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  • Writer's pictureNancy Kasvosve

What is psychological safety? A personal account of when being able to speak out matters

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

By Nancy Kasvosve

2022 has been a pretty trying year for me. After kicking it off with my usual energy and ambition, I hit a breaking point three months into the year when I had a mental breakdown. Since then, I have been working my way to a new normal. Thankfully, I was not diagnosed with burnout, but I was going down that path and it is only by the quick action that I took that I am on a path to recovery.

I decided to share my story publicly in this article and received an overwhelmingly positive response on speaking out about mental health. People shared in public and private messages how much the story touched them, how they saw themselves in the experience and how me sharing my story gave them courage to reflect on their own situation and do something about it.

However, amongst all these replies, I noticed a type of response that got me thinking.

A lot of people cited how “brave” I was to speak out, both when I reached out for help and shared publicly. While I recognize there is a specific kind of courage in taking action, there is an important part of this story that people often miss. I spoke out because I have the psychological safety in my workplace to do so. And unfortunately, this is a privilege that a lot of people do not have.

Psychological safety is the ability to show up and be yourself without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career. It is knowing with certainty that you will not be punished or humiliated for sharing your ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Psychological safely is a concept that has only grown in importance, especially during the pandemic. According to a McKinsey study, when employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change—all capabilities that have been vital during the COVID-19 crisis; and the demand for these capabilities will only rise in the future. Feeling psychologically safe in my work environment is the biggest reason I spoke up, and this played out in two ways.

Before I even admitted to myself that something was wrong, I started talking to my close friends and coworkers, many of whom I know from our company women’s network, Philips Women Lead (PWL). These friends are the ones who gently led me on the path of acceptance by listening to me and giving me space to vent and ugly cry my way to acceptance that I was going through something more serious than just odd tiredness. Additionally, they shared back their own past experiences of burnout, which helped me see more clearly what was happening and made me feel less alone. I am super grateful to have had this kind of support system. PWL continues to be a safe space for women and a huge part of our inclusion journey.

The second piece of my experience of psychological safety was my manager’s actions. I give so much credit to my manager for how she has cultivated radical honesty and vulnerability in our team. I wrote a piece a while back on my experience of COVID and how one of the times, half my meeting with her was just me crying over the fear sitting in my heart about being so far away from my family in Zimbabwe. I will never forget the empathy she treated me with in that situation and I have always felt there is space for me to show up as myself on my team. It was a natural action to reach out to her when my dam broke, and she took swift action to reorganize the team to cover my work and connected me to resources in the company. Sadly, over the last few months of talking about this topic, I have learnt many managers aren’t like her.

Since I went public with my story, I have talked to a lot of people about their situations and one of the biggest reasons people remain silent about their struggles is not feeling like they will be heard by the people they report to. A study published in Forbes in 2020 found that half of respondents (54%) said they felt uncomfortable talking to their managers and supervisors about mental health. And even worse is that 30% of respondents feared that discussing their mental health could lead to being fired or furloughed, and 29% thought discussing their issues could cost them a promotion.

Even more, I have encountere

Read more on this topic:

Tips for Thriving Without Psychological Safety at Work:

4 Steps to Boost Psychological Safety at Your Workplace:

How to cope with a psychologically unsafe workplace:

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