July 7, 2021

Workplace Wellness and Values | Dr. Laura Villa

Workplace Wellness and Values | Dr. Laura Villa

Are You part of shaping the new normal?
Do You and Your organization Acknowledge and honor?
Helping busy people with 🚩 trauma 🚩 PTSD, return to work, develop stress resilience and Workplace Well-being Dr. Laura Villa.

Dr. Laura Villa is a Trauma and Stress Specialist with City Living Psychology who focuses on helping people develop stress resilience and workplace wellbeing. Dr. Laura is passionate about helping people get unstuck from what holds them back and how to live a more fulfilling life based on their values.


She believes that understanding the interplay between trauma, workplace stress, and mental health is essential to promote better wellbeing in the workplace. Trauma is an experience, not an event. Chronic stress has an impact. 

What inspired?  

  • Learning about the importance of linking trauma and stress together to understand the impact.

What challenged?  

  • The depth of chronic stress and its impact on our nervous system, health, and well-being.  

Self-Challenge: The need to deepen my understanding PTSD and epigenetic, take action in address issues and resolve.

What intrigued? 

  • The process of helping people to understand the layers of stress.


About the Guest

Dr. Laura Villa is a chartered Clinical Psychologist and the Director of City Living Psychology, a service specializing in helping people struggling with stress, anxiety, and trauma.

About the Show 

Podcast Host: Life & Leadership: A Conscious Journey with Michelle St Jane

A podcast for Global and Re-Emerging Leadership creating community/tribe, a circle of influence, transcendency of compassionate leadership in the world and wider universe. A unique destination for learning about Leadership + Conscious Stewardship + Legacy.

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Intro: [00:00:00] You're listening to life and leadership, a conscious journey. The podcast that shares wisdom and strength. Join your host, Dr. Michelle St Jane's weekly conversation on how to have a positive impact on people, the planet, and the wider world. If you want to live a life of intention, to be proactive with your time, and bring your vision for the future to live one today at a time you were in the right place at the right time. Let's get started. 

Michelle St Jane: [00:00:38] Dr. Laura Villa is a trauma and stress specialist with City Living Psychology. She focuses on helping people develop stress resilience and workplace wellbeing. Laura is passionate about helping people get unstuck from what holds You back and how to live a more fulfilling life based on your values.

She believes that understanding the interplay between trauma, workplace stress, and mental health is essential to promote better wellbeing in the workplace. Trauma is an experience, not an event. Chronic stress has an impact. Trauma distorts neuro-ception and creates defensive reactions. Did you know when you're in a state of great resilience, then things bounce off your insights into resilience as a trending area of interest.

When you are in a state of fight, flight or defense then those stimuli result in and hyper reaction, aggressiveness, or a sense of being hurt. If the autonomic nervous system is in a state of shutting down, you are what's called dissociative. You don't even recognize what's being said to you. Understanding this is critically important for creating well-being in your organization.

How often do we talk about addictions in the workplace? How do addictions affect the individual, the team, if not the whole organization, and beyond? Does your workplace have solutions to improve employee emotional wellbeing and support those already struggling? How do you and your organisation help people as they face many complexities of life and work? How do your employees manage the stress of the workplace, especially those who become overwhelmed? How does your organisation manage sick leave, and return to work? How much knowledge is housed in your workplace around trauma? There are three different types, shock trauma, such as having an accident, an assault, or a natural disaster, developmental or relational trauma, chronic adversity abuse, neglect, lack of safety. This applies to the workplace as well, and there can be other experiences like chronic toxic stress, childhood medical procedures, adverse community environments, and intergenerational stress.  Epigenetics is now evidencing intergenerational stress.

I’m a big fan of the polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges. He originated this to look at the different states that evolve through vertebrate systems. You have ancient systems that are basically shutting down systems and you have newer ones that could be used for mobilization, like flight or fight. This is a uniquely mammalian system which is a social system. We are saying my goal in life is to co-regulate with someone to feel safe.

The Vagas Nerve is 80% sense. The fibers are sensory. It's a surveillance system. It tells you whether you can be open to the world or close to the world. 

[00:03: 44] Dr. Laura Villa. I appreciate you joining the conversation. How did you get into this area of work, by choice or by chance? 

