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As we enter a season typically all about connection, celebration, and reflecting on our path forward, as a nation we are questioning our basic safety and wondering if this is where we belong.

In a recent nationwide Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association (APA), over a third of Americans said the country has changed so much that they would consider moving somewhere else. Alarmingly, more than a quarter of Americans reported being so stressed that they can’t function.

Factors that are largely out of personal control, such as inflation, violence and crime, and the current social climate, are of the most concern to the large majority of Americans. Most people do not feel that the government cares about them, and worry about their rights being under attack.

Interestingly, annual surveys by the federal government, show no major rise in violent crime since the beginning of the pandemic. Although the murder rate did increase, it is still well below previous highs.

Is the world more unsafe now? Are people showing their real colors by being more selfish, rude, and outspoken? Do you need to guard yourself at work and everywhere else you go?

Let me start with the good news. We are not seeing some radical negative shift in the evolution of humankind. From a physical standpoint, people have not changed significantly in thousands of years. We are actually very simple creatures with clear needs and a very predictable nervous system.

Neuroscientist Stephen Porges and Deb Dana have revealed that human beings have an extremely deep need for certainty, choice, and connection in order to feel safe. If you look at all the concerns people have, they are about not knowing what lies ahead, being trapped without options, and being separated from each another.

Layoffs, money concerns, and radical changes in the way we work can feed these fears all at once. Losing a job simultaneously spurs financial uncertainty, decreases choices, and distances us from our “work family.”

The incessant consumption of “bad news” constantly reminds us of our powerlessness and can literally make us sick. Disease thrives when we lack regular access to a state of physical and mental ease.

To make matters worse, high levels of stress bring out the worst in us. We are all capable of being defensive, illogical, and harsh if the conditions are right. When outside pressure is unrelenting, you will always see people “losing their minds.”

Fortunately, people are also capable of being highly compassionate, collaborative, and conscientious when stress is at a manageable level.

As I mentioned in my previous article on psychological safety, the brain’s stress response is not always that easy to turn off. However, the undisputed source of deepest psychological safety comes through our connection with each other.


The need for psychological safety is always present, even at work.

If the boss embarrasses you in a meeting or insinuates your job may be on the line, your nervous system gets that message loud and clear. If your suggestion is met with judgment and criticism from your team, you are likely to feel unsafe.

Amy Edmondson says psychological safety at work lies in the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

But what about safety around more personal issues, like the death of a loved one, a medical problem you are facing, or the fact that you are divorcing?


The work of psychologist and relationship researcher, Sue Johnson, is based in attachment theory, the study of how human beings form close emotional bonds. She suggests we are always silently asking the following questions of each other:

  • Can I count on you?
  • Are you there for me?
  • Will you respond when I need, when I call?
  • Do I matter to you?
  • Am I valued and accepted by you?
  • Do you need me, rely on me?

The answers to these questions have a profound impact on how we secure how we feel with people. When we are struggling emotionally and going to work, these questions may look more like:

  • Can I be honest about what is really going on with me?
  • Will people respond with kindness and support?
  • Will my coworkers and boss still see me as being of value while I’m going through this hard time?

When you think of your boss, how would you answer these questions?

If you are a leader, how do you think your people would answer?

Obviously, “yes” makes us feel safer. “No” does not. In toxic work environments, the answer is a resounding, “NO!”


I have a handout on emotional intimacy, which I use in my practice, that has an image of a goldfish with a plastic shark fin strapped to its back. On the surface of the water, all you can see is the fin, so you assume the presence of a shark. However, if you look deeper, there is a vulnerable goldfish underneath the water, trying to be brave.

If you find yourself in what feels like a shark tank, it is, obviously, best not to share highly personal information with anyone you cannot trust. Emotional intimacy is only safe when someone has proven trustworthy. You will need to be realistic and find your support elsewhere.

When there is authentic, healthy leadership and a compassionate culture, the clear yeses are one of the reasons people want to stay.

As we are seeing, in a post-pandemic era where people are still suffering tremendously, offering an inclusive, attuned, kind workplace is vital.


Those of you in leadership roles, may be thinking that these “soft skills” are beyond your bandwidth, and that you cannot also be a therapist in your work setting.

Trust me, that is unnecessary.

Cultivating an emotionally safe work environment requires a very basic level of compassion.

For example, let’s say someone you work with had a death in the family. What most people find is that their coworkers express their condolences initially, but after a week or two, it is back to business as usual.

