Healthy workplaces – Competence not chance

by Tobias Fransson - 27/11/2017 - 12:15

In a time of rapid chance and technological excellence, how can we embrace both developing times and our “stone age” brain and body to build healthy workplaces? Almost any leader would agree that great co-workers are the most valuable and appreciated assets in building success, but how can we work not only to attract these but also to make them want to stay employed? And how do we build workplaces where health is promoted and need for support can be safely expressed? All these questions cohere. On 20171115, Länsförsäkringar invited Ingrid Almgren Sjölander, licensed psychologist to discuss this. Here are four main takeaways.


1. Your stress system is a friend


General understanding of stress often builds on pathology rather than it’s perfect capacity to mobilize us for action and work. Take a look at the circles below (adapted from Paul Gilbert, CFT). The red circle below depicts our stress- and activation system where we are firmly “lit up” for action – preparing us to go into the blue Achievement/Reward system where we can work, create, “hunt” and feel really good about it.


Problems come from staying too long in the red circle’s states of fight/flight/freeze/tend-to-befriend (the latter being a way of curling others to avoid aggression or threat). Or from just shifting between the feeling good-blue circle of reward, where we feel alive and like we could go on forever, and then head right back to the red stress circle again. This will drain the systems in long run and make it more difficult to go from stressful red to rewarding blue. Many of the negatives in the red stress system - like feeling worried, anxious or irritated - then show up, and are the main cause of the red system’s bad reputation. You’ve just stayed in there too long!



2. Human sustainability comes from going full circle.


What workplaces, corporate strategies, leaders and co-workers should enable is going full circle. This is depicted above as going green after blue. Green is an oxytocin-supported system for feeling safe and connected to others without achieving. At workplaces this is promoted for example by a friendly smile, a shared laugh, a small talk or just a feeling of being accepted. Green can come from resting and pausing but the key component to make it really potent is connectedness. For sure we can come into this system even when alone, but it actually builds on skills we learn from being with others, and the more good experience we get in being “green” the easier it will be for us to get there.


3. Friendliness creates openness


Building a friendly workplace is a key component of enabling a full circle, and being able to ask for help when things don’t work.  Here, leaders need to set great examples, by promoting an open and friendly climate. This actually shows up in research again and again as a sign of an attractive employer. Co-workers also greatly contribute to this - seeing as they are actually the work environments of each other. This difference can be made today!


Friendliness is actually, even at a neurological level, a sign of a healthy brain and nervous system. It also signalizes that we are not to busy minding our own business but are open to meaningful contact and interest in others. This makes it easier to ask for help and support.


4. Keep a support system


The advice above is for promoting health and creating an open climate where help can be asked for. Not all problems are solved by this, but can be more easily addressed in a safe setting. Consider keeping an external support system to offer assistance when needed. A good health insurance is a great start, but put some effort into finding one that can also be part of your systematic work with health promotion. Länsförsäkringars health insurance offers both support services with preventive focus, right level of care when treatment is needed, and coordinated rehabilitation.


How often should a full circle happen on one day?


As a rule of thumb you should make a full circle happen at least twice per workday to avoid a negative overflow of cortisol. And much more often at home if everything works fine there. We are not talking about hours of off time but a climate that has built in incentives for working together and keeping pace with each other.


Are employers responsible for making this happen?


Leaders are responsible for enabling this and to promote a good work-personal time balance. If “green” is missing in personal life due to for example loneliness or relational difficulties, which it does for many of us at times, a “full circle”-workplace can make up for this for a long time. If full circle is missing both at work and at home – chances are things could get really rough. Good help from your workplace makes all the difference.




We are fully prepared as social mammals to struggle, survive – and to connect with each other. And luckily – change is always possible due to the plasticity of our brains.


By Ingrid Almgren Sjölander , Psykologi med mera, November 2017

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