How to Keep Our Workplaces Safe, and Thriving

Trauma. Fear. Guilt. Shame. Emotions imprint our memories, especially events most vivid with emotion, good or bad, and we carry them into the workplace each day. It could be years-old unresolved ragged edges, or it could be something you learned this morning at home, like your child failing a class at her school. “Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” said Philo of Alexandria. If we can’t find a way to release our fears, our failures or our crushing anxieties, we drag them with us into work and they can provoke us to violence, against ourselves and others.

Feelings that are not violence-provoking can still debilitate. Over 40 million people suffer from social anxiety, which keeps your fears and worries bottled up inside, and it can alienate you from those with whom you work. Loneliness and despair have contributed to rising suicide rates, and over 21 million are in active addiction. This includes alcohol, which researchers warn us to pay more heed to because of alcohol’s potential to spur on violence, like physical abuse and rape.

Leaders of organizations are a big contributor to our discontent and unsettled emotions. The higher your income, the more alcohol you consume. I was a substance abuser while in the C-suite of a national brand, fighting my own inner battles until I had to surrender and get help.

Building safe workplaces begins with leaders tending to their own emotional fitness.

It seems in every sector today — business, politics, religion — leaders are covering things up or rallying their troops with divisive, violence-inducing emotions like fear and hate. A senior national official recently said that the current hate crimes are a “call to action,” which sounded like an implicit endorsement. A recent story described the co-founder of a Midwest company’s plan to give his employees gift cards to buy guns for Christmas, believing it would be good to arm his entire staff. He’s creating a militia out of employees who make drinking glasses.

How do we keep our workplaces safe from violence, and in some cases, safe from the leaders running them?

Employee Practices

Offering groups where people with common interests convene, called affinity groups, are a good place to start. I work with corporate women’s leadership groups all over the country, and in many cases, these are just getting up and running. It’s past time. In these groups, women can take off masks, use others as sounding boards, and have their value re-affirmed. Whether it’s LGBT employees, or those ethnically diverse, workers aligned by identity and experiences crave connection with others like them and a safe place to share their fears, challenges, and small and big wins. Where I worked in corporate leadership, we had many affinity groups, including Weight Watchers meetings that smartly convened during lunch, a vulnerable time for those who were fighting food issues. I’ve debated with other leaders about the need for affinity groups, and I’ve often heard criticism that they’re “exclusionary.” To whom, exactly? Anyone who shares similar interests is welcome.

The idea of affinity groups isn’t revolutionary, but what is new is the crying need for them today.

We’re looking for safe places to build community instead of building walls around ourselves.

The acceptance and understanding of the group leads to self-acceptance, an emotion leveler. Places that house affinity groups outside of work are also critical, such as American Legion halls, churches with support groups, and the rooms of substance abuse recovery, where I go often. My friends there remind me I’m never alone.

Institutional practices, like the rest and recovery policies of companies like Deloitte, a financial services firm, would also go a long way. After big projects requiring personal time (evenings, weekends) to complete, management at Deloitte encourages those involved in the project to go off duty for personal recharge time. It’s a smart way to decompress from stress, the biggest cause of quick trigger tempers and frayed nerves. Mindfulness and meditation offerings should be routine in companies as a stress combatant, too. I teach these today to leaders in workshops and retreats.

Leader Practices

“Leaders” who incite others to violence through bullying, blaming and other adolescent behaviors need to realize the stakes are a whole lot higher than they were on the playground: Shareholders suffer. Leaders who get high marks on qualities such as compassion and integrity run companies with an average return on assets of 9.35 percent, five times more than those who got low marks.

Company boards should be hiring someone almost as critical as the CEO, but this position doesn’t exist in most organizations. Whether it’s called Emotional Fitness Officer or Wellness Chief, the charge of this person is to oversee the health and well-being of a company’s most valuable asset, its people.

The job title is less important than the reporting structure; the position can’t be housed within human resources because employees believe HR is bought and paid for by the C-suite. The position needs to be accountable directly to the board. The twin emotions of powerlessness and distrust are sweeping employees today and can lead to instances like the global Google walkout in November, where 24,000 employees (mostly women) galvanized almost overnight in a show of unity to tell its leadership they disagreed with its practices. If there is integrity in the hiring and actions of this person, they will earn employees’ trust.

It’s also in the simplest of leadership practices that we can build bridges of trust with our employees, which steady the emotional ground of our workplaces.

These include expressions of gratitude and grace. One of the best lessons my former boss taught me when I was COO was to say thank you whenever I addressed a group. I like to think I wasn’t a heathen; I did a pretty good job one-on-one, but I’d often forget in front of groups. “Remember to thank ’em Suz,” he’d remind me.

Emotional fitness is lifelong work for every single one of us — leaders and workers alike — so our workplaces can remain safe ground from the madness outside of them, and inside of us.

If you’d like to read more and find out about my new book Fully Human, visit