The 1st Building Block of Any Great Company Culture: Safety

March 28, 2022 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

As fun and cool as it is to work in an office with foosball tables, gourmet lunches, massage chair Fridays, and Kegerators on tap 24/7, when employees are asked what they most want from a company culture, those kinds of things are nowhere to be found. In one poll conducted by Fast Company, the top answer was finding meaning in their work. In other polls, people mentioned supportive leadership, purpose, and learning and development. Those things are all crucial to building a team and a culture that’s inspiring and productive. But none of it happens without first building a foundation of physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual safety in your company culture. Feeling safe at work often goes without saying. And that’s exactly why it cannot be ignored.

Why safety is so critical.

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper in the journal Psychological Review called “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In it, Maslow presented his “Hierarchy of Needs,” a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is visualized as a pyramid with the most basic needs at the base moving up to our most self-actualized needs at the top. On the bottom are the physiological needs we need to survive – air, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep. But just above those is safety. Security of body, of employment, of resources, of morality, of the family, of health, of property. Consider those in the context of your team and your culture. Without them, higher, more advanced needs like belonging, friendship, connection, productivity, self-esteem, achievement, and creativity are impossible. Great company cultures start with safety.

Let’s get physical.

Odds are you’ve given some thought to the physical safety of your team. There are locks on the doors to your building. Probably lights in the parking lot. There are fire extinguishers and fire alarms on the walls, and maybe even an AED on premise in the case of a cardiac event. In many ways, the physical safety elements in our workspaces are the easiest to consider. Ironically, the other side of physical safety – the human contact side – is one that often goes undiscussed. In fact, prior to the “Me Too” movement a few years ago, it wasn’t something companies really talked about systemically.

When was the last time you asked the members of your team if they felt safe physically?

Not everyone perceives safety the same way. What feels safe to one group of employees, say management or white men, may feel very different to your female employees, people of color, or employees who are disabled. Ideally, there should be no difference. But making sure your team feels physically safe in every way is an important conversation to have on a regular basis.

A positive legacy from COVID.

Despite all the negatives that emerged from COVID-19, one lasting positive may be our national focus on mental health. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 84 percent of psychologists who treat anxiety disorders said they have seen an increase in demand for anxiety treatment, compared with 74 percent a year ago. Demand for treatment of depression is also up, with 72 percent of psychologists who treat depressive disorders saying they have seen an increase, compared with 60 percent in 2020. Those numbers are important for two reasons.

First, new research shows that COVID patients are 60 percent more likely to suffer lingering mental and emotional woes in the year following their infection. According to a story in U.S. News & World Report, those problems “included anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, opioid use disorder, illicit drug and alcohol use disorders, sleep disturbances, and problems thinking and concentrating.”

Second, the numbers indicate that more people are seeking help for the mental conditions with which they are living.

The stigma of “mental health” is starting to wane and in more and more corporate settings it seems “tough love” and “suck it up” mentalities are being replaced with empathy, care, and wellness resources.

Time for a change.

From a safety perspective, mental health has often remained an unspoken issue. The corporate world is stressful. Long hours. Pressure to perform, to sell, to deliver. For decades, the mindset has been “some people are cut out for what we do, and some just aren’t.” And while there’s an element of truth to that, it’s also not that simple.

As leaders, our job is to ensure our people’s safety across the board and that includes their mental health. One of the greatest and quickest ways to improve your company culture is for your team to see you care about them as people, not just employees. Admittedly, that takes a degree of familiarity many leaders aren’t comfortable with. But in light of where we are – especially in the midst of the “Great Resignation” – it’s something that needs to change. Almost half of U.S. workers are experiencing mental woes post COVID. We have an extraordinary opportunity to help improve that in our people and to give them the support and resources they need to be healthy.

We’re not talking about that.

A generation ago, if you’d talked about emotional safety in the workplace you’d have been laughed out of the room. At a minimum, you would have gotten a colossal eye roll. Emotional and even spiritual health were something people were expected to check at the door. In truth, there are still thousands of companies where that’s the case. But as we’re looking at ways to improve the sense of safety among our teams, that’s a mindset that could do with a little updating.

The truth is people can’t just block out the emotional and spiritual parts of themselves when they get to the office threshold.

It’s frankly a bit callous and unrealistic to think they ever could. While some see emotion as a weakness, that very much feels like an old school perspective when you consider emotion comes from the same well as passion, drive, and determination. The key is helping people realize how to harness their emotions.

Focus on what’s really important.

Most recently, Millennials and Gen Z have been painted as “snowflakes” with a very broad brush, in part because of the emotion they’ve shown in the workplace. Forget the fact that right out of college they had to endure the Great Recession, a lack of job options, and now a global pandemic that all shunted their potential to move up as quickly, or as lucratively, as generations before them. It feels a bit ingenuine to suggest we might not have shown equal emotion given the same prospects.

Some reading this will ask whether worrying about their employee’s emotional health is really their job. That all depends on what kind of company culture you’re trying to build and whether you want your employees at their best and most productive. When people feel supported, heard, and loved, they simply perform better. Great company cultures start with safety – of all types. Without it, the breakdown of both your people and your company, isn’t a matter or if, but when.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising, and marketing, leadership, culture, and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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