How Unconscious Forces Drive Our Behaviour At Work
We take everything to work, even our attachment styles
Workplace consultant Gabriella Braun, author of All That We Are, explains how you can apply psychoanalytic thinking to the workplace
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Remove the desks and chairs, the computers and cupboards, the factory floor or operating theatre and you have people. Just people. And everything we, as people, bring to our workplaces. Our hopes, our fears, our histories and personalities. Our thoughts and feelings, attitudes and beliefs, our understandable and unfathomable behaviours. We bring all that we are.
Work does far more than occupy our time and provide our livelihood. It provides an outlet for our intelligence and skills. It’s part of our identity, a source of belonging and exclusion, of pleasure and pain. The dynamics of different relationships in the workplace, giving rise to issues of power, status, equality, camaraderie and competition, touch every one of us and every part of us. Much as we may want to, we cannot leave aspects of ourselves outside the building or virtual space when we go to work.
In that shared space, we create working norms and a common culture. They are influenced by wider society and the nature of the work – a hospital’s ethos, for instance, differs from a car plant. The culture of each workplace is also affected by the personalities and psychological makeup of its leaders and staff. And, since organisations bring groups of people together, they are encrypted with the intricacies of what it means to be human.
Yet, we’ve spent years dehumanising the workplace in an attempt to exponentially increase productivity and profit. We’ve tried to rationalise and control our ways of working as if we were robots. In the process, we’ve created burnout cultures in which human beings fare badly. Our lives, and our mental health and wellbeing have suffered. So, ironically, has our work.
I help leaders and teams to be at their best by attending to the hidden, often unknown, motives behind their behaviour and the dynamics between them. I see the effect of stress and burnout on a daily basis. A team too demoralised, too stressed and anxious to even notice each other or say hello when they arrive in the office. A coaching client crying throughout the session, saying over and over, "I’ve had enough. No more. I can’t do it." A team holding on by their fingernails under the relentless stress of treating highly disturbed and disturbing patients in an understaffed, under-resourced, mental health service.
The barrage of stress comes from all around: from the state of our politics and society; from clients, shareholders and stakeholders; from targets, the requirement for instant responses, the push to do more for less.
Stress also comes from within us. Our own push and pressure. Our own dismissal of the way our minds work.
In 2017 a UK government report, 'Thriving at Work: the Stephenson/Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers', highlighted a growing and far greater mental health problem in the workplace than we had acknowledged. There followed a substantial increase in mental health first aid training.
But what does mental health first aid really change? It doesn’t address the causes of mental ill health. At a time when funding of mental health treatment services has been drastically cut, it provides a sticking plaster. Of course, acknowledging the problem is important. As is reducing stigma, training staff to spot signs of mental health difficulties, to have conversations with colleagues and direct them to sources of help. It’s a start, but it’s insufficient.
We need to understand the issues behind the statistics. And the statistics are bad: work-related stress, depression and anxiety have continued to rise, with 602,000 cases reported in 2018/19, representing 44 per cent of all work-related illness and 12.8 million lost working days – 54 per cent of all working days lost because of ill health.
Bullying and harassment have also increased, telling of a demise in compassion and care. In 2019, France Télécom was found guilty of ‘institutional harassment’ after a spate of staff suicides, and the UK Post Office found guilty of wrongful prosecution of hundreds of branch managers. These extreme cases warn of the consequences when bullying spirals out of control and employees become dehumanised objects.
We can only change this by taking human nature and its implications in the workplace seriously. At the moment, it doesn’t happen nearly often enough.
Gabriella Braun is the author of All That We Are