Drive and Soothe – how to get the balance right in the workplace

What can we do to thrive with good mental health in the workplace?  Dr Bradley Mann, a consultant clinical psychologist, and CBT therapist at themindworks, recently spoke to a group of HR and Business Leaders at a briefing hosted by Mental Health at Work. He firmly believes that understanding “survival mode” at work is key.

Threat, drive and soothe

Within survival mode, he says, there are three factors at play. Based on Gilbert’s Compassionate mind model, there is a threat level; in which there is anxiety associated with meeting targets, fear about the implications of not meeting them and feeling overwhelmed and stressed as a result. To counteract this, a motivational system called drive kicks in; enabling us to achieve, meet and reach goals and targets. But the drive system can be fairly fragile, he says, particularly if you hit a ceiling in a career or are just exhausted.  When drive stops working, individuals will work longer, try harder and compete more, only to find that this no longer works and that they are completely exhausted and burnt out.  This is because the soothe system is out of balance; the part where an individual needs to feel content, looked after and protected.

What Dr Mann sees in some clients is an overdeveloped drive system, and a tiny soothe system, where the factors are out of balance.  An employee may feel guarded, defensive, or threatened at work, which will affect their performance. Furthermore this impacts on workplace culture in heightening a blame culture, lack of innovation and defensive practice.

So what can you do to thrive?

Dr Mann suggests that companies should aim for a better balance between the drive and soothing systems for example:

  • Having a compassionate culture in the workplace – learning rather than blaming
  • Focusing on growth and process rather than what went wrong
  • Leaders talking openly about mental health as role models
  • Getting the policies right – such as well-being and mental health programs
  • Keeping mental health on the agenda, as essential for the health of the company AND making the business case in reducing the costs of mental ill-health

For an individual, Dr Mann says, employees do have the right to disconnect work and home.  He acknowledges it is hard to switch off, but his advice is to be practical, turn off the mobile and limit access work emails at home.  A learning culture is about celebrating failure, gaining from lessons learnt rather than pointing the finger and risk getting into survival mode.  Middle managers, he says, are key to the process, but usually need training and confidence building in this approach to really make changes and for organisations to fully experience the benefits.

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