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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-QC-PP27: Organisations as staff health support systems

Parallel Papers Session 6
Sunday 2 July 10.00am-11.00 SAST - ONLINE

Organisations as staff health support systems

Presenters: Akansha Chojher & Fiona Martin


I remember a senior colleague got Covid, and I could arrange for the antiviral for him because I knew the CEO of the pharmaceutical company manufacturing it. In fact, we not only arranged for vaccinations and medicines for employees, but for their families and the other people who live in the communities close to where our factories are.”

The CEO of one of the largest global pharmaceutical companies shared this vignette during a conversation with one of the authors.

In 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic some organisations extended their idea of employee care in entirely new ways (Chojher & Martin, 2022). In 2021 the ‘great resignation’ and the ‘great rethink’ emerged (Gulati, 2022). Early insights suggest that below the surface of these events there is a search by staff for greater meaning in their work lives (Wiles, 2022). In 2022 we have seen some organisations expand the range of ways in which they engage with staff and their focus on ‘wellbeing’ (Sutton, 2022). This paper explores for meaning in the observed phenomena of the ‘great resignation,’ ‘great re-think’ and organisational responses to workers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is but one element of the climate crisis.

The idea of spirituality rests on a search for meaning in whatever form it takes. The great re-think phenomenon assumes individuals are searching for meaning and purpose but asks what is motivating individuals to seek greater meaning? The paper is keen to explore the possibility of social defences operating.

We will also ask what are the roles of the individual, the organisation and social institutions in meeting the needs of individuals for greater meaning to their lives? Is it the task of a commercial organisation to meet the spiritual needs of individuals or is this the task of institutions such as religion, civil society and community? Even if commercial organisations are expanding their attention towards this, what is the motivation? Are they being altruistic or simply attending to the survival task? Alternatively, could it be a social defence against an unbearable anxiety of the possibility of the organisation’s annihilation (Armstrong & Rustin, 2014).

The climate crisis is a result of modern mankind’s breach from the reality of the cyclical relationships that exist between human, nature, and earth. The climate crisis including the COVID-19 pandemic is now brutally confronting mankind, at an individual, organisational, and societal level, with the threat of annihilation. An unbearable reality that may be mobilising unconscious dynamics in society. The growth of social movements (Chenoweth et al 2020, Solnit 2021), those focused on restoring a balance between man and the environment, as well as those between the social fabric and individualistic materialism, perhaps indicate a revival (Tsosoleto) of individual lost connectedness with community and earth as source.

Learning Objectives

Participants will be able to:

  1. Recognise some recent phenomenon from a systems psychodynamic perspective. Including, at the individual level the great resignation and at the organizational level, increased investment in well-being.
  2. Recognise the roles of the individual, the organisation and social institutions in meeting the needs of individuals for greater meaning in their lives.
  3. List the challenges and opportunities for organizations as they take up these new tasks


Armstrong, D. and Rustin, M., 2014. Social defences against anxiety: Explorations in a paradigm.

Chenoweth, E., Choi-Fitzpatrick, A., Pressman, J., Santos, F. G., and Ulfelder, J., 2020. The global pandemic has spawned new forms of activism – and they’re flourishing, The Guardian, UK. forms-of-activism-and-theyre-flourishing

Chojher, A. & Martin, F., 2022. Collected workplace vignettes, Unpublished.

Gulati, R., 2022. The Great Resignation or the Great Rethink, Harvard Business Review, New York, USA. The Great Resignation or the Great Rethink?

Solnit, R., 2021. The Trump Era wasn’t all bad. We saw progress - thanks to social movements. The Guardian, UK. movements-protest

Sutton, J., 2022. Understanding the Great Resignation in Australia, The Access Group, UK.

Wiles, J., 2022. Employees Seek Personal Value, and Purpose at Work. Be Prepared to Deliver. Gartner. prepared-to-deliver

Biographical Summaries

Fiona Martin is an organisational consultant, coach, and researcher. Her research interest is the impact of disruptive environments including climate change, on leadership, management, and group dynamics especially in relation to the capacity of organisations to remain focused on purpose and their ability to learn from their experiences. Her current research is into barriers and enablers to research utilisation, organisational learning, and animal-human relations. Her findings have practical application for the understanding of group dynamics in contemporary organisations. She has authored and co-authored academic papers, is a research associate of NIODA, a member of the Editorial Board of Socioanalysis, a Director of Group Relations Australia and a member of the organising committee of the NIODA Symposium 2017-22.

Akansha Arora
Over the last twenty years, I have viewed my professional identity as that of a Human Resource Professional. Amongst the various roles that I have held I found the most joy in the last role as Director of Human Resources for KFC India. The complexities of managing large teams and myriad stakeholders. In the last three years this identity has expanded to embrace being a consultant who attempts to bring the unconscious to the conscious; a researcher who is attempting to bridge research and application and an advocate for vulnerable youth and children in India. My relevant education includes the Executive Masters in Change from INSEAD and a Professional Doctorate from the Tavistock and Portman Trust that I am currently pursuing.