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November 30, 2011 | Volume 5 | Number 10
November 30, 2011
Forward-thinking leaders cultivate a healthy workplace through employee involvement, recognition and nurturance. Creating a balanced, safe and mutually beneficial environment that is rich in two-way communication sets the tone for success for both parties. Nevertheless, working toward a goal alongside other people, in a dynamic and competitive environment, while also juggling a life outside of employment, can lead to feelings of distress. Helping to reduce workplace pressures while improving wellness and performance is an on-going and intricate task. Acceptance and Commitment Training helps address this challenge, as it has been repeatedly shown to diminish worksite stress while increasing value-directed actions.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; pronounced “act”) is a behavior therapy approach that has been reinterpreted for application to organizational settings (Hayes, Bond, Barnes-Holmes, & Austin, 2007). ACT has been researched for more than two decades (Zettle & Hayes, 1987) and has demonstrated effectiveness for treating many behavioral health concerns (Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masuda, & Lillis, 2006). When put in place as an organizational model, it is called Acceptance and Commitment Training (“ACTraining”) because it is not a therapeutic endeavor.
ACTraining has demonstrated usefulness in increasing work performance (Bond & Flaxman, 2006), reducing work stress (Bond & Bunce, 2003; Flaxman & Bond, 2010), increasing innovation (Bond & Bunce, 2000), improving acceptance of new training at work (Luoma et al., 2007) and reducing work errors (Bond & Bunce, 2003). Managers trained with the ACT model can have a measureable influence on the performance of their employees (Bond, F., personal communication) and proposals have been developed for using ACTraining to accelerate leadership skills (Moran, 2010).
ACTraining comes from the evidence-based treatment literature (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) and incorporates mindfulness training, values-clarification and acceptance exercises in order to foster a stance of wellness and workplace vitality. This combined process has a tendency to reduce stress while improving performance.
A workforce that is better at functioning in the present moment is more likely to be productive, safe and efficient. Mindfulness training helps build skills related to situational awareness and improved focus on tasks. One study suggests that people are thinking about something other than what they are doing for about 47 percent of the day (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). This suggests that almost half of the workday, employees are distracted by thoughts related to the past or the future, rather than right now. This is problematic because the only time a person can behave constructively and carefully is in the moment. Being distracted in this way can be dangerous in certain work environments and leads to decreased productivity.
Mindfulness training invites people to take a few moments a day to commit to a single behavior as a target of attention. For instance, people can choose to focus exclusively on how it feels to breathe, or the taste of their morning coffee. The critical part is that the person chooses to be mindful of the single action while allowing all distractions to fall away unattended. When one chooses to mindfully drink coffee, the actions and sensations are the focus of awareness. The other thoughts, evaluations, emotions and sensations that are outside of the purposeful action are simply acknowledged and then let go. This teaches the person how to continually refocus when distractions arise: they practice coming back to paying attention to the coffee.
Taking a few minutes a day to simply concentrate on one thing builds a habit that can be used at a later date, such as when one needs to concentrate solely on what an irate customer is saying during a service call, or to focus on developing new innovative software – even in the presence of an impending deadline. Improving one’s skill at mindfulness can even help workers recognize thoughts of self-doubt and feelings of low self-esteem, without allowing these events to have credence or diminish work performance. Mindful behaviors are purposeful, present-focused, committed responses that are influenced by maximal awareness of relevant stimulus events, and unimpeded by self-judgment, other judgment or private events. Such a repertoire can be linked to workplace wellness and increased job performance.
In ACT terminology, values are considered “chosen life directions” (Hayes & Smith, 2005, p. 155). People are more likely to be motivated to place effort toward goals that are in line with the direction they are choosing to take their life, so values clarification exercises can be very instructive and inspire committed action. When people know where they desire to go, it makes it easier to take the first step, and then to continue taking those steps in the face of adversity. If people don’t know where they want to go, they aren’t likely to start moving in any direction. Even if they were told which direction to go, if they faced an obstacle, they might be more likely to turn back. Choosing directions that are personally relevant and vital to that individual can bolster effort in the workplace.