If we were talking about a physical wound, it is the equivalent of leaving someone with a broken leg to fend for themselves in a place full of stairs.  We would not normally do that. Most people would kindly offer help to make that person’s life easier while they heal.

The problem is that emotional wounds are invisible and, therefore, easy to forget, and we may not know what to say.

Also, it is undoubtedly harder to empathize with another person’s distress when you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself.

That is why we must intentionally prioritize people and psychological safety through a culture in which compassion is the norm.


Whether someone is dealing with an illness, a layoff, or a loss, a compassionate response decreases suffering. And that’s good for everyone.

Conveying your caring is as simple as saying:

  • I’m so sorry you had to put your dog down. I know how much you loved her.
  • I know you lost your husband recently and are facing your first holiday without him. How can I lift some pressure off of you, so you can take care of yourself and your kids?
  • I’m not sure how to comfort you, but I am always happy to listen if that helps.
  • Here’s a gift card. I thought you could order food on a day when you’re not up to cooking.
  • Let me help you connect with human resources to make sure you have full access to any practical support we can offer during your infertility treatment.
  • I’m sorry your job was eliminated. You have been a wonderful employee, and we will miss you. Please count on me for a positive recommendation.
  • I’m not sure how to help you, but I want you to know I care.
  • What can I do to support you?
  • How are you? (And listening to the response.)
  • I’m busy but don’t want to lose track of you. Let’s set up a time to check in at least every couple of weeks.

Don’t say:

  • You shouldn’t feel that way.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Are you better now?
  • You’re so strong. If anyone can handle this, it’s you.
  • You’re still upset about that?
  • You’ll be fine.
  • Life is tough, but you are tougher!
  • Nothing. Silence and ignoring peoples’ suffering hurts.

We long for someone to see our pain. To put a hand on our shoulder and offer strength.

In life, it is not the suffering that gets us, it’s suffering alone.

We are all deeply emotional by design. As neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has said, “Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.”

That is a critical distinction because it is at the emotional level that we have the most impact on psychological safety.


Holiday gatherings can potentially be comforting and steadying when compassion is present. If people acknowledge your deceased loved one or offer encouragement around your struggles, it helps. Mutual caring strengthens us.

Noted surgeon and author Paul Brand described a lecture by Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist. Mead was asked what she saw as the earliest signs of civilization. She apparently replied by saying that it was finding a healed femur. Since the thigh bone can take up to six weeks to heal, in order to survive, others would have needed to protect and care for the injured person. Without this kindness, they certainly would have died.

And that’s what we have to do with each other. When we are vulnerable, we must support and help each another, especially at work where we spend so much of our time.


A culture of kindness at work enhances emotional safety, boosts morale, and reduces absenteeism and burnout. Kindness tends to be infectious, too, so it spreads rather easily. Here are some concrete steps you can take to deliberately foster kindness:

  1. Track your stress level. Why? When we feel safe and steady, compassion emerges naturally. Use this assessment to gauge your degree of stress.
  2. Be kind to yourself. We tend to treat others better than ourselves. However, research shows that practicing self-compassion reduces stress, enhances performance, and increases feelings of social connection. Kristin Neff, a foremost expert on self-compassion, has a short quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion: https://self-compassion.org/self-compassion-test/
  3. Be kind to others. There are ample opportunities to be compassionate if you are looking:
    • Open a door for someone.
    • Be patient with a coworker who is less reliable because they are caring for an ill family member.
    • Help out a coworker who has suffered a loss.
    • Compliment a person when they are doing something right instead of criticizing.
    • Bring a treat to share at the office.


Aldous Huxley once said, “It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”

We often think of work as a place separate from the rest of our life, even though that is changing. And yet, the reality is that work is often emotionally a second home, due to the sheer number of hours spent together and the friendships formed as a result.

Whether remote or in person, we need to create emotionally safe, compassionate work environments with a strong sense of community, so people do not feel burdened when coworkers reveal personal struggles and suffering.

Loving kindness (Metta) meditation is a well-known tool for cultivating compassion. Embedded in this meditation are profoundly kind wishes I invite you to focus on as this year ends and a new one begins:

  • May I/we be safe.
  • May I/we be free of pain and suffering.
  • May I/we be strong and healthy.
  • May I/we be happy and fulfilled.
  • And, may I/we live with ease.

In lieu of New Year’s resolutions, those are my wishes for all of us this holiday season and into the new year.

Originally published on Fast Company: https://www.fastcompany.com/90823642/how-to-know-when-its-safe-to-tell-the-truth-at-work