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Leading Off
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The world’s biggest psychological experiment.’ That’s what the World Economic Forum said about crisis-related lockdowns at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also warned of secondary epidemics of burnout, stress, and anxiety. A year later, we’ve seen an increase in not only those areas but also mental-health awareness and resources in the workplace. Companies are starting to understand the importance of employee health for company performance better, but there’s still a long way to go. This week, we explore how leaders can foster a psychologically safe work environment with the same focus and commitment that they dedicate to other business goals.
Prioritize psychological safety
Harvard’s Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in a 1999 journal article exploring its relationship to team learning and performance. In Edmondson’s own words: “Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.” The benefits of psychological safety are clear: a more active exchange of ideas among employees, positive team environments, and companies that are more adaptable to change, to name a few. Yet a recent McKinsey Global Survey finds that very few business leaders are demonstrating behaviors that will result in a psychologically safe workforce. Working from home and participating in mostly virtual meetings can make that goal even harder.
As you navigate the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and direct the way to the next normal, you have an opportunity to develop strategies and resources to build a workplace that promotes psychological safety and well-being in a sustainable way. And the process starts with you: leaders can be emotional contagions, so step one is to manage your own stress and lead by example. Then start scaling up leadership-training programs that work—ones that teach leaders how to empower others, show situational awareness, and exhibit consultative and supportive leadership.
A big number exhibit
That’s the percentage of respondents who believe it’s an essential responsibility of business leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace, per a US survey. Psychological safety is important for not only individuals but also team performance. Explore more insights into psychological safety in the McKinsey Quarterly Five Fifty interactive “Is it safe?
“Invest in training to equip leaders with the skills, language, and norms to support your colleagues.”
McKinsey’s North America managing partner Liz Hilton Segel writes that guidance in “Five ways to design a better mental-health future for a stressed-out workforce.” More than 40 percent of Americans are struggling with mental-health issues related to or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but five actions can help you address the toll.
illustration of a brain
Existing behavioral-health conditions, along with mental and substance-use disorders, have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the December 2020 episode of The McKinsey Podcast, McKinsey Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare co-leaders Kana Enomoto and Erica Hutchins Coe explore how companies can show that they value employees’ health and try to relieve rising levels of stress and social isolation. On an individual level, Hutchins Coe says, “Never underestimate the impact that human connection can have. You need to deliberately build it into your day.”
illustration of headless statues
Workplace stressors—including long hours and intense job demands—can be as harmful as secondhand smoke to employees’ health. A McKinsey study found that 60 percent of employers have started or expanded behavioral-health services amid the COVID-19 crisis, but many don’t have an accurate assessment of the mental health of their workforces. Try taking the pulse of your team and putting in place formal ways to measure well-being. With more concrete information, you can drive leadership commitment to and accountability for progress. Employees who feel that their organizations are proactive in such efforts are six times more likely than others to report positive well-being, so there’s a lot to gain.
Lead well.
— Edited by Dana Sand, an editorial production manager in McKinsey’s Atlanta office
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