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Designing for psychological safety and "a new normal”

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Can we design for psychological safety? The past year has truly been challenging for many of us when it comes to managing our anxiety and all the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic. Here's what I've learned as a human being and designer.

One year ago I read a wonderful little book about crisis handling called Kris! Från Estonia till Corona by Sverker Sörlin. In the preface of the book, the Swedish archbishop Antje Jackelén quotes Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who once expressed that whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.

I’ve personally learned more about human behavior the past year than any previous year. I’ve been amazed by the resilience and determination shown in various parts of our society, often in places where you’d least expect it. I’ve also been a bit disheartened when I’ve noticed people struggling with managing their emotions during the pandemic, especially when the struggles have led to people harming others or themselves in different ways.

Learning to manage your anxiety is tricky under the best of circumstances. During a pandemic, it can seem damn near impossible! And once the brain becomes too overwhelmed it will find ways to protect itself by adopting various strategies like:

  • Fight behavior like microaggressions and online harassment
  • Flight behavior like self-isolation and avoidance
  • Freeze behavior like passivity and self-censoring

As designers who know a lot about human behavior, we are well equipped to understand these types of crisis behaviors. At least in theory. But since we too have human brains and are not immune to what is happening around us, it’s still a very tricky task to design for behavior change. But since we are one of the communities that are best suited for the task, I propose that we make it our mission to design for psychological safety! Psychological safety will help prevent harmful behaviors and will be a key factor in returning to some sort of post-pandemic “new normal”.

If you need inspiration there are many examples of great design work happening with the aim of improving people’s wellbeing and safety, such as:

And for successful design work to happen, we also have to take care of ourselves and each other to create safe spaces for work. I’m lucky enough to have co-workers who will reach out to me if I’m struggling, and who will also share their struggles with me and allow me to help them if I’m able. The road to great design starts right there, in conversations about how we can help each other. And if we want to try and learn to be anxious in the right way, the best way to do it is together.