This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.
This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:
Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.
Anyone who knows me or my children will know that I am definitely both a relationship and parenting expert.
For example, before I proposed to my wife I felt I need to list all of my imperfections (which took a while), and only this morning I dealt with my two-year old’s tantrum by swearing at the top of my voice and then storming out of the room.
I’m available for paid consultancy.
However I am a reasonably enthusiastic consumer of parenting strategies and have lots of clients who are asking for ideas to help deal with the pressure of lockdown.
So here are some ideas which I like, even if the implementation for me is still a ‘work in progress’.
If you have any of your own (especially ACT-consistent ideas and resources) please let me know in the comments below.
The Executive Summary
For all you lazy layabouts who have no time to read another long winded concise and excellent post written by me, let me save you the trouble by drawing your attention to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee in which Wendy Mogel rejects the idea of making things easy for our children, of praising them constantly, of them to be somehow unique and ‘special’ – all of which loads pressure on to both them and us:
In order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but uninspired) teachers, good enough and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends.
Consider that “good enough” can often be best for your child, because when life is mostly ordinary…your child won’t end up with expectations that can’t be met on this worldly plane.
Or how about this little beauty:
My advice to parents is to tolerate some low-quality time. Have a little less ambition for yourself and your children. Plan nothing—disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops.
Disappoint my kids with my essential mediocrity?
Now THAT is a parenting approach I can get behind!
Nothing I’ve read comes close to relieving the pressure on myself and my children during lockdown than this, so I urge you to read the full summary here.
Here are some more ideas:
1. You need respite
It doesn’t matter what you are doing, you need a break from it. In a study mentioned on the excellent Psychologists off the Clock podcast, soliders in the military had the lowest rates of burnout even when the break was going to war. In other words, what we need is a break from what we are doing. Do anything for too long with too little respite and we start to mentally fray. And here’s a powerful image to illustrate this point:
Ideas for implementing breaks will obviously vary but here are a few:
Enlist others. If there is another adult in your house, work in shifts to cover short breaks. If not try to enlist a Granny to read a story or an Uncle to make your kids laugh, even 20 minutes’ respite can work wonders.
Do what you must:
Manage your energy. When you have brief periods when the kids are occupied, do your low-attention tasks (like admin, most emails). When you get a break from the kids, tackle high-attention tasks (like problem solving). Or just take a break and do nothing. You decide, but do one or the other.
Deadlines work. For parents and children alike.
Turn housework into a game. The tidy up song is good for this, but giving kids proper, grown up tasks to do on a regular basis (and rewarding this) can be an effective way of lightening the load.
Routines are powerful because they reduce fatigue. So try to at least create a ‘shape’ to the day that everyone understands. Things like bedtime stories, a specific time for homework, meals; all of this will reduce your levels of shatteredness (technical term).
2. Beware perfectionism
We all need to lower our expectations a bit, particularly in terms of how we should be feeling and what we should be achieving. As Brene Brown says:
When we hit that wall, sometimes courage looks like scaling it or breaking through it. AND, sometimes courage is building a fort against the wall and taking a nap.
Set small targets. You are living in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. Survival is good! Anything extra is a distinct bonus. For example, today I changed my pants.
Find a way of noting all your achievements (however big or small) and create meaningful ways to celebrate them.
You cannot do it all. Think back a few months and consider what you would have advised other working parents to do during A GLOBAL PANDEMIC? What springs to mind? Let me guess, is it ‘you should definitely seize the chance to teach little Ernesto Mandarin?’
Remember the sound of learning. From the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast, a story about a music teacher who put sign outside the music room that said: ‘This is the sound of learning’. In other words, learning is often not very smooth or beautiful, so don’t expect things to feel or sound great along the way.
3. Reframe this as a chance for your kids to learn
Before the pandemic I feel like the biggest challenge my 2 year old had faced was that time when I cut his toast in squares, when in fact he wanted soldiers.
In other words, the biggest risk for many (middle class) children is that life was too easy. Well now we can put that right!
After all, we don’t build a child’s resilience by making life perfect for them.
Let’s also remember that when we step back it gives our kids the opportunity to step up.
If we expect them to do nothing they will do precisely that. But if we expect them to step up they will do that too, and this has the bonus of building resilience and confidence.
