We Want Psychological Safety: the chemicals we need

The circuit breaker measures are going to be lifted soon. Well, some versions of them, not all. Are you ready for what will come after?

A number of people may be looking forward to going to their favourite hangout places, getting together after not seeing each other for a while, or simply just to be able to stay outdoors without worrying about getting the coronavirus.

I am not going to write about what we should do with our lives. I think many of us know and have even been thinking about it. Plus, the lifting of measures will be gradual. The risk of getting the virus is still there. We still need to take precautions for a certain period of time.

What I want to write about is the question of happiness. No, it is not about how to find joy, but more of finding comfort and security so we can be at our best. While we stayed home during the circuit breaker period, we have learnt how to cope so we can work well from home. There were lots of advice put out in various forms to suggest how we can cope and look into our mental well-being.

I am going to focus on our workplaces here, because we will be getting back to our physical worksites soon. After being away from the workplace for some time, and having worked from home for a while, it will be important to consider how to re-create safety and security in the workplace, to keep our mental well-being in check.

The workplace can be a very lonely place actually. True, you have colleagues in the workplace, but depending on the workplace culture you may feel very alone there. You also may not have the luxury of time to get to know everyone. Or you may not have the space to do so. Not everyone appreciates or is willing to hear personal life stories of others too.

As a leader in my workplace, it is important for me to look into the mental well-being of colleagues. Many of us would have developed specific routines or habits while working from home. Some will also have received emotional support during the time working from home. Transiting back to the workplace (along with possible restrictions or measures to ensure safe distancing) may not be easy for some. We need to consider how and what to do so colleagues will continue to feel safe and secure working in the office.

I recalled the idea of happy chemicals that I read a while back. Simon Sinek summarised the idea of happy chemicals in his book very well, which I shared with the key personnel in my school previously. These chemicals hold the key to productivity in a workplace.

Quick Primer On The Happy Chemicals

What are these happy chemicals? They are:

  • Endorphins
  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin
  • Oxytocin

Endorphins are pretty easy to understand. They help you weather through tough situations when you re under pressure, and give you a sense of accomplishment at the end. You get a high as a result.

Dopamine comes when you find pleasure in cancelling an item from your to-do list. It comes when you complete a complex project that takes a lot of your energy. Dopamine is that sense of satisfaction from completing an assignment.

Compared to endorphins and dopamine, serotonin is produced not by doing something. It is produced when those around you give you respect or when you are given preferential treatment. Serotonin is a good chemical in the sense that you cultivate a good dose of self-esteem when you have it.

Oxytocin is the last happy chemical everyone should have. This is the one chemical where we cultivate a sense of community though relating with one another. When there are shared memories and experiences where we get to bond and deepen relationships, we produce oxytocin.

If you are a leader looking at this list of chemicals, what would you consider as important initiatives to kickstart when circuit breaker measures are removed? Perhaps another question to ask is, do we even need to wait for the circuit breaker measures to end in order to foster a sense of psychological safety and security for colleagues?

I hope you catch the drift by now. Whether we are still continuing with telecommuting or getting back into physical workplaces, providing for the mental well-being of colleagues should be the perennial concern of leaders. You don’t wait for a crisis to happen to provide this. You do it because it should be what leaders think of if you want to get the best and most from your people.

My own thoughts are these. You don’t need to find ways to create dopamine in your colleagues. That can be done on their own. The same can be said about endorphins. Everyone can generate this on their own. Sometimes the boss can help create endorphins with tight deadlines or challenging assignments. While endorphins are helpful, too much of it is not a good thing. We can get addicted to it and not know how to function in its absence. The same goes with dopamine.

The two most important chemicals a leader should work on creating then will be serotonin and oxytocin.

These two chemicals cannot occur if relationships are absent, or if communication between people is missing. And you can generate these two right now, even if telecommuting may become the prevailing mode for many businesses in time to come.

Let me list some ways we can create serotonin and oxytocin.

  • When you do good work and your bosses and peers thank you for putting in the effort, you get serotonin.
  • When you are affirmed for the work you do, even for the struggles you are going through in the midst, you get serotonin.
  • When you get the team to share one aspect of themselves for 5 minutes each week, you help people know each other in a quick and simple manner, creating serotonin in the process.
  • When you designate spaces where people can talk and get to know others, you facilitate for conversations and the creation of serotonin.
  • When you celebrate the success of a project as a team together, you create pleasant memories and oxytocin.
  • When you celebrate a milestone in the organisation together through an event, you create a sense of corporate identity and oxytocin.

Serotonin will be what we can create during these telecommuting times. When checking in with your teams, find out how they are doing and commend them for their work even as they seek to balance their time with what they need to do for their families. Hearing from them shows that you value them, and boosts their self-esteem.

Maybe when you get back to the workplace, one thing you can try doing is to have a team huddle (with safe distancing measures of course) and recollect the team’s effort during telecommuting. You may want to encourage the team with something special, like a certificate of accomplishment that says they made it through these f. Give them each a special award, like the Most Encouraging Team Mate, or the Most Resourceful Team Mate for this period of time.

A big word of caution though. We can easily destroy any conducive conditions through unintended actions. If you adopt a critical eye for whatever your colleague does, ignore or dismiss the achievements of your colleagues, or even pour cold water on their contributions, you are destroying whatever collegial work conditions are present. Oxytocin or serotonin will not happen, no matter what you do.

Fundamentally, leaders need to foster a positive climate at the workplace. This can be through our words and actions, as well as through symbolic events or programmes in the organisation. Helping colleagues have a sense of belonging is important if you want them to do their best work when present. Beyond physical safety and security, psychological safety is very important for everyone.

How should you create serotonin and oxytocin in the workplace? How can you work with fellow leaders to create the sense of trust and security for colleagues to put in their best at work?

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