Photo by Andrés Canchón on Unsplash

Safety Nets for Knowledge Workers

Chris J Terrell
5 min readAug 25, 2022


My 15-year-old daughter started working at Chick-Fil-A, and she cannot use a ladder, a box cutter, or scissors at work until she turns 16. Scissors, really! Are these silly rules? No, business insurance and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are required it. There are many rules if your job involves making things, even if it is as simple as a delicious chicken sandwich. As a Knowledge-Worker, we don’t have a governing body making sure we are safe, but that doesn’t mean safety isn’t necessary. It means it is different. Before we get into the Knowledge-Workers safety nets, let’s look at one of history’s most iconic safety nets.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Back in 1933, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge commenced, and at the time, construction projects could expect one death per $1mil spent. The Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss, wanted to buck this trend. So he said he would “cheat death” by providing every known safety device for workers, and he would fire any man we caught stunting on the job. My favorite safety trend was the sauerkraut juice “cures” for hangovers, but the safety net was the real innovation. It saved nineteen people’s lives.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Fast forward a couple of years, and Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the journal Psychological Review in 1943. He stacked our human needs in a nice triangle. Right above food and water is our need for safety. Work has changed dramatically since the 1940s, but our very basic human needs have not. Psychologists break down safety characteristics into health, personal security, emotional security, and financial security. Just because you are a Knowledge worker doesn’t mean that you don’t have these basic needs. It is just different.

Most likely, your two safety needs are emotional and financial. Your job needs to cover these needs, and if it doesn’t, you will get stuck and end up in a funk. The weird thing is you might not even know why or be able to verbalize your mental state. So before we talk about making your personalized safety net, let’s take a quick look at how the brain makes sense of safety.

Safety and the Brain

When threatened, your brain will react. The reaction happens in the oldest part of the brain, the Basal Ganglia. This part of the brain is commonly called the “Reptilian Brain” or “Primal Brain” Its primary purpose is self-preservation and keeping you alive. The “Primal Brain” is the first stop when your brain processes thoughts and the source of the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. When your response comes from here, it can be outside of your awareness. Your “Personal Safety” isn’t at risk at work, so it is most likely more of a dull constant dis-ease.

Your brain will realize a lion is not chasing you on the Serengeti (Personal Safety). Still, it doesn’t realize you are NOT at risk of starving (Financial Safety) and NOT losing your community (Emotional Safety). The weird thing about modern society is that we are more connected and financially secure, yet our “Primal” brain senses financial and emotional danger more acutely.

So how do you get your brain to stop doing ruminating on these modern faux dangers? The only way to do this is to return to a place of safety. If a lion is chasing you in the Serengeti, you can’t just tell yourself to be okay. If a lion is chasing your friend in the Serengeti, you can’t solve their problem by yelling, “It will be okay. You are safe!” You have to return to a safe place, a place without physical, emotional, or financial threats. Once safe, your brain will have enough space to verbalize and process the danger. It is only at this point that your brain will let go of whatever happened. Then and only then can you move to the next level of the pyramid, “Belonging.” If you feel left out and excluded, ask yourself if you feel safe.

Common Knowledge Worker Dangers

The dangers of knowledge workers are different from the “bridgemen” on the Golden Gate Bridge, but your “Reptilian Brain” doesn’t know the difference between falling off a bridge and getting fired. So here is a list of common workplace dangers.

Knowledge Work Dangers

  • Your Boss — They can fire you. They probably won’t, but they could.
  • Missed Deadlines — They happen a lot, and someone has to be the sacrificial lamb. If you expect to miss a deadline, communication and escalation with your boss is critical. Communicate sooner rather than later.
  • Role Mismatch — You are in a danger zone if you are in the wrong role or the role has outgrown you.
  • Unclear Expectations — If expectations are unclear, work will not be a safe place.
  • Accidental Poor Workmanship — Your job has deliverables, and unless you are perfect, you will make mistakes. When you make a mistake, you need a safety net to catch you.

Knowledge Worker Safety Nets

How do you create a safe place at work? Fortunately and unfortunately, it is your responsibility to build your nets. It is unfortunate because it would be great if our companies could step in save the day. But, unfortunately, they can’t because the problem is too complex, requiring a personalized net to meet your needs. Fortunately, you can build a customized safety net that works for you.

Your Customized Safety Net

  • Make your boss look good — Your boss can be your most significant safety net. Your boss won’t want to fire you if you make them look good, and you have the side benefit of feeling more secure.
  • Clarify Authority — Who owns the decision or action? Understanding who is responsible is preventative medicine for preventing safety booby traps.
  • Build You Work Community — Friendship at work is undervalued. When you fall, do you have friends at work that will catch you?
  • Manage your Finances — Build your financial safety net. Give yourself grace if you are starting. Building the habit is what your Basal Ganglia needs.

Take some time to build your net. Then, work your network and let your network be the safety net that catches you when you fall.