Unfucking work with Laura Aiken
This month on the podcast we’re confronting corporate trauma with Laura Aiken. Laura is a Consultant and Founder of Thrive Leadership. She helps businesses understand and manage stress to build cultures of resilience through workshops, programmes and retreats.
What is the one thing you would do to unilaterally unfuck work?
It’s hard to pick just one thing to unfuck about the workplace. After ten years in engineering and construction around the world I’ve noticed that alongside the many great things about work (challenge, fun, purpose, growth, relationships), there are pervasive, institutional and normalised work processes that can have a very damaging impact on people – and in the worst cases traumatise people.
But I like to work in the practical and tangible, and the big corporate machine we’ve built over the past couple of hundred years is a hard nut to crack. Something we all can influence right now is how we’re showing up to work.
As soon as you put people together in the pressure cooker that is the corporate world, you’re mixing personalities, perceptions, experiences, stressors, triggers, and traumas. We bring our baggage to work and it invariably affects other people. The quality of your relationships can make or break the workplace experience.
One of the biggest things we can all do is take ownership of our own stress and emotions and learn ways to regulate them and build personal resilience, but also, crucially, build resilient teams who are compassionate and accountable for collectively managing emotions.
This looks like building deep self-awareness of what stress feels like for you and learning what you need when you experience it, so you can self-care, ask for help, and manage your effect on others. But it also is about growing awareness of the people you work with and taking action to support them. What are the signs of stress in your teammates and what works for them to manage their stress?
The next step is regular team rituals that support everyone to manage stress and grow long-term resilience – these work best when there’s a variety of small but consistent activities that help teams engage their bodies, their brains, and grow connection with others.
When teams practice this, we create eco-systems of psychological safety and support that help people look after themselves, set boundaries, and ask for the working environment they need – and that can ripple through an organisation.
Personal resilience and team resilience are building blocks to organisational resilience. There are of course bigger things that are affecting people; inflexible work policies, unrealistic project timelines, under-resourcing, poor organisational change, and performance management based only on the bottom line and not on behaviour; but relationships underpin our ability to navigate the big stuff. If we are regulated, feel supported, and have positive relationships in our teams, we have more resources to shape the life and work we want – and it’s more fun too!
And finally, if we’ve done our own work and a company can’t deliver this basic building block, then we also have the resources to find one that will.
What is the best example of unfucking work you’ve seen in the wild?
It’s not one specific example but a general example is the great resignation, or what the most recent Woman in The Workplace Report is calling “The Great Breakup”. This is such a fantastic example of people getting collective clarity on how they want to work and not compromising on it, and it’s put the onus on companies to make a real step-change in work environment, pay, benefits, and culture as a whole.
Who is your unfucking work icon? The ultimate Work Pirate?
Arianna Huffington, who went from corporate icon to severe burnout to global advocate for science-based solutions to end stress and burnout. She’s an evangelist of the anti-hustle: self-care, sleep, and humanity at work. Arianna and her company Thrive Global is a constant source of inspiration for me.
Recommend a book, podcast or article to our Work Pirates crew that made you think differently about work.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté. These are incredibly insightful reads on the impact of stress on the body and strategies to manage and regulate stress. They helped me understand the complexities of bringing different people – all with different pasts and experiences – together in teams in a way that is compassionate and trauma-informed.