Laura Villa: [00:03:53]  I have to say definitely by choice.

Michelle St Jane: [00:04:04] Did you always know you wanted to study this and where you were going to go? 

Laura Villa: [00:04:08] Oh, definitely. I mean, since I was a child that was interested in psychology, then in my clinical training I really, really enjoyed it. And when I was at the end of my training, I just made my way to the UK. Here I am, 13, 14 years later, practicing as a clinical psychologist in London. 

Michelle St Jane: [00:04:32] I really appreciate your workaround for workplace addictions.  For my audience members who have no idea about workplace addictions.  Why they're important? Can you just bring that to the conversation?

Laura Villa: [00:04:47] Consider that as a clinical psychologist that people come to see me mainly because of really feeling under pressure at work and the problems that normally brings.

It's not necessarily addictions as such, but what they come with is wanting a workaround,  sort of reducing the stress levels. What we find when we start exploring and working together, is that most of these people, I find are stuck in an actual shape pattern of behaviors. Which include using maladaptive strategies to make them feel better.

These strategies can be using drugs, overworking, because we identify as overworking as again a sort of pattern of behavior that they use to reduce stress by working more.  But that becomes an addictive behavior as well. Some people find themselves stuck in sexual behavior being hypersexual, or food and gambling.

These are the sorts of addictions that come up the most. What's really interesting is that they don't come necessarily because of this reason. They don't think necessarily these are problems they want to face. They come more for depression, say, then we identified that these stuckness slopes are really the ones that need exploring, and need addressing.

Michelle St Jane: [00:06:36] Oh, absolutely. I know at the end of last century and the beginning of this century, I was working 60, 80, 100-hour workweeks, parenting four children, and most of my colleagues had a wife and a mother. People who would help.  I didn't find there was a heck of a lot of support for women, sadly.

If there was a dental appointment, I had to take my child to the dentist, I had a lot of explaining because they were meetings and dentists are not always flexible about you changing appointments because it's an emergency meeting about an acquisition or a merger or something like that.

Then you're worried, you know, I'm replaceable, and I'm the primary breadwinner, primary caregiver. These days added to that conversation is how you can be the sandwich generation with your children, as well as with elder, unwell, or with disabled family members. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Laura Villa: [00:07:36] Absolutely. I would agree with you on that

Michelle St Jane: [00:07:41].  How do you develop stress resilience as an individual? 

Laura Villa: [00:07:46] This is a piece of work that takes a little while in terms of a few therapy sessions.  The idea is really to become aware of the challenges that you're facing really.  The idea is to sit with your pain points. Exploring together what is happening in your life. Make links, identify what belongs to the past, because for some people that is rooted in trauma. Sitting with those uncomfortable feelings.

Then really looking at three levels, if you like.  

Looking at how our nervous system responds to our environment, how we pick up clues of safety and track, looking at what we bring from our past because obviously, we have developed strategies in that way.Looking at our strength points. Thinking about what we do already. What we can strengthen.  

Really it's about sitting with these uncomfortable feelings. Identify patterns of behavior that get us stuck. This is the addiction part. Then taking courageous actions. Discussing together, based on our values, what steps we would like to do. We think can take us towards the life that we want to live. 

This is quite complex as we presented at the beginning. Actually, it's a process that people are really willing to embrace. Especially when starting talking about values. That clearly gives a direction that is powerful. 

Michelle St Jane: [00:09:54] Let’s touch on a couple of points that you made. I have shifted my paradigm, that thoughts and feelings are visitors. Let me welcome them and maybe even have a conversation with these visitors. As crazy as it sounds. Listen to what they've got to say, because it could be the body speaking, you know, it could be your soul speaking.

We're complexed human beings. By checking them into my present as visitors, means I can welcome, accept the wisdom and let go of the junk, and wish them well on their journey and seeing them back out into the world.

I really liked another point that you made about Stuckness, what a great word. I have very recently started looking at what are the thoughts that I bring in from yesterday, last week, last century from my childhood. What are the feelings that are still around that are actually not part of the present? What have I dragged, that baggage, into the present? I believe there is research out there that for some people up to 50% of what they say, do, and think is a product of what they've done yesterday and the day before.

