Imagine working in an environment that uses psychological terms and initiatives to show that the company cares for its employees’ mental well-being. Sounds brilliant and progressive, doesn’t it? But what would you do if they were weaponised against you, and such terms were used to negatively affect the working environment instead?
Greta Huang* is a marketing professional at a business-to-consumer (B2C) company that emphasises psychological safety as a core pillar when building a high-performing team. There are even training sessions on what psychological safety at the workplace means, and how employees can apply its core values when building their teams.
She says that while the intent behind it “makes complete sense and is a nice goal to work towards”, it has since become a blanket phrase for employees to misuse as a cover-up for bad behaviour. “Psychological safety” is also often used in a “tick box exercise” to show compliance with a company-wide mandate.
She gives the example of her manager declaring the office as a “safe space”, but thereafter using it as an excuse to be overly aggressive or rude, while justifying the behaviour as being honest and authentic. Team members are regularly embarrassed or humiliated in front of peers, and punished for making mistakes or taking risks. This, she says, does not create an environment of psychological safety. “It does the complete opposite – employees are overly cautious in their response for fear of repercussions, which in turn frustrates and angers the leadership, fuelling the cycle of continued silence,” Greta explains. “I definitely have felt this and am navigating my way through it. I feel anxious, and I am constantly second- guessing my work, despite having done this role for years. I do not feel empowered to make decisions at all.”
Therapy speak goes mainstream
What Greta has experienced is an example of how using “therapy speak” can be harmful in an environment where it’s not meant to be adopted – especially when done incorrectly. Grace Loh, psychotherapist, counsellor and coach at Counselling Perspective, says that therapy speak can be described as a style of communication that borrows from therapeutic concepts and language that are commonly used in psychotherapy or counselling settings. It involves using empathetic, supportive phrases and active listening techniques, with a focus on emotions and personal growth.
“Therapy speak has become mainstream as there has been an increased awareness and destigmatisation of mental health issues, which has led to a wider acceptance of therapeutic concepts and language,” she adds. “The pandemic has brought mental health to the forefront, as many people have experienced heightened stress, anxiety and other mental health challenges. This increased awareness has brought about a greater interest in therapy and related concepts, and has influenced the popularity of the usage of therapy speak.”
Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, attributes the phenomenon of therapy speak to its popularity on social media. She admits that these days, casually tossing about complex mental health terminology is part and parcel of our everyday lexicon. “Mental health language has become a way of understanding ourselves and our experiences, and subsequently, we find ourselves translating those experiences into neat, concise, easily recognisable categories,” she explains.
Striking the right balance
Dr Games believes that keeping therapy terms in our everyday conversations (both on and offline) can still be really helpful for us and for others. The more we talk about therapy and our lived experiences, even within the workplace, the more people can understand and, hopefully, be helped by accessing and using this language themselves too, she says.
“The more we talk about things, the better chance we have of collectively understanding them. We just need to be sure that the terms are being used in the right way, in the right situations, without being reductive of others’ experiences,” she adds. When used in the workplace, therapy speak can foster better communication, understanding and emotional support among colleagues, says Grace. However, she stresses the importance of striking a balance and ensuring that it aligns with the workplace context, and does not replace clear, direct, outcomes- focused communication.
Used incorrectly, therapy speak can actually cause harm. The overuse of therapeutic phrases without addressing the real issues or taking appropriate action may lead to a superficial approach where problems are talked about, but not effectively resolved. This can result in misinterpretation, miscommunication and inappropriate interventions.
Grace advises anyone using therapy speak to have a better understanding of it before adopting it. She says that the language around mental health should not be trivialised or casually thrown around without a deeper understanding of what it means. It can become diluted if it is overused or misused in the workplace, and can fall into the danger of misrepresentation of mental health issues.
“Organisations should promote mental health literacy and education on the appropriate language to use, providing employees with the opportunity to better understand different mental health concepts and their implications,” she adds.
Take the case of Kelly Periera*, a manager at a creative agency. She had a supervisor who constantly preached about the importance of open communication, and advocated it as a two-way street between management and their subordinates. As a result, she was encouraged to be open and honest about her experiences in the company during regular catch-up sessions, especially if she was facing any struggles.
“While it initially felt nice to have your manager say ‘I hear you’, I felt that a lot of the things I shared were later used against me in appraisals,” she reveals. “It was very confusing and I started second-guessing myself. I stopped sharing any struggles for fear of appearing incompetent, which then put me in a lose-lose situation as management felt I was not being honest.” Kelly’s bosses also consistently shared messages on how they valued mental wellness, assuring their staff that this was important to them. However, the staff members still received texts, calls and e-mails from them outside of work hours. “I eventually had to take time off due to burnout. When I returned to work, I was put on extended probation and told I lacked ‘commitment to my job’,” she recalls.
Understanding therapy language
As we strive for inclusion and belonging, the role of language cannot be overstated. Rani Nandan, director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Asia Pacific at recruitment company Pagegroup, believes regular workshops, awareness sessions or learning opportunities with mental health professionals are crucial to maintaining a respectful and understanding environment at work. This is because it’s not just about using these words – it’s about understanding and respecting their depth, she explains.
“If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of misused therapy speak, be it from a colleague or manager, remember that you have options,” she adds. “You could convey your discomfort directly, consult your superiors or human resources, or even seek support from your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) service providers, such as the Singapore Counselling Centre. Don’t stay silent – your well-being is worth the conversation.”
Kelly understands that her manager meant well, but believes that therapy speak belongs where it was developed – in therapy, with a licensed psychologist using the terms accurately, and conveyed in a manner and environment where there is less of a power disparity, such as the one between a manager and subordinate in the office.
Greta admits that, with the current spotlight on mental health, it’s no wonder that we are looking to sources such as therapy to inform how we can better address burgeoning challenges at the workplace. “However, more effort should be placed on actually fostering the right culture versus retrofitting initiatives or rebranding old approaches to fit into what’s considered trendy or current (aka therapy speak),” she adds. “There is beauty in speaking plainly. You can give feedback or have difficult conversations with kindness. It’s simple, you don’t need big or fancy words.”
*Names have been changed