The year 2020 has been a roller coaster. World events have made it increasingly difficult to leave our personal lives at the door when we report to work—whether we do so virtually, or in person. The past few months have illuminated the importance of mental health in the workplace, causing employers to consider its impact on our work. It has also encouraged leaders to think differently about how they can support their teams, promote more open discussions about mental health and foster psychological safety at work.

Supporting your team’s mental health is critical, especially in a field like marketing, which requires creativity, critical analysis, brainstorming and collaboration. The most successful solutions come to life when everyone feels comfortable not only sharing positive feedback and praise, but also offering opposing opinions and constructive criticism. Furthermore, an inclusive culture is a key component of building and sustaining diverse teams that are able to engage in healthy dialogue.

Marketing leaders have the ability (and responsibility) to shape their team’s culture, build interpersonal relationships among their team and minimize emotional isolation—especially in the current climate. To understand how marketing leaders can promote mental health, productivity and engagement on their teams by prioritizing psychological safety, we spoke to two experts who specialize in psychology and organizational dynamics.

What is psychological safety anyway?

According to Harvard business professor Amy Edmondson, a psychologically safe workplace is one where “individuals feel they can speak up, express their concerns, and be heard…where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished.”

Conventional workplace wisdom tells us that during work hours, employees should put on their ‘work faces,’ set aside their personal lives and remember that their coworkers are colleagues rather than personal friends. This outdated approach can make it tough for folks to bring their true selves to work. But the truth is that when people feel a sense of belonging at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and likely to contribute to their fullest potential.

Create space for free-flowing ideas—and your most successful campaigns

John Philbin is the co-founder of Spectacular at Work, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership development, executive coaching and psychology. He offers several actionable tips for creating safe spaces. “There are a ton of little things that leaders can do, that most of us were taught as children,” Philbin says. “Assume positive intent, frequently give credit to others, say thank you and show appreciation for the efforts of others.”

Beyond those essential practices, it’s also critical for leaders to emphasize that you and your direct reports are a team. “Creating a feeling that you are all in this together with the same goal and that the work you’re doing is important, creates space for people to disagree with one another with less chance of anyone taking it as personally,” says Philbin. “A feeling of belonging can take some of the sting out of getting feedback that’s less than positive.”

Be a model for your direct reports

Most companies are very hierarchical. This setup enforces a power differential between leaders and their teams, so it can be difficult for employees to open up to their bosses. It’s not enough to just ask your team to be honest or say that your work culture is a certain way. Leaders need to show, rather than tell.

Dr. James Jackson, a Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, told us, “In healthy cultures, traits like openness, honesty and trust are valued and prioritized. One way for leaders to promote these traits is to model them—that is, to lead with authenticity and even with vulnerability. Modeling these things gives other people permission to display them as well and it also highlights their importance.”

One way leaders can demonstrate vulnerability is to admit their own mistakes and to share some of their own failings with their team. “It is important for the leader of a team to normalize mistakes and failures as a part of the cost of doing business, something to be expected. When a leader takes the time to address their own missteps and failures, it can go a long way toward helping everyone on the team see that we all make mistakes,” says Philbin.

Leaders may want to appear as though they can juggle everything with ease, but really, everyone needs a little help now and then. There are a lot of reasons someone might not ask for help. People may think they’re weak, needy or incompetent when in reality, asking for assistance is a brave act of vulnerability. Remind your team of that and be a model of it. When you normalize asking for help, your team is more likely to reach out when challenges arise, rather than struggle through it alone. This proactive approach can ultimately improve communication between you and your direct reports, build relationships and help your team overcome roadblocks that might have otherwise derailed progress.

Address the dark side of social media

For leaders who manage customer-facing teams working in areas like social media, customer support and community management, it’s important to be aware of additional risk factors in team members’ everyday roles. Social marketers and community managers monitoring inbound messages often face a high volume of inbound messages from customers, which may include harassing, sexist, racist or other offensive language. Marketing leaders need to be mindful of the toll this takes on their employees’ mental health.

“I think it is difficult to overestimate the negative impact of toxic messages—they can be traumatizing, and, in some cases, contribute to the development of conditions like PTSD,” says Dr. Jackson. “People have vastly different psychological constitutions and backgrounds, which means that some of your employees might be able to tolerate exposure to offensive language whereas others cannot.”

To understand the amount of support your social media practitioners need, encourage them to be open about their limits and boundaries. Make it a practice for marketers manning your inboxes to report any abusive language. Learning not to take offensive messages personally is easier said than done. As a leader, remind your team that trolls are an unfortunate given when it comes to social media, but that any hateful messages are not a reflection of the hard work your employees have put in.

Make it known that you have their back. “Leaders can provide support by creating forums in which employees are able to process the experience of being the recipient of anger, hatred and aggression,” says Philbin. While not every marketer will feel comfortable opening up about what might have been traumatic, simply letting people know that you understand the impact and that you’re thinking of their wellbeing can go a long way.

Leaders need to be supportive within their capacity as managers, but make sure your team members are aware of other avenues of support that are available to them—in particular, professional support from licensed mental health professionals. Encourage them to use your company’s benefits for mental health services. These might range from an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), to offerings through your healthcare provider, to free or subsidized emotional wellbeing platforms like Modern Health and Talkspace.

Acknowledge setbacks without triggering shame

When an employee is not performing up to standards, it needs to be addressed. These conversations are going to be hard. But providing an early warning for people when things aren’t going well, but are still salvageable, is important. The longer someone hasn’t been keeping up, the harder it becomes to address.

“A good place to start is a simple conversation marked by empathy and understanding and by keeping the focus on the ‘problem’ that needs to be addressed, rather than on the person,” says Dr. Jackson. “Be careful to relate in a non-judgmental way, if at all possible, and balance expectations and support—that is, demand a lot, if you choose, but match the intensity of these demands with high levels of support and articulate clearly what this support will look like.”

Nothing triggers shame more than a negative reaction to an error. Instead, focus on the positives like what adjustments can be made to turn a setback into a learning experience, and make sure to set clear expectations for how to address the same situation in the future.

Ensure psychological safety while working remotely

Many of us take pride in being able to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but sometimes life just finds a way in. The COVID-19 pandemic turned the majority of non-essential workers into remote workers by necessity. As a result, work is at home and home is at work. The lack of separation between professional and personal lives has the potential to speed up burnout, especially among social media practitioners who work with an “always-on” mindset.

While we can look forward to businesses reopening, for some, remote work is here to stay. So leaders need to find ways their employees can feel psychologically safe while working from home. “Brainstorming the best way for your team to take care of one another so that they can achieve sustained results allows employees to feel that they have a stake in creating the solution,” says Philbin.

Here are some best practices to try with your team:

  • Establish how often you’ll have team and one-on-one check-ins.
  • Create moments for virtual team-building like ice breakers, scavenger hunts or trivia.
  • Consider starting meetings by practicing gratitude.
  • Discuss self-care ideas and changes in wellness routines.
  • Have an open conversation about what “the work day” looks like at home.
  • Set ground rules about email, text, and IM traffic after hours.

Above all else, psychological safety at work comes down to trust. Without it, people are more likely to censor themselves. When teams trust leaders and feel safe being their most authentic selves at work, it’s to the benefit of your campaigns, customers and entire company.