The Safety Net Needed to Stop Employees From Descending Into Isolation

The case for psychological safety was made and proven in an unlikely way back in 1933.
The Safety Net Needed to Stop Employees From Descending Into Isolation

How much could your team accomplish if they felt safe they couldn't fail?
In San Francisco on January 5th 1933 construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. The chief engineer assigned to the project was Joseph Strauss. Bridge building was extremely dangerous back then and the industry norm was one construction worker would die for every million dollars spent on the project. Considering the high price tag of $35 million to build the Golden Gate Bridge, Strauss was committed to radically reducing the potential loss of life.
Even with immense pressure to finish the project on time and under budget, Strauss invested what would be $2,779,480 in today's dollars to install a safety net. At that time, it was the most elaborate and expense safety device conceived for a major construction site. The net was strung underneath the entire length of the bridge and extended ten feet on each side of the workspace so that it protected everyone. It resembled the safety nets underneath acrobats that you see today.
“On the Golden Gate Bridge, we had the idea we could cheat death by providing every known safety device for workers,” Strauss wrote in 1937 for The Saturday Evening Post.
On April 28th 1937, Strauss and his team completed the construction of the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world. They completed the project ahead of schedule, the safety net was said to have increased productivity by 25%, and the construction of the bridge cables was done at a rate four times faster than had been considered possible.
During construction, 19 men accidentally fell into the safety net, collected themselves and then got back to the work. Because of the safety net, workers weren't focused on their safety but rather their success. Thus productivity and performance soared.
Today's healthiest organizations find a way to have concurrent commitments to human dignity and performance. They don’t sacrifice the well-being of employees for high performance. They also don’t sacrifice performance to bend to every need of their employees. They strike a balance like Strauss did.
Strauss was a safety pioneer. His efforts set new standards for workers physical safety. The strides made since 1930s to keep workers physically safe has been remarkable. The next safety frontier for leaders to consider is the psychological safety of their team.
Your team likely doesn't fear death when they arrive at work, but they do fear failure, rejection, burnout, isolation, and other invisible threats.
The brain is always searching and seeking safety. No matter if workers are scaling tall bridges or preparing expense reports, in their gut, down their spinal column and in the deepest recesses of their mind lingers the most fundamental question of humanity. It's the question the brain is asking five times per second of every day beyond our conscious awareness. The question is, "Am I safe?"
Much like how the Golden Gate Bridge workers experienced more success when they felt safe, when your team feels safe their freed to focus on loftier goals. The unconscious safety alarm in their head is quieted and they can finally show up fully to work not focused on survival but success.
What does safety look like for your team?
One invisible aliment that today's workers need a safety net for is loneliness. According to my research of over 2,000 global workers, 55% of workers say they experience loneliness at least weekly; with 72% saying at least monthly.
Loneliness not only hinders worker's health but their performance as well. Lonely workers are 7x more likely to be disengaged at work, 5x more likely to miss work, and 2x more likely to think about quitting. Currently lonely workers have no safety net. They are falling further and further into isolation.
Humans are social creatures. We have a deep desire to be accepted, cared for and involved in meaningful community. These desires were (and continue to be) essential for our survival. Our ancestors who roamed the plains, lived in tribes where becoming separated or banished from the tribe made survival unlikely.  Our brains still function the same way at work, when we feel excluded, we become vulnerable and feel unsafe.
Loneliness is invisible, and there is no tangible safety net you can install to catch team members descending into isolation. The safety net comes in the form of psychological safety and creating a connectable culture where people feel comfortable to connect with each other.
The mental health resource workers want most is a more open and accepting culture. Essentially they want psychological safety… a place where they feel that one’s voice is welcome with bad news, questions, concerns, half-baked ideas, and even mistakes.
Teams can be lonely places. People can feel vulnerable and exposed if they believe their teammates don’t support their ideas or appreciate their work. These interpersonal struggles intensify for remote workers who lack the support of a nodding ally across the table in a meeting.
It’s challenging for leaders to create psychological safety because by virtue of their role they have power, and power is a barrier to psychological safety. In order to counterbalance the weight of their powerful role, leaders have to go out of their way to intentionally and strategically build psychological safety. Luckily this safety won't cost you $2,779,480 like it did Strauss.

When workers feel psychologically secure and protected, their need for belonging is fulfilled and thus loneliness is lessened.  Leaders who create psychological safety among a team also reap benefits much like Strauss:
  • 12% increase in productivity
  • 27% reduction in turnover
  • 40% reduction in safety incidents
Just like the 19 bridge workers who bounced back from their falls, lonely workers can rebound out of isolation when the psychological safety net is in place.

Want help creating a more connected workforce? Check out Ryan's latest Wall Street Journal Bestselling book: Connectable. Or click here to invite Ryan to speak at your next meeting or event.


Ryan Jenkins



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