya Samuel

Soumya Samuel

Soumya Samuel is a Content Marketer with over a decade of experience. She's a dedicated professional, harnessing her expertise to craft strategic content that empowers businesses.