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Svend Brinkmann: This is the greatest challenge in the world of work

After decades focusing on endless development, it is now time to take your own personality out of work, before it goes wrong, says Svend Brinkmann, Professor of Psychology.

9. Oct 2023
5 min
English / Dansk
We need to put the idea to rest of being “the whole person” when we are at work, finds Svend Brinkmann Professor of Psychology.

The Danes have been under pressure for many years. If we want to find peace of mind and serenity, we need to put the idea to rest of being “the whole person” when we are at work and find our way back to what will truly do us good: Safety.

Those are the words of Svend Brinkmann, Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University, who recently held a presentation for the members of Finansforbundet in mid-September in Copenhagen.

“We have worshipped the narrative of the art of change and lifelong learning for 25 years. We have understood this message. So, now is the time to maintain some of the viable structures that have been built, and which many people appreciate,” says Svend Brinkmann, indicating that “psychological safety” has become quite a buzzword, but not without reason, he maintains.

“It’s because people have trouble seeing a professional life that is only concerned with burning platforms and the act of juggling multiple activities simultaneously. The concept of disruption has disappeared completely, along with other similar concepts. It has had its time, and now we need to consolidate matters and establish appropriate working frameworks.”

Brinkmann had his public breakthrough in 2014 with his bestseller ”Stand Firm”, which challenges the increasing focus on self-improvement and self-realisation. Several bestsellers have since followed, for which he has received various awards.

Since “Stand Firm” came out, his messages to slow down, stop chasing the new and latest trends and practice saying no to demands, tasks and expectations, have made him a central voice in the debate of how we can live our lives in a more meaningful way; separating our job more from who we are as persons.

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“Very briefly, the great challenge in the world of work is that most people do not work for the sake of the job, but for the sake of an income.”
- Svend Brinkmann, Professor of Psychology, at Aalborg University

Our spare time has become part of work

Disruption, Covid-19 and AI have only reinforced the need for slowing down the pace.

“Very briefly, the great challenge in the world of work is that most people do not work for the sake of the job, but for the sake of an income. When we tighten requirements and KPIs and demand that individuals develop their personality, even asking them to evaluate it, and when we speak about how you are as a person at appraisal interviews, says Svend Brinkmann, elaborating:

“Then, we might be crossing your personal boundaries, or something you would previously have considered your personal space, and when we step into this space and makes it the subject of optimisation and development, that’s when there is a risk that you might strain yourself perhaps even to the point of developing symptoms of stress and burnout.”

According to Brinkmann, this risk is especially present in industries with a high level of competition and many relations to colleagues and customers. He indicates that the boundaries between work and private life have gradually blurred as leisure activities have been weaved into our professional lives.

This is known as the “The Wellness Syndrome”:

“As humans, we are at our best when we are off work and go for walks in nature or spend time with friends or indulge in our interests and hobbies. And modern workplaces saw this and said ‘okay, we need to have this at work’, and then came the DHL Relay Race, choir, massage, pub crawl and all sorts of things linking the employee to the workplace through some sort of meaningful activity despite none of it really being related to the actual work activities,” says Svend Brinkmann.

He finds that a completely different focus is needed.

“I consider it a poor replacement for what would be better: focusing on what it is that you are doing. Obviously, we are not here to run in the DHL Relay Race; we are here to produce something, create something,” he explains.

The risk of a void

Roughly speaking, we need to distinguish more between Private Svend and Professional Svend in contrast to being “ourselves” in everything we do all the time.

“Rather than saying the whole person comes to work, I suggest we say only one third of the person comes to work. This is the third I use to sell my time and skills in return for employment income, and then you can hope that the time spent working – which is relatively many hours over a whole life – has been used in a meaningful way. In case it is not meaningful, you can always look at it at arm’s length and say ‘I have not sold all of me to get this. I find meaning in life in my spare time at the handball club, out in the garden, with my grandchildren, whatever’,” says Svend Brinkmann.

The danger, he says, is that if you put your whole self into your work, it will leave you with a great void when the day comes when – voluntarily or especially involuntarily – you no longer have that job. The risk of seeing your life as unsuccessful and a failure increases if your approach to work is that it must make sense all the time and you need to put yourself into everything at work.

Less competition, more safety

This brings him back to “psychological safety”.

“A lot of research within psychology indicates that human beings function best when they are safe. Ten to fifteen years ago, many were saying that all we needed was a burning platform to set creativity going and so on. There is not much evidence to support this. In fact, people take fewer chances if they don’t feel safe and fear being kicked out next.”

“It is almost like, the safer people are, the better they collaborate, because there is no need for them to promote themselves at the cost of the other employees or at the cost of the group. I would almost go as far as saying that the more you can reduce competition within an organisation, workplace or a corporation, the better,” says Svend Brinkmann.

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