This is an alert, a red flag, for me that that's habituated conditioning. I’m not evolving and really, we can only change ourselves and in the present. Yesterday's gone and tomorrow is not even promised. 

Laura Villa: [00:11:27] Absolutely. Interesting you say that because one of the questions that I always ask when we start to look at our difficult patterns:

What patterns don't work very much, or don't work anymore,?

We work on considering:

Does this behavior, this addiction, (for example, using drugs hard core) work in the short term? 

Most people would say, yes, because it's really hard for me. I feel a sense of relief, it’s really soothing for me, it makes me stop thinking about things.  I can take a break. 

Then when we think about: 

  • Does it work in the long term? 
  • That answer is normally a no.  Then we consider, actually, does the long term serve me anymore? 

It's interesting what you say about the past, because when we look at:

  • Where did you learn this behaviour?  
  • Where is this behavior coming from? 
  • Why are you still using it if it doesn't serve you in the long term? 

What we find is that, if you think about coping strategies, we keep the coping strategies that have really been helpful for us in the past. As you tried to survive, along the way. There are many challenges in life. Even as children, we would use the set of skills and strategies that really worked for us. 

The big question is now that you are an adult and you're here coming to see me. Your circumstances have changed. 

  • Does that coping strategy still work for you? 
  • Is this still something that you need to keep?
  • Can you start dropping the strategy? 
  • Does it really serve you anymore?

This is when the conversation about values is brought up because people who have families or people who have really strong opinions about themselves and have an image that they want to maintain about themselves. Those coping strategies don't really fit that image anymore.

They don't like themselves as a person anymore. So, really thinking about, okay, then the strategy has really been productive for you, it has done an amazing job for you. Maybe you don't really need it now. 

  • What can you do instead? 
  • What is a better strategy that is serving you more? 
  • Is this fulfilling?

This can be quite a powerful conversation thinking of the strategy, where did it come from, and whether we still need it. It can be quite eye-opening.  

Michelle St Jane: [00:14:00] So much wisdom in these power statements and what you said! I can use myself as an example.  Sitting in that great pandemic pause last year in quarantine thinking I don't want to be before the courts. I don't necessarily want to be dealing with a lot of clients and a lot of drama and trauma and battling. Then I revisited leaning into my values.

One of my top values is having conversations. Then I realized the podcast could be my virtual speaking podium. I am committed to leaving a legacy of thought leadership in the digital sands of time. This will be around in perpetuity.  I want the best quality content that I can bring and less discussed conversations. 

Just to move back to addictions in the workplace. In my experience and it's only my experience and observations. Often an issue is identified. Then you're sent to an external provider you don't know.  This is complicated when you're, as a senior leader out in the public, trying to find your courage to share with people you do not know before you're even feeling safe. What can organizations do?

From Discovery to Recovery really needs to start in the home, the workplace, with yourself. 

Laura Villa: [00:15:24] A great question. I think there is a lot that workplaces can do. In fact, to be honest, workplaces, in relation to supporting employees and promoting mental health and wellbeing, I think all organizations are really on the task at the moment. They are really on board. 

However, sometimes it's thinking about the small things. I hear from my clients that they all attend the training, and the conversation is there, but then they don't feel that there is much chance for the individual at their level. Thinking about the nervous system, for example, and how we identify clues for safety and tasks, sometimes it's just really going back to basics in terms of the co-regulation. How can you co-regulate together? And we know that our nervous system responds to worries as a threatening environment. So promoting connections between people conversations, opportunities for really checking in with individuals

In my work with people who have returned to work from sick leave, one of the obstacles that people face is often with line managers. If you think about line managers are the first point of contact for someone who turns to work after sick leave, and sometimes it’s just really arranging meetings that really feel genuine, where the interest for the person is at the forefront of the meeting, not so much the task of thinking really human connections, creating opportunities to, we'll say checking in with each other that can also be making sure that monitoring that people don't overwork.

I know that's a difficult one because there is a pressure of working more especially for people who have been, during this pandemic, working from home. You probably have heard so many people say I'm living at work. 

So creating opportunities to actually set boundaries, because boundaries are communicating to our system, protection. You can close up, come down and regain energies. So all the interventions are very, very low level, I think, they must be essential to the person. 

