Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to speak up, share your struggles, express your true feelings or take a risk, but felt held back by fear of judgment or failure?
Remember those days where you felt like everything and everyone conspired against you? Where the challenges in your private life added to your stress at work, and the constant flow of bad news made the bottom drop out of the barrel?
That’s where a holding environment comes in. It’s a unique psychological space that can empower us to push past our limitations and reach our full potential – even in totally wacky times.
In this article, we’ll dive into the concept of holding environment, explore its benefits, and discuss how it can be applied in the workplace to weather storms, reduce stress and create a positive, productive work culture and encourage personal growth – even in the face of adversity.
So, buckle up and get ready to discover how a holding environment can change your and your company’s life!
What Is A Holding Environment?
A holding environment is a psychological space where we feel both safe and uncomfortable.
It is an environment that provides a sense of safety and support, but also challenges us to step outside of our comfort zone and experiment with new ways of thinking and acting.
The concept of holding environment was first introduced in 1953 by Donald W. Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. According to Winnicott, the holding environment is the physical and emotional environment in which we experiences a sense of safety, warmth, and support. This environment is crucial for each one of us, especially in our early years, to develop a healthy sense of self and to build strong relationships with others.
Let’s turn to an analogy to better understand what a holding environment feels like.
Think of a butterfly trying to break out of its cocoon. When a butterfly is ready to emerge from its cocoon, it has to struggle and push against the walls of the cocoon to break free. This not only looks uncomfortable and painful to us, it actually is incredible hard to work through all that goo. Yet, it’s a necessary part of the butterfly’s growth and development.
A holding environment is like the cocoon for the butterfly. It’s a special kind of space where we can grow and learn new things, even if they’re difficult or uncomfortable. And just like the butterfly needs to push against the walls of its cocoon to become stronger and ready to fly, we need to face challenges and push ourselves outside of our comfort zone in order to learn to cope, grow, and take to the sky.
Oftentimes, this is not only uncomfortable but even scary. However, just like the butterfly has the support of the cocoon to help it develop, we have people in our lives who care about us. They want to help us learn and grow. They can create a holding environment that is both safe and uncomfortable, so that we can become the best and healthiest version of ourselves.
In our childhood it is our parents, in school our teachers, and in sports our coaches that need to build that space for us. When it comes to our health it is our doctor or therapist that can create a holding environment. And at work it hopefully is our managers.
Let’s take a closer look at why that matters and why there has never been a time when a holding environment mattered more than now.
Why Does It Matter For Workplace Mental Health?
We spend about a third of our adult lives at work and the environment we encounter there affects how we feel about ourselves, our roles and our capacities. It affects how we interact with others, how we develop and how much we progress. Here are three main reasons a holding environment impacts workplace mental health:
- A holding environment is essential for workplace mental health because it creates a space where we can bring our whole selves to work, explore new ideas and take risks without the fear of judgment or failure. It allows employees – and even entire teams – to push themselves beyond their limits, develop new skills and enrich their perspectives.
- Additionally, a holding environment in the workplace promotes a sense of psychological safety, which is crucial for our mental health. When we feel safe and supported, we are more likely to speak up, share our ideas, and collaborate with others.
- This leads to a more sustainable and productive work environment, which in turn can have a positive impact on our overall well-being and mental readiness.
By creating a holding environment in the workplace, managers and colleagues alike can empower fellow employees to reach their full potential and foster a culture of growth and development. This is particularly important in current times where the cost of lost productivity due to mental health issues at work are breaking records.
Holding Environment Doesn’t Mean A Cozy Place
It is important to note that a holding environment is not just about making employees feel safe.
It is also about creating a sense of discomfort that motivates individuals to confront their problems and make positive changes.
This discomfort can come in many forms, such as a challenging project, a difficult conversation, or a change in the company culture.
The discomfort of a holding environment is what encourages us to stand up for themselves, to take risks and to experiment with new ways of being. It is uncomfortable enough to motivate us to confront our problems and make changes, but safe enough that we feel supported throughout the process.
Leaders in the workplace play a critical role in creating a holding environment. They’re tasked with creating a culture that encourages risk-taking and experimentation, while also providing support and guidance to the growing number of employees who are struggling.
Where the typical suggestions around a healthy workplace culture include strategies such as open communication, active listening, and a willingness to provide constructive feedback, we need to look beyond that to build a holding environment in today’s demanding circumstances.
4 Building Blocks During Challenging Times
In the current uncertain, challenging times, more and more employees are feeling stressed, weak, confused, anxious, and misunderstood.
And no, this is not “just because we live in a mental health crisis.”
Rather, stressed employees are often responding exactly as they should, given the conditions of what they’re going through in their private and professional lives. Creating a holding environment therefore starts with acknowledgment and the following building blocks:
- Acknowledgment: Acknowledging that these challenges are not just personal struggles, but also societal and collective issues goes a long way. Acknowledging and validating what employees are going through is very different from “feeling sorry” or joining the song of the many complaints. It is about showing respect for the reality each employee is experiencing.
- Active Listening: As managers, it is crucial to actively listen to our employees. This means being present and showing heartfelt patience while they sort through their feelings and thoughts. Offering guidance and stability, without talking down problems or taking the difficulties away from the employees’ shoulders, or patronizing them.
It is essential to endure the tension that arises when listening to employees’ struggles, such as financial concerns, job insecurity, loneliness, effects of social media, climate crisis, war, and the complexity of an ever-changing world.
- Call it what it is: Have an open and honest conversations about these topics, acknowledging that we are all going through this together. Call the problems by their name instead of focusing solely on the symptoms at hand. Symptoms like exhaustion, confusion and overwhelm are common responses to something deeper, more societal, and more collective.
