‘Holding’ an Employee – often the most we can do

Applying the psychodynamic theory of ‘holding’ and ‘containing’ at the workplace

Holding and containing an employee is 100% more important than providing a solution. And most importantly, it is ok as a ‘people person’ not not knowing what to say in a challenging 1:1 conversation & not having a clue even. Being fixated a solution ‘no matter what’ (which often derives from pride, immaturity or insecurity) can shift these meaningful 1:1 conversations in a direction that does not serve the HR professional/Team Leader neither the employee. It loses its authenticity and the connection is gone in seconds. Holding is often the most we can do and this is a skill we can certainly develop. I remember how stressed I was in the early years of my career as a HR professional and coach. In a helping role, it is very easy to get lost in our inner world and losing focus of holding the employee or the client. But what is the theory of holding and what does that really mean for HR professionals?

Winnicott’s theory on holding centers on the idea that a mother or primary caregiver provides an environment in which an infant can feel safe and secure, ultimately leading to the development of a strong sense of self. For Winnicott, the “holding” is not just physical but also emotional and psychological, creating a space of trust and acceptance for the infant to grow and develop. Bion’s theory on containing further expands on this idea, suggesting that a caregiver not only holds the infant but also provides a space for them to express and process their emotions and experiences.

So, how might these concepts apply to the workplace? Just as a mother provides a holding and containing environment for an infant, HR professionals and team leaders can create a similar space for their employees. By providing a supportive and inclusive workplace culture, HR professionals and team leaders can help employees feel safe and secure, which can lead to increased job satisfaction, productivity, and a stronger sense of connection to the organisation.

One way that HR professionals and team leaders can create a holding and containing environment is by fostering open and honest communication. Just as a caregiver provides a space for an infant to express their emotions and experiences, HR professionals and team leaders can provide a space for employees to share their thoughts and feelings about their work, the workplace culture, and any challenges they may be facing. By actively listening and responding to employee concerns and feedback, HR professionals and team leaders can demonstrate their support and commitment to their employees’ well-being.

The holding and containing mechanism can be particularly useful in 1:1 conversations between HR professionals and employees who may be experiencing challenges or issues. In such situations, the HR professional’s role is not to solve the employee’s problem but rather to provide a holding and containing environment in which the employee can express their thoughts and feelings, and feel heard and understood.

Just as a mother holds a baby who may be upset or distressed, an HR professional can hold an employee who is experiencing emotional or psychological distress. This means being present, actively listening to the employee, and providing a safe and supportive space for them to share their concerns. By holding the employee in this way, the HR professional can help them feel seen, heard, and valued, which can lead to a greater sense of trust and connection between the employee and the organisation.

While HR professionals are not trained therapists and may not have the same level of expertise or qualifications, it is important for them to develop helping skills and be able to support employees who may be struggling with personal or work-related challenges. By providing a safe and supportive environment, actively listening, and offering guidance, HR professionals can help employees feel heard, validated, and more connected to the organisation. However, it is important for HR professionals to recognise their limitations and to seek out support from licensed mental health professionals when necessary.

Developing the skills to hold and actively listen can take time and practice, but there are a few steps that HR professionals can take to improve their ability to provide support and empathy to employees:

  1. Practice active listening: This involves giving full attention to the speaker and trying to understand their perspective without interrupting or judging. 

  2. Learn about empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. 

  3. Seek feedback: HR professionals can ask for feedback from employees, colleagues, or mentors on their communication and interpersonal skills. 

  4. Attend training or workshops: Organizations may offer training or workshops on communication, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence that can help HR professionals develop their skills. 

Overall, by incorporating the concepts of holding and containing into the workplace, HR professionals and team leaders can create a supportive and inclusive environment that fosters employee growth and well-being.

  • Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: studies in the theory of emotional development. International Universities Press.
  • Bion, W. R. (1962). Learning from experience. Basic Books.
  • Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families. The Guilford Press.
  • Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 184-200.