Then of course, just to complete the conversation is thinking about your relation to your values. If there is a culture of this kind, then values will be aligned, so you feel actually that you belong. And again, belonging means safety, doesn't it? Just really thinking about those co-regulation, self-regulation, ability to connect, reciprocity, all very important human cases, and they all communicate a sense of safety. I would say. 

Michelle St Jane: [00:18:36] Absolutely. And I love your focus on values.

World Values Day is the 21st of October, and this podcast is supporting the World Values Day Foundation in the hopes of engaging more consciousness and organizations and leadership around values. We need more compassionate companies and just to touch on what you just said,  going from a hellish to a happier workplace often starts with yourself.

You take yourself to work and you could be the kinder manager. You could be a compassionate leader, but when you bring yourself home, and you're in your remote virtual workplace. Secret confessions here, I'm working on this. I bring my hellish work practices into my home office. It means I have to be really careful not to be going back to work really long hours, seven days a week.

I think my worst was I went for 21 days straight and realized I hadn't had a break. You know, every day I was on it. And you know, I have a little start-up with the podcast and I am loving doing it, but I would like it to be a happier and healthier workplace, and certainly lean into my values of self-care and reducing being over-responsible.

So I like the way that you're suggesting that organizations can be more vulnerable and help people deal with life. I've also heard some of the leading edge managers and leaders saying, I now will contact a member of my team I haven't heard from, to check-in, not to ask if you're on task, but to ask. “Are you okay?” Is there anything that you need?

Developing relationships and workouts around water coolers and after-work drinks may be one thing, but now we're not at the water cooler. So how do you create the virtual water cooler? The after-hours social, remedy the uncomfortable, the unknowingness, people are no longer in strange places.

They're trying to do all this virtually. 

Laura Villa: [00:20:50] Absolutely. Absolutely. It's interesting because one of the things that my clients when we brainstorm about what do you think you need from your colleagues? What do you think you need for your mentor? Most of them come up with, they all think about the buddy system. They all think about mentoring. So they still think about that human connection. That one person that is fully aware of you has you in mind, holds you in the mind and there is care. You know, there is someone that has that. And I think this is really important because we are already disconnected from each other physically.

I think it depends on some generations because I find different people at different stages that would be more or less comfortable with using the front of the screen in communicating with others. So they younger maybe, feel a little bit more flexible, but then there are ones who really miss the connections because they want to go out and enjoy, there is that aspect of going to work and then socializing with your colleagues that is very much a need. So it's really complex, isn’t it?

Michelle St Jane: [00:22:13] Absolutely. I'm originally from New Zealand and I've been in New Zealand with my grandson and the amount of suicides that were happening in his peer group. Even his teacher from primary school committed suicide. For some, it can be a very isolated place because there are not that many generations there.

People have moved out there in the 1920s, the 1060s, the 1979s. Some more recently this century. So you don't have all the intergenerational connections and New Zealand's quite conservative. So it can take a little bit of work on building community in that. 

But what are you seeing in your area now? What are the top trends that the workplace could be very aware of since people are still remote and virtual, and this actually may become this new norm? Some people will really like the fact that they don't have to go into the office as much. 

Laura Villa: [00:23:08] I know it’s really mixed. It's really mixed because I think at the beginning of the pandemic, for the first six to eight months this was new and so people were not knowing where we were going. So they were just really sitting with that and staying with that. 

Now, which I find in my experience with my clients, there is a mix of opinions and mixed responses to possibly going back to work. Some people start feeling very, very anxious about going back to work, and to be honest with you, when you think again about our nervous system, obviously not the individual circumstances, but in terms of our nervous system, we have been living with a real external tract which is the pandemic.

So even leaving the house means you're not safe. Have you got your mask? Are you washing your hands or do you have your sanitizer in your pocket when you go to the supermarket, to make sure that you sanitize your trolley? So actually it's been a very, very real fear for everyone.  So our system, that search for safety and track clues that we have been talking about is a very real experience.

When people are now starting to connect with the idea of going back to work, that is traveling by train or being on the tube, for example, here in London, is it safe to mix with some of my colleagues? Is it safe to share an office? Is the ventilation system going to be okay? Am I going to be okay?  and what if? There are a lot of what-ifs. 

