As we reluctantly leave the lazy holidays behind, our thoughts turn to our regular routines and getting back into the swing of work and school. You might have noticed that you’re hitting the coffee a little harder and perhaps feeling a bit jealous of how children seem to slip back into school so easily.
Of course, they are naturally full of youthful vitality, but as adults we often look back wistfully on the comparative ease of our school days. And in many ways, this is completely understandable – they were a time low on responsibility and high on sociability. But there are other, more elemental reasons. Ones that speak to the core of what we all need in life. If you are returning to a happy, productive workplace, no doubt you will experience similar feelings of ease as you head back into the autumn months. And if you don’t? Do you know why? During the pandemic, much was made of how necessary school was to our young people and to get them back in the classroom full time was a matter of top priority. A not insignificant factor of this was because school environment fulfils four psychological human needs – safety, value, belonging and control. If we don’t have them, we may not express it in words, but we certainly try to look for them and we go to lengths to shield ourselves from their opposites. So, let’s explore why that might be – and how the equivalent looks for the modern workplace.
A place of safety
When our children go to school, we feel assured that they are in a safe place. However, safety is far from just a physical concept. In fact, the term ‘psychological safety’ dates all the way back to 1965 and was originally defined as ‘an atmosphere where one can take chances (which experimentalism implies) without fear and with sufficient protection.’ It was later updated to clarify that psychological safety allows people to ‘employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally’. When our children go to school, they (on the whole) take their home identity with them. And, moreover, there are few to no surprises to be had at school, and very little risk. Basically – and this is particularly true for children in elementary school – they’re in a very stable part of their lives. School is a very constant given which, if a child is happy there, is just an everyday reality and makes them feel safe and secure.
What might this safety look like in the workplace? Well, you might have heard people talk about the importance of ‘bringing your best self to work’, and this does not just mean the highest performing, most motivated version of ourselves. In order to feel psychologically safe, it is necessary to feel we can be precisely who we are at work, without ‘masking’ or pretence. It is essential to feel appreciated and supported in our roles and unafraid to ask for help. Looking to the experience of children – does every day feel like a regular school week, or an exam week? Working in an atmosphere that feels like the latter all year round means that feelings of psychological safety may be compromised and there is a very real risk of burnout. Because even if there are times where deadlines are tough and the pressure is on, there must be balance.