4. Stay present
One of the reasons that burnout occurs is because we are not mentally in the present very often.
By constantly worrying about the future and ruminating over the past, we drain ourselves of energy and deprive outselves of the little fragments of joy which still appear with children in lockdown, especially if we look for them (the joy not the children).
And of course our kids notice when we’re not paying attention, when we’re scrolling on phones, when our laugh is hollow or a few milliseconds too late. Under what heading will they file that experience away?
So what percentage of the time are you present?
When I applied this question to myself I noticed that I’m often not very present and that’s usually because I was trying to avoid some kind of emotion (something called experiential avoidance).
Here is an example:
Before bed time we have the habit of watching a few short videos with both kids sitting on my knee. The videos are really tedious, so I often found myself scrolling on my phone. This has the function of relieving the boredom, but it was not exactly building joy or connection.
So now I put my phone down and try to get present to my children’s reaction. I smell their hair, fresh from bath time, and then suddenly this evening I noticed this:
I know this is a tiny example, but how much will I crave just one more of these moments once they are gone?
5. Create buffer zones
For me one of the toughest aspects of parenting in lockdown is that the small buffers between work and family interaction are squezed.
For example – and you must understand this is purely hypothetical – if I have a difficult work call and then walk out of my office straight into my 2 year old, who is asking me to be a horse, but
“NOT THAT TYPE OF HORSE DADDY NO – NOT THAT HORSE!”
Then it is fair to say that – hypothetically – I often don’t handle it well.
There is an emotional hangover with all things, and if we remove natural buffers it is inevitable that things start to go less well. At least, that’s what I’m telling my wife.
The things that work for me are:
Trying to build a minute or two buffer before leaving the office, and tap into the type of Dad I want to be when I re-engage (i.e. loving, active, joyful); and
Giving myself a time out if I get hijacked by my own emotions.
6. Connecting to values
Notice those values above: loving, active, joyful.
When I first had children I was terrified – convinced – that I would not know how to do parenting. I felt like I had no ‘Dad’ template and would really mess it up.
But actually the thing that has helped me the most is to orientate myself, again and again, to a set of values that I try to model.
It is the most enormously helpful idea for lots of reasons. Firstly, I find it impossible to eradicate the bad bits of my parenting. I’m impatient and swear too much, for example. But I am able to put positive stuff in there too. I am able to go downstairs, right this moment, and chase my children round the garden pretending to be the Coronavirus. I can tickle them until the 2 year old says
“Dop Daddy, dop!”
This moment can be all about crisis parenting, or it could be about connecting enough of these tiny moment so it becomes about something more meaningful or even joyful.
By connecting to our values, again and again, we can transform the pressure cooker of lockdown into an opportunity to connect with what matters to us most.
Further resources from actual experts
I’ve been listening to podcasts on the topic and can recommend a few here now – please see below and please let me know any that you’d add.
Everyone is anxious right now and frankly, why wouldn’t we be?
But it’s worth remembering that humans are constantly anxious. Here are five reasons why, followed by five ACT-based techniques to handle anxiety like a human being.
Five Reasons Why We’re Constantly Anxious
1. We’re programmed to see the bear
Imagine your ancestor saw a strange blob on the horizon and turned to a friend and said…
‘Is that a bear or a blueberry bush’?
The optimistic friend said ‘it’s a blueberry bush’ and skipped merrily over, but your anxious ancestor hung back, fearing a bear.
Even if the optimistic friend was right and got a nice lunch, it would have only taken one error for them to be a nice lunch. Meanwhile your pessimist ancestor missed lunch, but lived to pass on their anxious genes (to you)…
2. The double-edged sword
Humanity’s special weapon doesn’t look like much, but since developing language we have been able to communicate risks verbally and then plan ahead to solve them.
This is an incredible tool for solving problems but it is a double-edge sword, which means we can create anxiety at any given moment.
As a result we are the only species that can sit on a beach in Tahiti with a fruity cocktail and STILL be anxious that maybe we drink too much, or that our choice of hatwear is a little last season.
3. Media and social media
I just did an experiment – by looking at the news for 1 minute I found stories not only about Corona, but also animal cruelty, climate change and the certainty of global recession.
