Ontological security at work


Ontological security is a relatively new framework in the area of psychology. Until the early 90s it was generally believed that humans were primarily concerned with physical security before anything else. However, it is now more widely accepted that ontological security, security of the mind, is critical before all else.

Although mental wellbeing has become more prevalent over the past few years as many seek to remove the stigma of mental health, never has it been as important as during the last year of the pandemic.

Essentially, ontological security is a stable sense of ‘self’. We generate and maintain an idea of who we are based upon our (often fallible) memories, our routine and our daily interactions with the world. We create this ‘narrative’ of who we believe ourselves to be and project this version of ourselves to others who will often affirm and reflect this back to us.

Without ontological security we cannot understand who we are, what our place is or what our interests are. We cannot have purpose or agency and cannot therefore achieve physical security. Consider the devastating effect of dementia as victims gradually withdraw from the world, or the decision of some survivors of domestic abuse to remain in abusive relationships because the alternative of leaving behind a stable identity, even if it is reaffirmed by their abuser, is preferable to the risk of losing their ontological security.


How is ontological security relevant to organisations?

A place of work is an extension of the self as it plays a vitally important part in our narrative and reaffirms our sense of identity. It is for this reason that workplace culture and ethos is vitally important to the psychological wellbeing of its employees.

Although it may be the role of the leadership to set the culture, values and narrative of an organisation, it is HR which is custodians of that vision and therefore must communicate and enforce it. Without this, there is a risk that less desirable, sometimes divisive or toxic sub-cultures develop which can not only affect staff mental wellbeing, but can have a detrimental effect on productivity, attitude and retention.

There’s a discrepancy between reality and the ideal. When the reality of who we are falls short of the ideal we had of ourselves in our heads. For example, the person who believes themselves to be a thoroughly decent person but fails to return a handbag they find filled with money.

We either have to reassess our ideal self and accept the fact that we are not perfect or pull our real selves up by the bootstraps and strive to be a better person in future. The narrower the gap between our real and ideal self the more ontologically secure a person is.

This is why there is such a backlash against social media and the constant pressure on young people to aspire to the Instagram ideal, resulting in a marked increase in self-harm, depression and suicide. The gap between the real and the ideal self is unattainable.


What does an ontologically secure workforce look like?

An ontologically secure workforce is one which identifies positively with its workplace. The organisation is the collective ‘identity’ of the workforce and itself has a ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ identity (consider some of the global brands purporting to be ethical companies while exploiting sweatshop workers or knowingly polluting waterways).

HR is responsible for continually striving to minimise the gap between the two, thus ensuring ontological security.

There are a number of ways HR can achieve this:

  1. Control the narrative - Continually communicate the organisational narrative to the workforce. The brand of an organisation will be rooted in a ‘golden’ history and should have been founded upon a core set of standards and values which should be exemplified by all staff.

  2. Self-awareness - Frequent temperature checks should be taken among the workforce to guard against toxic sub-cultures. This can be done in a number of ways such as having staff champions who can act as go-betweens, or anonymous channels allowing people to complain or make suggestions.

  3. Routine and boundaries - Staff must be fully aware of these so any transgressions can be dealt with transparently and consistently. Enforcing standards holds everyone accountable to the ideal collective identity and provides the routine of having that identity reflected back to the workforce.

  4. Microtraumas - Team building is one of the best ways in which to build workforce resilience and adaptability. Regular pushing beyond comfort zones is an easy way to build confidence and self-pride which reduces the gap between the real and ideal self and increases ontological security. It has the added bonus of collective team 'suffering', which increases team cohesion as well as a feeling of being valued and invested in by the organisation.

  5. Be visible and heard – It is too easy for most people to stay within their own office (or team) but both senior leadership and HR should make every effort to regularly push themselves outside of this comfort zone and visit as many other departments, meeting as many people as possible. You are the ambassador of the organisation’s narrative and, by demonstrating that personal touch and your own commitment to the organisation and its workforce, you are inspiring others to follow suit. Moreover, it provides an unparalleled opportunity to fully understand the true culture of the organisation you also work for.

At the time of writing this article, Kelly Burman was a consultant with training company CounterStrike.