The crisis is subsiding, but its wounds run deep. For all the heroic efforts of employees to keep companies operating, the past 16-plus months have left a powerful psychological scar.

A recent Workhuman survey of more than 3,000 U.S. workers reveals a workforce in trouble. The data shows 48 percent of employees agree they've experienced burnout, 61 percent feel elevated stress levels, and 32 percent agree that they have felt lonely at work. 

The emotional toll has been greater for working parents (especially mothers). Observed differences in stress and burnout levels between men and women appear to be related to caregiving responsibilities as well as the disproportionate loss of jobs among women.

Early in the crisis, for example, mothers with young children decreased their work hours four to five times more than fathers. The survey, which asked seven questions related to psychological safety, also discovered that non-White employees experienced lower levels than their White co-workers.

The impact of psychological safety

Google's People Operations team found that the number one driver of successful teams is psychological safety, an environment where people feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.

When people feel safe, they will innovate, cooperate, and show up as their full selves at work, which are critical qualities in today's agile environment. Conversely, lack of psychological safety in the workforce is corrosive; it endangers all plans to return to the "next normal."

Rebuilding psychological safety after a crisis requires leaders to speak candidly about the toll employees have suffered, and show the way forward with a more human-centered approach to managing: 

1. Say "thank you" more often

"Recognition builds lasting connections between people," says Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley. "Great leaders instinctively know that the more human connection in a company, the better it performs."

It's easy to see why receiving a "thank you" makes an employee feel appreciated. What's less obvious is that showing appreciation for someone's efforts improves the positive feelings for the giver as well. Mutual recognition and gratitude help people take off their emotional armor. When employees do that, they feel safer as well as more connected. 

2. Check in with employees more frequently

People who check in with their manager at least once a week experience higher psychological safety than those who check in less frequently, and yet only 29 percent of respondents in the Workhuman survey said they check in with their manager every week.

IBM is taking the lead on changing that statistic, emphasizing more frequent feedback for everyone. CHRO Nickle LaMoreaux, who spoke with Workhuman co-founder and CEO Eric Mosley, cites it as one of IBM's four priorities, saying, "Feedback is as important as growth, innovation, and inclusivity, because you can't have those first three elements without feedback."

3. Build resilience into your culture

While you might not be able to prevent the next crisis from happening, you can take steps now to build resilience into the workforce, enabling people to deal well with external stressors.

For example, psychological safety can become part of your hybrid workplace design as you return to the office. You can consider formalizing appreciation and thank-yous with a data-rich social recognition system. You can strengthen diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts by helping managers understand and mitigate unconscious biases.

Imagine how much time and resources would be salvaged if your organization moves the needle on psychological safety. If all employees, and especially underrepresented groups, feel more comfortable sharing ideas and bringing their whole selves to contribute, the "next normal" won't just be a recovery from the crisis but a fresh start. There will never be a better time than now to build psychological safety into your culture.