Once upon a time, workplace safety conversations focused on tangible physical dangers that workers faced. Labourers operated heavy machinery with little to no safety equipment. The work environment was treacherous and accidents lurked around every corner. The physical threats were clear, and the consequences when things went wrong were often immediate and devastating.
Fast forward to today, and workplace safety has transformed. While substantial progress has been made in addressing physical hazards in the workplace, there is now a different set of challenges. These challenges are often less visible but equally significant. They are psychological threats.
The dangers that employees face today are subtle. They are often hidden beneath the surface. These are not physical dangers, but instead psychological threats. They loiter in workplace culture, relationships and conversations.
The Undercover Threats
The modern psychological threats of the workplace manifest in various ways. They include:
Imposter Syndrome: You’re excelling at your job but there is a nagging feeling that you are just pretending to be competent. You’re unsure if your performance meets expectations and self-doubt casts a shadow over your accomplishments.
Invisible Hard Work: You work tirelessly, yet your efforts seem invisible. Your hard work goes unnoticed, leaving you feeling unappreciated and undervalued.
Job Insecurity: The quiet whispers of job cuts create a constant fear of redundancy. Job insecurity, whether real or imagined, keeps you and your colleagues on edge. This impacts both mental and emotional wellbeing.
Undermining: Managers’ or colleagues’ subtle undermining, whether intentional or perceived, can pierce through your confidence and leave lasting wounds.
Unlike physical safety concerns, these psychological threats revolve around how we perceive ourselves and interact with others.
The Ripple Effect
These threats may seem subtle, yet they create ripples that spread far and wide within an organisation. They deserve our attention as much as physical dangers. They may not leave physical scars, but they can have far-reaching and long-term effects on both individuals and organisations.
When we sense a threat, our bodies react with what’s known as the “acute stress response.” It’s like the body’s alarm system. Cortisol rushes in, adrenaline surges, and blood gets diverted away from our brain’s thinking centre. Our stress responses trigger our fight-or-flight mode. We react quickly and instinctively instead of thinking logically.
Here are some of the impacts that psychological threats, both perceived and real, can have at work:
Decision-Making: Stress-induced fight-or-flight responses can result in impulsive decision-making rather than thoughtful, strategic choices. This can affect the quality of decisions made in high-pressure situations that will affect the entire team.
Communication Breakdown: Elevated stress levels hinder effective communication. When people feel threatened, open dialogue is simply not possible.
Strained Relationships: Psychological threats have a profound influence on workplace relationships. When individuals feel threatened or undervalued, it can lead to strained interactions, conflicts, and reduced collaboration.
Mental and Emotional Wellbeing: Persistent stress and fear because of psychological threats at work can lead to anxiety, job dissatisfaction, and even burnout.
The Power to Transform: What can we do?
The good news is that we all possess tools that can counter some of these psychological threats. With awareness and consideration, you can help reduce the impact of psychological threats on yourself and those around you.
⚙️ Become more self-aware. Pay attention to your body’s response to stress. When you know your body’s signals, you gain the power to respond consciously rather than react impulsively out of fear.
⚙️ Practice mindfulness and relaxation. Incorporate mindfulness and relaxation techniques into your routines. These practices can be powerful antidotes to stress and will support you to regain control over your reactions.
⚙️ Assess the threat and establish if it’s real or perceived. Our bodies react similarly to real, perceived, and imagined threats. Your feelings may misunderstand the danger level. Take a step back, breathe, and assess before jumping into action.
⚙️ Pause. When tensions run high, and discussions become heated, step away for a breather. It takes about an hour for your body’s stress response to subside, so stepping away can allow everyone to cool down and return to the discussion with a clearer mindset, ready for productive dialogue.
A Psychologically Safe Workplace
Physical threats have largely given way to psychological ones in the current workplace. To overcome these challenges, we must understand our stress responses and actively implement strategies that allow us to respond well and address some of these subtle yet impactful challenges.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace is a shared responsibility. Employers, managers, and co-workers all bear the responsibility of building an environment where everyone can express themselves, share ideas, and feel genuinely valued and supported, regardless of their role. By working together, we can transform our workplaces into inclusive, nurturing, and emotionally healthy spaces for all effectively countering the hidden menace of modern psychological threats.
Want to know more?
Sarah Harvey is Founding Director of Savvy Conversations Ltd and author of the highly acclaimed book “Savvy Conversations: A practical framework for effective workplace relationships.”
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/savvysarah
X (Formerly Twitter): @SarahSavvySarah