We have created a world with unparalleled riches, but also unlimited access to worrying news. So remember the golden law…
Many of us can handle bad news if we know how to respond to it. But uncertainty – will I catch this virus, will my family – is especially anxiety producing because the fact is WE DON’T KNOW. And your mind would prefer anything to not knowing.
However, this is where the story gets really anxiety inducing interesting.
5. We try to control it
Despite anxiety being an inevitable part of being human, many people see it as something to be avoided or controlled.
The problem is, we can’t avoid or control anxiety.
Imagine I put a gun to your head and tell you not to feel anxious. Could you do it?
By seeing anxiety as something we can control or need to avoid, we set ourselves up to become anxious about our anxiety.
This leads us to try and avoid anxiety by avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.
If this becomes a behavioural pattern it means we start organising our lives around avoiding anxiety rather than the things that make life meaningful. This is called experiential avoidance, – a significant factor in many forms of mental distress because it both diminishes our lives in the short term and makes anxiety worse in the long term.
Five ACT-Based Ideas to Deal with Anxiety
1. Make a plan
Worrying about the future is not the same as deciding what to do. And while your plan isn’t going to be perfect, you are never helpless.
So work out what’s in your control and then make a plan to manage the risks as you see them. Inform yourself of the facts, but no more. Try to limit exposure to armchair experts on social media.
That said, however good your plan is don’t expect it to free you from anxiety (because that’s impossible). So you will need to learn how to…
2. Drop the rope
The problem with anxiety is that the harder we try to avoid it, the stronger it becomes.
It’s like being in a tug of war with some huge monster. You are pulling with all your might because in between you and the monster is a huge, bottomless pit. You are spending all your energy pulling because you are sure if you lose you’ll be pulled into the pit.
But the harder you pull the harder the monster pulls.
What’s the best thing to do?
Well your mind will tell you to keep pulling harder. But the monster never seems to tire.
What’s the alternative? DROP THE ROPE!
3. Pivot Towards What Matters
Anxiety is the price we pay for caring about something. This means we can pivot our attention to focus on whatever that thing is for you.
Mark Freeman talks here about pivoting away from the fear that we are going to lose a family member.
My anxiety mostly relates to my young family, because I want to protect and care for them. I realise I can’t protect them completely which makes me anxious, but I can do some things. My pivots include challenging cars which speed past our house (we live opposite a playground and yes, I literally run after them), lobbying the council to install speed bumps (they did), and buying this handsome sign.
If you feel anxious about Corona Virus, identify what matters to you in this situation. How could you pivot towards that, and do something meaningful in the service of what really matters to you, even when you’re feeling anxious?
4. Practice Self-Compassion
In this video Steve Hayes explains a great exercise to view anxiety from a stance of self-compassion. Self-compassion is a key technique for depowering anxiety and changing our relationship to it:
A new book for children on Coronavirus written by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson & Nia Roberts (and illustrated by Alex Schleffer of Gruffalo fame)
Heroes in your home – this is a great article written by some top psychologists about evidence-based ways to promote cooperation in the home, ensure safety, and most importantly, have fun as a family. Heroes in Your Home BRIEF (002)
I will update this list regularly – feel free to suggest ideas in the comments.
Steve Jobs once said that Apple’s mission was to ‘dent the universe’. That is, he was driven to affect or make a difference in the world above and beyond profit.
Yet many people seem to have far more of a ‘self-related’ purpose, in that their primary objective seems to be to make as much money and to be as personally successful as possible.
In my research I decided to test the idea that there are two types of purpose – ‘self-related‘ and ‘transcendent‘. I also wanted to test if either type of purpose would predict meaning in work more strongly.
Using a measure of purpose originally developed at Stanford, my factor analysis found that there are indeed two broad types of purpose. Most people have self-related purpose (after all we need to eat), but some people also seem to have a transcendent purpose as well, which is broader and more outward looking.
Now, self-related purposes are not ‘bad’ nor are transcendent purposes ‘good’. For example, it is perfectly possible to have a self-related purpose of making money to provide for one’s family. Conversely you could argue Hitler had a transcendent purpose.
The difference is simply in terms of how people interact with the world.
Those with a stronger self-related purpose will focus more on their immediate surroundings and have less need to understand the world more broadly.