This is why I think also knowing that for some working from home, it's really served them at different levels. I hear most people will like thinking of a part-time position. What about coming back to work, but only for two days? and I guess that's sort of safe enough. You're sort of more, maybe flexible, and open to the idea that you can start to cope better if it's not just the coming back full time and being at risk in our mind, full-time. This is what I find with it. Is that something that you share as well, where you are?  

Michelle St Jane: [00:25:36] Well, actually, yeah, there's a huge impact on being vaccinated and that's causing a lot of anxiety in the community because I'm on a very small Island so people can't travel. 

So vaccinations are very much being pushed and you can't come back to work if you haven't had both your vaccinations and things like that. So there's a lot of stress around it and anxiety around that. What do we really know? So I'd like to segway into the Vagas nerve. 

The person that I know, Stephen Porges developed the polyvagal theory, focusing on your psychological state and the Vagas nerve is running through our whole body and major organs as 80% sensors. Fiber is the sensor and it’s a surveillance system. Exactly what you're saying, it's determining whether you're open to the world or close to the world. But I don't think a lot of people realize we still have the ancient Vagas, most of it and it connects with all the organs below your diaphragm and its primary role is to regulate the gut. 

A lot of people are not realizing their autoimmune systems and their gut problems, and those types of things actually could be related to the health of your Vagas nerve or the comfort of your Vagas nerve, which is your security surveillance. So there's evidence of comorbidity with irritable bowel, gastric bowel system trauma.

That came about because we've come from ancient vertebrates. And when they're under challenge, their metabolic output is going to be in trouble if digestion, because digestion is a costly energy user. So basically that ancient system starts in our brainstem and it shuts us down, like certain things in nature they appear to the world dead. 

In a human, in today, we experience disassociation. that freezing, getting out of our body or being disembodied. Can you speak to that in your practice? What you would suggest people and organizations can start considering? 

Laura Villa: [00:27:45] Yeah, absolutely. That's really, really interesting because I do these types of sessions with my clients.

It is interesting because at an individual level when I explain how the nervous system works and the way you think, it’s about getting to know your nervous system. So for someone who has the type of problems that you described, it’s just really thinking about what is that about? So it's not about trying to push the problem away, it’s trying to under acquisition of safety? So what I do, for example, with my clients, is mapping our nervous systems, of thinking about how does those who feel like, and look like, you know, you can imagine with, some exercise about drawing and colours and then thinking about how your sympathetic system looks like and bringing you back to eventually, back to safety. 

So it's about your experiences, just really acknowledging where you are. Then how can you go back to feeling calmer, and re-balancing yourself, regulating yourself? From an organisation point of view. Organizations are made up of individuals.  So I guess it's, how can you establish these very principles in an organization?

I wonder whether this is really thinking about the structure of an organization, but also thinking about what in an organization can be perceived as threatening and how can that be made safer? Clearly, it's about communication, it's about who you work with. It's not about the space, offices, connecting with each other in space, thinking about safety in terms of going back to working hours, because if you tell someone that this is the deadline, and I need you to read this report, every word of 500 pages, and that has to be done by today, obviously we all have that at times, I understand that, but if that is their routine, our system is clearly feeling understaffed. 

It's thinking about monitoring work. So making sure that things get done, but also acknowledging when people are put under a situation of stress and whether that is ongoing.

I think the importance is about not pretending that we work less, necessarily, but how can we work in an environment that feels safe for everyone, also because you mentioned earlier,  thinking about attention difficulties with hardcore and drugs, that also impacts on our ability to maintain focus and stay attentive. So it's all part of the same. 

I think training is important for organizations. After training, for example, having someone that asks, how can the training cascade at a practical level in different teams? So that's another way to make it personal because otherwise, the training is just words, and people sort of don’t really stay with it, but making it personal so that people take ownership and it becomes cultural and important for everyone.

Michelle St Jane: [00:31:35] Really great points. Really great points. I know for myself personally, I have used prayer, meditation, and yoga to move into being, rather than doing. But I'm going to give a shout-out to a company that I've been watching. SunLife. 