One values clarification exercise in ACTraining includes the “Lifetime Achievement Award” exercise. Participants are asked: “If you were to be awarded for your work contributions, what would you like recognized during the speech? What tasks would you like to achieve? What personal characteristics and qualities would you like mentioned about your efforts in the workplace?” Participants can be prompted with lists of values, such as: making the world a better place, demonstrating friendliness, innovating new solutions in the industry, cultivating safety and earning money to provide for my family.
These values are just a small set of examples of personally chosen directions for work effort. Clarifying why you work helps shape how you work. During ACTraining, people are asked, “Why do you do your job?” and typically the first answer is “For the money!” And the next question is, “Why do you work for the money?” which prompts people to drill down into what they are spending their money on, and seeing that each person has a particular purpose for the money that is related to how they are choosing to live their life. Some people use the money to pay their mortgage because they value stability for their children, while others use their money to gas up their motorcycle in order to cruise the country with their friends because they value independence and camaraderie. If you ask your employees or colleagues: “Why do you do your job?” you might be surprised how infrequently people tie their work to something meaningful like “to improve the local community” and more often say something proximal, like “to pay the bills.”
Toiling simply to make money can influence workers to look for easier ways to make that money (such as cutting corners) or to feel purposeless at work. Lack of vitality in the workplace can diminish production and increase stress. Viktor Frankl once said, “Our main motivation is our will to find meaning in life,” so perhaps our main motivation in the workplace is our will to find meaning in our work. ACTraining helps people build their own meaning into their daily activities, and leaders setting the occasion for employees to clarify their own values moves everyone in the right direction.
People generally report that they want to “be happy,” and depending on how that is interpreted, ACTraining supports that endeavor. The problem arises when people are unwilling to feel other natural emotions that arise when pursuing important goals. When people have chosen a purposeful direction for their work efforts, they might find themselves engaged in meaningful work, but they also might find themselves feeling frustrated, disappointed and yes, even stressed. And the outright avoidance of this type of stress can actually lead to lowered performance at work (and, in turn, create further stress because advancements on valued goals are not being made).
Let’s take for instance a mental health professional named Jennifer whose occupational values include reducing human suffering in the world. While employed at the local counseling center, how well would Jennifer perform if she would only do the tasks that made her feel the emotion of happiness? For Jennifer to do her job well, she needs to be present with others’ psychological pain, be subjected to a frustratingly high number of clients who do not show up for their therapy and deal with a red-tape bureaucracy in order to keep the clinic afloat. If she elected to only do jobs that helped her “be happy,” how likely would it be that she would use her education to help people with psychological problems at a not-for-profit organization? Following through on her value direction of reducing human suffering is bound to make her feel frustrated, sad, angry and anxious at times. Defending against these feelings will likely lead to unproductive behavior, such as procrastination, absenteeism and diminished dedication to her vital goals.
Yet when Jennifer accepts her feelings as natural events that are “coming along for the ride,” she is inclined to move forward in her chosen direction. Being willing to accept natural feelings of frustration and stress, rather than engaging in needless defending against these emotions, will contribute to greater value-based productivity. Almost every goal worth pursuing will elicit some set of difficult private events (thoughts, feelings, urges, sensations), and acceptance is simply noticing them without avoiding them. We are given a cultural message that feelings can and should be avoided: “Don’t get mad about this!,” “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” and “Why can’t you just be happy about this?” But these phrases support emotional control as a primary goal, which puts vital, value-based accomplishment in the backseat. Learning that important goals can be pursued in the presence of difficulty, can actually lead to diminished stress in the long-term.
One metaphor used in ACTraining can assist in a majority of occupations, even if it does require temporarily pretending to work in another career: Imagine being a bus driver. Good bus drivers embody the main points of ACTraining. They pay attention to the road in the here and now (mindfulness), drive a meaningfully selected route and stay on that course throughout the day (valued direction) and are willing to accept any passenger that pays the fare, even if they aren’t the kind of passenger the bus driver would prefer (acceptance). Using that type of model, ACTraining aims to help develop a workforce of people who are situationally aware, willing to accept unpleasant feelings and also help dignify their willingness by maintaining commitment to progress on meaningful goals. The mutual benefit between worker and employer that arises from having a psychologically healthy workplace is likely to be enhanced when the workplace also nurtures mindfulness, vitality and acceptance skills.
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