Practicing Emotional Safety in Healthcare

Healthcare workers work with people in their most vulnerable states. Some patients face life-threatening illnesses, while others experience severe chronic pain and may struggle to find the words to describe how they’re feeling.

Medical professionals relate to these emotions.  In fact, Healthcare organizations have higher staff turnover rates because the task of caring for someone else is taxing on an individual’s mental health.

When receiving healthcare, patients need to feel like they can trust their medical team.  Raising emotional safety in healthcare helps workers and patients alike by facilitating more meaningful interactions and conversations.

So today, let’s explore emotional safety in healthcare by defining what it is, explaining why it matters, and suggesting some methods to increase it in the workplace.

What is Emotional Safety?

When we feel connected, supported, and accepted, we feel emotionally safe. Emotional safety helps people in vulnerable situations feel comfortable expressing their needs, their fears, and their wishes.

In healthcare, emotional safety is the foundation of compassionate care.  Whether between physicians and nurses or doctors and their patients, emotional safety is essential for connection and collaboration.

According to Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, we can more easily communicate, connect, and collaborate when we feel safe. So, when our emotional safety needs are met, it makes us more empathetic, understanding, and cooperative. But when we don’t feel emotionally safe, the opposite occurs. We become more closed off, socially withdrawn, disengaged, and defensive.

A lack of emotional safety will lead to ongoing tension, frustration, and conflict that we may perpetuate without even realizing it.  Knowing this, we can take the first step toward building emotional safety, which is to understand the subtle ways that we may create feelings of unsafety — both in ourselves and others.

Consider being a new patient at a practice. You’re barely greeted by the staff, sent into an examination room, and left to wait for 30 minutes without further acknowledgment. When the nurse enters the room to take your vitals, they barely take notice of your presence. Their intake interview feels more like an interrogation, and they leave without a word.

By the time the doctor finally enters the room, you already feel on edge and apprehensive. During the exam, you don’t share some of the symptoms you’ve been experiencing because they only ask yes-or-no questions. They do not ask for additional information, so you leave with a sense of uncertainty, unsure of how to proceed or follow up. This is a common experience for many patients. Is it because the doctor and nurse are uncaring professionals? Unlikely.

Often, this occurs because healthcare workers are overworked and burnt out. They’ve quietly quit their jobs, only engaging patients to the extent expressed in their contracts, nothing less, nothing more. In other cases, medical staff are experiencing personal tensions and emotional unsafety, directly impacting how they interact with their patients.

Importance of Emotional Safety in Healthcare

Emotional safety promotes greater patient outcomes by facilitating resiliency and trust. The Association of Child Life Professionals developed the Emotional Safety Initiative to help healthcare providers understand, develop, and apply relevant strategies to their practices.

Everyone benefits when we become more emotionally aware and consistently practice emotional safety techniques, especially in healthcare. These benefits may include greater trust and decreased stress levels, arising when shared compassion is felt and expressed by staff and patients alike.

Focusing too heavily on administrative duties and scheduling can cause a practice to lose touch with its patients. Providers focus more on benchmarks and objectives rather than patients’ emotional welfare.

Emotional safety reminds us to humanize healthcare and create environments where everyone feels accepted, supported, and capable.

Ways to Improve Emotional Safety in Healthcare

Emotional safety is multifaceted and multidisciplinary. The best way to improve your team’s emotional safety is to apply the 4-tier emotional safety framework.

The Association for Child Life provides a 4-tier emotional safety framework that can be applied to any industry:

  1. Screening and Assessment
    • Treatment Plan informed and catered to individual needs
    • Identify and communicate needs
    • Implement interventions that prioritize respect
  2. Environment
    • Use evidence-based practices that build a safe environment
  3. Intervention
    • Make children comfortable
    • Make them understand all medical encounters
  4. Staff communication, education, and training
    • Educate the team about emotionally safe standards
    • Prioritize collaboration and communication among interdisciplinary teams
    • Advocate for children within the hospital environment

Training staff on how to create emotionally safe environments will directly result in better patient care and general interactions. Safe environments improve mental health, increase engagement, and result in more transparent, authentic conversations among workers.

Prioritizing Emotional Safety in Healthcare

Emotional safety is an invaluable element of a functional healthcare system. Contact me today if you are interested in expanding your knowledge and developing the right tools and resources to assess and improve emotional safety in your workplace. I would love to help you explore the various ways you can help your team.