This guest post written by Milena Braticevic, PhD Integral Health
Psychological safety is becoming one of the main concerns in today’s complex work environment. A recent Workhuman study revealed that 48% of workers have experienced burnout and 61% had elevated stress levels during the pandemic. Considering these statistics, would you as a leader describe your current workplace culture as ‘relaxed’? Do you have policies in place that help prevent burnout and systematically lower stress levels in your workforce?
On October 25, the Ontario Minister of Labour, Training, and Skills Development introduced legislation in the Working for Workers Act, 2021 that would make it easier for people to relax by requiring employers to develop disconnecting from work policies. We know that, when people feel psychologically safe, they can express themselves authentically, be innovative, and creatively collaborate with others. However, it is important to inquire into the necessary conditions for authenticity, creativity, and collaboration in the workplace.
Drivers of Authenticity and Creativity
When we feel authentic, we are relaxed, comfortable with who we are, and can speak our mind. Similarly, when doing something creative, we typically feel relaxed, connected, and fully immersed in what we are doing. In his book “True Meditation”, Adyashanti described this state of being as the natural state or‘the direct experience of life beyond concepts, limits, or separation, a state of effortless effort, of feeling alive’. The key to accessing the natural state where we can be authentic and creative, lies in our ability to relax. If relaxed, we can be more open to new experiences, learning, and creative collaboration.
The science of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) shows the importance of relaxation for both physical and mental wellbeing. Measuring the variation of time in between heartbeats, HRV indicates how quickly a person can switch from an active into a relaxed state. According to Harvard Health, people with high HRV have greater cardiovascular fitness and are more resilient to stress. They recover quickly, generally sleep well, and have a high level of cognitive performance. On the other hand, people with low HRV tire easily and suffer from cardiovascular problems, reduced cognitive function, anxiety, and depression. Affecting all the systems in the body – cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, respiratory, and the nervous system, our ability to relax ultimately impacts our overall wellbeing.
Relaxation as a Muscle
The ability to relax is like a muscle that needs to be exercised every day. Because of neuroplasticity, if we are used to experiencing stress, the neural connections associated stress will be more accessible, and it will be difficult to relax. In his book ‘Fasting the Mind’, Jason Gregory explained the negative effects of stress on the nervous system:
The sympathetic nervous system is sometimes considered the ‘fight or flight’ system because it is activated in cases of emergencies to mobilize energy. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is often considered the ‘rest and digest’ system because it is activated when we are in a relaxed state. The war on our nervous system is essentially the over-stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system along with an under-stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
An uncertain work environment can overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system and create chronic stress and burnout. Relatively harmless situations such as a full inbox, looming deadlines, juggling priorities, and managing conflict at work can evoke a ‘flight or flight’ response and further reduce our ability to cope. Learning how to improve our relaxation response and build those neural connections that make us feel calm and composed can offset chronic stress and help prevent burnout.
Our ability to activate the relaxation response can be systematically improved through daily practices. Going for a walk, spending time in nature, taking a break to re-charge, practicing deep breathing, and meditation can all be helpful in improving our ability to relax. By supporting and promoting relaxation, organizations can help employees achieve more balance and wellbeing.
Creating a Culture of Relaxation
In high-stress work environments, it is imperative that leaders understand the need for regular renewal and rejuvenation. Leaders concerned about psychological safety can reflect on the following questions:
- How much value do we place on relaxation in our organization?
- Are we doing enough to ensure our workers can recover from stress?
- Do we believe that a culture of relaxation can benefit our people personally and professionally?
Some of the ways to promote a culture of relaxation can include introducing ‘balance hour’ – an hour that would allow workers to have a nutritious meal, take a break to recharge, or go for a walk. Booking calls or scheduling meetings during this time would be discouraged to allow for recovery and help workers prepare for the rest of the day.
In line with valuing the whole-person, organizations can support workers by promoting renewal at the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. A Harvard Business Review study showed that energy can be systematically renewed at the physical level through exercise, good nutrition, and rest. At the mental level, renewal can be done by practicing focused attention and eliminating distractions, such as multitasking or unnecessary meetings. Expressing gratitude and appreciation as well as celebrating achievements can improve employee wellbeing at the emotional level. At the spiritual level, ensuring that work is meaningful and in line with personal goals can support ongoing renewal.
People instinctively turn towards those environments that keep them nourished and allow for learning and expansion. In her book ‘Positivity: An upward spiral that will change your life’, Barb Frederickson explained that our minds can either expand or contract depending on whether we are in a nourishing or constricting environment. In today’s workplace where talent retention is increasingly important, creating a culture of relaxation may just be the key to sustained employee wellbeing and long-term success.