What startups need to know about creating a mentally healthy workplace

Work culture is the environment you create for your employees. It plays a powerful role in determining their career satisfaction, their interpersonal relationships, and their career progression.

Your workplace culture is defined by a combination of the company’s leadership and the values, beliefs and attitudes of the employees, which translate into behaviors and interactions that contribute to the relational environment of your workplace.

In general, these are the intrinsic rules that govern the interpersonal connections between colleagues in the workplace.

A positive work culture is created by an organizational focus on psychological safety and well-being.

Research defines psychological safety in the workplace as an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their ideas, willing to seek and provide honest feedback, collaborate, take risks and experiment to support innovation, learning and continuous improvement – all elements also identified in ‘agile’ workplaces.

The importance of psychological well-being

When thinking about what makes a workplace mentally healthy, we need to consider aspects of psychological safety and culture and innovate by “reverse engineering” the constructs we know create a toxic workplace.

We must promote the psychological well-being of our people by conveying a sense of individual control six key features: autonomy, environmental management, personal growth, positive relationships, having life goals and a sense of self-acceptance.

One of the ways we can promote a mentally healthy workplace is by truly embracing the principles of diversity, equality and inclusion, not just “checking the box.”

Embracing differences in the work environment is something written into many workplace codes of conduct but rarely embraced in application. Group dynamics come into play and many conservative workplaces value diversity, as long as it’s wrapped in a dark suit and white shirt.

Yet every workplace requires a variety of personality types to ensure that people can innovate and find creative solutions to complex challenges.

Difference can be expressed through personality, but it can also be created through action.

When a member of the team behaves in a way that appears to expose the team to close scrutiny, it’s not uncommon for the renegade member of the team to be left out while the rest of the team band together to protect themselves from further ridicule.

Psychological constructs around group membership often facilitate this type of behavior in the workplace, but it can have a significant negative effect on the person who raised the alarm.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Forbes highlights a plethora of research demonstrating the benefits of diversity on financial and operational performance across all industries.

Ensuring your company has a proactive focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is not only a ‘fun’ approach to social responsibility, it also has a significant positive impact on the bottom line of any company in any industry.

How we manage and treat our people at work can be directly linked to managing psychological safety at work. Essentially, mentally healthy workplaces are those where delegating with authority is a daily practice, trust is fostered, innovation is encouraged, mistakes are expected and supported, and there is no such thing as a bad idea!

Toxic workplaces are almost the opposite: power and control are used as weapons, independence is discouraged, and fear stifles organizational improvement.

There are multiple ways people can feel unsafe or powerless in the workplace. Leaders need to understand why these situations arise and provide clear guidelines to support their people in promoting psychological safety and creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Whether your company is big or small, taking a proactive approach to the challenges that can arise in the workplace will improve your workplace culture.

Ensuring your people feel valued and supported by their employer creates a mentally healthy work environment, leading to increased employee satisfaction, reduced turnover and a greater overall sense of happiness in your workplace.

  • Kerry Howard, author of How to Heal a Workplace: Deal with Trauma, Promote Psychological Safety and Increase Work Happiness.