SunLife has actually introduced yoga to their worldwide companies, and they've got a young lady teaching that who is a member of staff. I really think there's a beautiful impact in terms of getting back to the goal of wellbeing and health, which is getting re-embodied and this is an international company that's taking it to its offices around the world, in terms of yoga. It's fabulous. You are immediately in the present, you're stretching and relaxing and re-engaging, and although it's being done virtually you're in a group experiencing the same things, and I'm sure of a few giggles around the struggles as well.

So that's one company that I've got my eye on that I really like during the pandemic that they've introduced yoga for their teams. 

Laura Villa: [00:32:46] Yeah, absolutely. In London, I have to say yoga, meditation, mindfulness, just really providing that before you have activities that people can pick and choose. I would say making sure that they don't happen at lunchtime because I have thoughts that people don't skip lunch because of having an activity, so I've asked how can you make it work for everyone, but especially not skipping lunch. 

Sometimes I have discussed sitting at the desk while you're having your sandwich and checking emails can be quite detrimental. You know, if it's on the 15-minute lunch, how can you make that 15 minutes really valuable?

So closing that laptop, not checking the emails, but that takes individual responsibility. So that's another one for sure 

Michelle St Jane: [00:33:46]  Well, your point to closing the laptop, I think screen sucking, being online is such a huge addiction I’m going to add to my series around digital addictions because the world pushes us towards that.

So, Laura, I really appreciate all your wisdom. I would love for you to share about the work that you do and anything else that you'd like my listeners to know about you. 

Laura Villa: [00:34:12] I'm based in London.  Interestingly, I have been working online for the past year, myself. I've actually quite enjoyed working alone.

I work to provide therapy to individuals. So it's very much focused on trauma and stress because it is my area of expertise. I have a passion for really helping people overcome the challenges they face in this very modern life, but also healing from past traumas, which I find are so relevant, especially at this time, this year with the pandemic. I do refer to the pandemic that there maybe is going to be societal trauma to different degrees. People have suffered trauma during this pandemic. 

Working individually with people around the stress, work stress, and trauma. I've developed a therapy, but also a program where I have a set number of sessions, where together looking at the polyvagal, and accepting the commitment therapy approaches combined, I provide a set of videos, resources, all types of material that support our work.

Working with organizations, I go in and do talks and training. I really like working with line managers because it's, as we're saying earlier, I just really found that line managers are such an important part of the organization, their relation to promoting wellness, and with HR because with HR I find some of my clients, especially the one returning to work after sick leave, there is this ambivalence around HR. They don't know whether HR works for the organization or is actually a resource they have.  I think really working with HR, promoting that sense of belonging and inclusiveness, and helping them connect more, I think that's part of my mission with them in relation to how can HR really become the most supportive. You don't want HR to be the psychologist on their own, but really thinking about connection and safety.

So if HR might be perceived on occasions as an easy tact to me, actually, how can that be a move to a position of safety? Because that's all about promoting positive relationships. 

Michelle St Jane: [00:37:12] And creating opportunities for co-regulation between line managers and HR. I don't think it's better than that. And hopefully, senior leadership can support that action.

I will also ensure that there is a guide, a link to your three-step guide to managing anxiety thoughts in the show notes as well. And I really appreciate your work around trauma and work stress and return to work, and how to do that gently.

Well, Dr. Laura Villa. Thank you so much for being here today. I appreciate you sharing your time, thoughts, and wisdom.

Laura Villa: [00:37:49] thank you for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Outro: [00:37:51]  Dr. Michelle St Jane is a conscious steward as meaningful leadership in the world and the wider cosmos. Tune in every Thursday for real talk around life, leadership, and your conscious journey. Be ready to create and cultivate your dreams and wholehearted desires. Your support is valued. Please follow, subscribe, leave a review and a rating. More importantly, share with your connections.

Reach out.  I am interested to hear from you. Do you have a topic you'd like to explore? It would be great to have your feedback.

Dr. Michelle St Jane

Podcast Host: Life & Leadership: A Conscious Journey 

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Dr. Laura Villa

Chartered Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Laura Villa is a trauma and stress specialist with City Living Psychology who focuses on helping people develop stress resilience, and workplace wellbeing. Laura is passionate about helping people getting unstuck from what holds them back and how to live a more fulfilling life based, on your values.