How HR Leaders and Managers Can Build Trust and Psychological Safety at Work - two women talking to eachother outside at work

How HR Leaders and Managers Can Build Trust and Psychological Safety at Work

Amelia Wilcox
May 2, 2022
October 23, 2022

A mental health program, diversity training, and one-on-one meetings alone aren’t enough to create psychological safety at work.

Psychological safety has to do with culture. It is vital that what is said and what is being done align.

Psychological safety at work is about building trust through kind words and actions.

Here’s how HR leaders and managers can build trust and psychological safety at work.

What is psychological safety at work?

Our Lead Clinician, Haeli Harris, defines psychological safety as: “Creating a space where people feel safe and comfortable. A space where anyone in the company feels safe expressing themselves and their needs.”

“In a psychologically safe place, we want people to be able to say that they are struggling or that they have too much on their plate,” Harris explains.

Here are some examples of phrases employees feel comfortable saying in a psychologically safe workplace:

  • I am feeling overwhelmed. Can we revisit my priorities for the week?
  • I need help with this project. Could you help me out?
  • I am going to take a break.
  • I need a mental health day/sick day.

Here are some critical aspects of psychological safety to keep in mind:

  • Trust
  • Feeling heard and seen
  • Safety
  • Acceptance
  • Openness to other ideas
  • Support
  • Empathy

Related: 6 Reasons Why Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace is Critical

Why is psychological safety at work important?

When employees don’t feel safe voicing their needs at work, they:

  • Become unengaged
  • Experience a drop in productivity
  • Suffer mentally and emotionally, and sometimes socially
  • Find other job opportunities

Things That Reduce Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety can feel like an abstract concept. It can help to think about what a psychologically safe workplace is not.

Here are some phrases that do not create psychologically safe workplaces:

  • ____ is all in your head; just be happy.
  • Lots of people have it worse than you.
  • Just snap out of it.
  • You’re probably just imagining it.

“If you hear your leaders talking about this, you’ll never feel safe at work,” states Harris.

These phrases point to a stigma around mental health within the company. Thankfully, there are steps teams can take to reduce that stigma.

For a list of more phrases that erode trust at work, check out this Fast Company article.

7 Ways to Build Psychological Safety at Work

Here are seven examples of how to create psychological safety at work.

1. Use Language that Fosters Psychological Safety

When talking to coworkers and other employees, using empathetic language can help create psychological safety.

Here are some examples:

  • “Mental health is important.”
  • “I’ve been there, too. Something that helped me was…”
  • “How can I support you?”
  • “Please let me know if you are ever feeling overwhelmed.”
  • “It’s good for you to take time off.”

These phrases show that you care for the employee’s wellbeing. They show that it’s okay not to be at 100% all the time and that you want to be there to support them.

If you’re looking to start a deeper mental health conversation at work, try to talk about your personal experiences. That is one of the quickest ways to boost psychological safety in the workplace. Plus, it opens the door to authenticity. More on that later!

2. Create a Culture of Feedback

Building a culture of feedback is all about creating opportunities for employees to speak their minds. A key aspect of psychological safety is feeling heard.

Employees also don’t want to be left in the dark; they value receiving feedback. Otherwise, they may be unsure where they stand within the company, leading to lower engagement and anxiety on the job.

3. Meet with Employees One-On-One Frequently

One-on-ones are a great time to express to employees that you care about their wellbeing.

You can take time to check in and regain clarity on expectations, workload, priorities, goals, and stress levels.

Without open lines of communication, psychological safety won’t develop.

Related: Your Guide to Running An Incredible One-On-One Meeting

4. Train Managers on Mental Health

Managers may not know how to foster psychological safety among their teams.

A basic mental health training that covers common mental health challenges and positive coping strategies to deal with them is a great place to start.

You can also train managers to talk about mental health with direct reports and get them up to speed on your company’s mental health benefits.

Consider bringing in a licensed counselor to assist you in the training process for this step. Your mental health program, health insurance provider, or EAP may be able to help with that.

Related: The Manager Training Handbook

5. Encourage Vulnerability and Authenticity

Small acts of vulnerability and authenticity foster connection and healing.

Some examples include sharing how you coped with work stress this past week or giving a little glimpse into your life by letting your kid say hi on your next Zoom call instead of shooing them away.

Authenticity reminds employees that everyone is human and that it is okay not to be perfect. We are also more likely to connect with our coworkers if we get to know their personal lives a little, too.

6. Have Leadership Set the Example

Continue to talk to your leaders about why mental health is important and how it affects people in the workplace. If you’re having trouble convincing them that creating a psychologically safe workplace is essential, this webinar may help.

Here are some resources on mental health that you can share with your leadership team:

Once they are on board, have them speak to your team for a few minutes about their mental health journey. This is a great way to kickstart a wellness lunch and learn.

7. Educate Yourself on Mental Health

Learning about mental health and psychological safety at work will make it easier to talk about it, support others, and take care of yourself.

Plus, taking care of yourself and prioritizing psychological safety sets the example for the rest of the company.

Here are some places where you and your team can learn more about mental health and psychological safety:

Stop stacking benefits. Start being well. Set a Nivati demo


By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take the place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Amelia Wilcox
Amelia Wilcox
Amelia Wilcox is the Founder and CEO of Nivati, a leader in corporate massage and employee mental health support since 2010. Her high-growth B2B company provides employee stress management tools that arm businesses with actionable data and positive employee experiences to improve wellbeing, boost morale, and increase engagement. Amelia has exponentially grown her company from a solo living-room service business to an international technology brand.