By addressing the root causes of employees’ stress, anxiety, and depression, you can create a holding environment that promotes mental well-being and focuses on the areas that lie within each employee’s control. That’s where they can start building the skills and mental readiness to deal with whatever the future holds.
- Activate collective resources: Creating a holding environment for employees also means to that they’re enabled to tap into collective resources. When we tackle problems together and work collaboratively, challenges that would be too difficult to face alone can be mastered.
A holding environment fosters a common understanding of how to maintain hope, motivation, purpose and meaning in the worst of circumstances.
With a holding environment in place, employees learn how to cope, how to collaborate, and how to face challenges no matter how bonkers things get.
And when they find themselves covered in goo, they’ll know they need to keep going because they’re not going at it alone.
To better illustrate how these suggestions can be implemented in a straightforward manner, check out the following 4 case studies. From coping in a fast-paced environment, to financial, relationship and mental health issues – there is always a way for managers to acknowledge, listen, name the problem and activate support.
Building A Holding Environment: 4 Case Studies
1. Clara: Breaking The Overtime Cycle
Clara was a hard-working employee at a fast-paced tech startup. She always tried to meet her deadlines and deliver quality work. However, recently, she had been struggling to keep up with her workload, and so she turned to working long hours and weekends. Her manager, Rachel, noticed that Clara seemed exhausted, stressed and irritated. She decided to meet with Clara to discuss her workload and any issues she may be facing. She listened to Clara’s concerns and offered support by suggesting ways to manage her workload, walking her through stress management strategies and the importance of recovery.
At the same time, Rachel set expectations with Clara for her future work performance, letting her know that the long hours she had been working were neither sustainable nor acceptable. She asked Clara to co-create a plan with her for how she would manage her workload and make time for recovery going forward. In addition Rachel held her accountable for following through on that plan.
Rachel couldn’t make the pressure of a fast-paced tech startup go away but she could support Clara in building a better response to it. Clara felt acknowledged and was motivated to improve her approach to work.
2. Julian: Tackling Financial Distress
Julian was a friendly and outgoing employee who loved working with his team. However, he had been absent from work for several days, and his manager, Olivia, was concerned about his well-being. Olivia reached out to Julian to check in on him and offer support. It turned out that Julian had serious financial problems that he was trying to fix all by himself. Olivia immediately connected him with the company’s employee assistance program and got him in touch with a peer that had gone through similar challenges.
At the same time, Olivia set expectations with Julian for his future attendance and work performance. She let him know that his absence had put additional pressure on his team and that it was important for him to communicate more effectively about his needs and availability. Olivia worked with Julian to develop a plan for how he would manage his workload going forward, including regular check-ins to ensure he was meeting his commitments.
Olivia did not make Julian’s financial problems disappear, but he felt supported by her and his peer. With the help of the plan they developed, Julian was able to cope and get back on track soon.
3. Becky: Overcoming A Nasty Breakup
Becky was a skilled employee who had been struggling to focus at work and was increasingly making mistakes. Her manager, Linda, noticed that Becky was struggling and scheduled a meeting to better understand the cause of her distraction. Although Becky’s issues were related to a nasty breakup in her private life, Linda offered support by providing training around boundary setting, selfcare and how to disconnect from worries.
At the same time, Linda set expectations with Becky for her future work performance, letting her know that her mistakes were not acceptable. She encouraged her to take ownership of her work and strive for resilience in her private life. Linda worked with Becky to develop a plan for how she would improve her personal skills and meet her goals, including regular feedback and coaching.
Linda didn’t turn Becky’s breakup around but she empowered her to build up the right response. Becky felt supported by her manager and appreciated the additional resources she provided to help her claim back her private and professional strength.
4. Tom: Prioritizing Mental Health
Tom was a dedicated manager who was going through a tough time with his mental health. His boss, Gabriel, noticed that Tom seemed to be struggling and that it was affecting his work and his relationship with colleagues. Gabriel offered support by connecting Tom with resources such as counseling and time off.
At the same time, Gabriel set expectations with Tom for his way back into a work routine, letting him know that he needed to face his struggles and accept help. They sat together to develop a plan for how he would manage his recovery and prioritize his responsibilities, including regular check-ins to ensure he was staying on track.
Gabriel couldn’t spare Tom from going through a dark time and having to face his mental health issues.
But he built a holding environment for him. Tom felt supported by his boss and encouraged to fully own his mental health journey so he could be back to his healthy and productive self soon.
Why Catching Early Trends Is Key
Many problems in our private or professional life start with a slight change in our behavior or our emotional health. Ideally we spot them early on and do not wait until they snowball into bigger problems that take a toll on our well-being, our career or our relationships.
As individuals we can best notice changes by keeping a simple journal. The Earkick selfcare companion is a free app that makes it very easy to keep an overview over our emotional and behavioral trends.
As managers we can best identify changes in our team members by keeping an eye on our employees’ mental readiness trends and seeking a conversation early.
At Earkick we provide a full-fledged solution to workplace mental health. It acts as an intuitive selfcare companion for employees and as a real-time dashboard solution for employers. Full privacy is granted and employees can do self-check-ins in just a few seconds using text, voice, or video. The Earkick AI analyzes the data in real time and offers immediate personalized feedback as well as actionable suggestions.
The solution requires no personal information and offers science-based sequences to reduce stress, set achievable goals and build healthy habits. Earkick also provides immediate feedback, guided sessions, stress management techniques, and much more, enabling members to become their happiest and healthiest selves.