They may also try to ignore extraneous information from beyond their immediate context, especially if it is uncomfortable or unhelpful to their purpose.
However those with a transcendent purpose need to affect the world around them through their work.
Therefore over time they must learn more about the world and their place within it. As they learn more they comprehend more, and this is what eventually generates meaning in work.
I hypothesised that those with a self-related purpose would experience less meaning in work than those with a transcendent purpose.
In a sample of over 500 working participants, I found that those with a self-related purpose do indeed experience less meaning in work than those who also have a strong transcendent purpose. In fact, high levels of self-related purpose negatively predicted meaning in work – something I had not even dared to hypothesise.
Interestingly, not only did the item ‘My purpose at work is to make money’ negatively predict meaning in work, it was also associated with lower engagement at work. Money can’t buy you love, nor it seems employee engagement.
There was also no association of making money with psychological wellbeing. However, the transcendent purpose scale did significantly predict psychological wellbeing.
If you want to find greater meaning in your work:
Work on understanding yourself first; explore your strengths, values and personality preferences. This is the kind of thing coaching can help with.
Then think about the kinds of contexts or organisations that you thrive in – something psychologists call this ‘organisational fit’. What kind of culture, colleagues or organisation do you work best in? Do you value autonomy or structure? A formal or informal culture? Be as specific as possible.
Finally, think about causes you believe in. What is it that you want from a job, or want to achieve through work? If it is money and not much else – fine – but what is the money for? Again, be specific.
In my study my additional conclusion was:
“Those seeking meaning in work should try to identify and nurture a transcendent purpose. By identifying a life goal that extends beyond one’s own immediate experience, people could be encouraged to think in terms of how their skills uniquely meet the most pressing and important needs of the world.”
If you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can ‘dent the universe’ in some way that seems important and relevant to you.
Then go out there and learn how to do it. Meaning will follow.
When I retrained to become a psychologist, my MSc research centred on meaning in work. That’s because my work to date (as a management consultant) had been pretty meaningless, which left me pretty depressed, but I didn’t really know what to do about it.
So my research questions were:
What is meaning in work?
How can I find it?
I wanted to create a model of meaning in work to help people find it, but first I needed to understand…
What exactly is meaning in work?
There’s debate in academic circles about what meaning is, and I spent months sifting through these definitions. Eventually I felt the clearest description was in a brilliant paper by Eric Klinger, who argued (1998) that meaning can be seen from an evolutionary perspective.
Think about our ancestors, whose survival focused on successfully finding food and avoiding woolly mammoths in harsh and varied terrain. We are the children of brilliant problem solvers, who would move and adapt to new challenges every day. As a species we therefore survived by being able to respond to our environment and meet a succession of context-dependent goals.
The cognitive processes we developed to help us do that (i.e. our thoughts and emotions), all evolved to help us understand the potential dangers and opportunities that came our way during the pursuit of our goals. It is understanding that enables action to be taken in the pursuit of goals, and successful pursuit of goals = survival.
Klinger therefore argued that the role of human cognition is to manage the process of comprehension, working to sort out
“the ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into the emotional / motivation / action systems” (p31).
This means that at the heart of the human operating system is an imperative to UNDERSTAND the stimuli reaching us and to place it in context.
This is a serious business, too.
Consider that without understanding we feel uneasy (it’s not for nothing our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown).
Conversely, understanding something brings relief. Think about the ‘aha!’ moment when you solve a problem. It is pleasant because this is a relief from the burden of not knowing. Significantly, this holds even if the news is bad – think about how a diagnosis of a mystery illness often brings relief.
Meaning is essential because it means we are able to act with purpose and agency. Without it we are unsure and lack direction.
Meaning is therefore comprehension, whether that be for survival (understanding the meaning of a fresh Tiger paw print), or symbolic (like comprehending a word in a sentence) or the existential (like the meaning of one’s work).
As Baumeister (1991) argued, meaning in work and life is a process of sense-making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world. When we have meaning in work we understand ourselves and our work in context. Which feels good.
Without meaning our work feels as though it doesn’t make sense, we feel less agency over our place in the world and a sense of unease grows. A pretty fair summation of my time as a management consultant!
Conversely when we understand ourselves and our place in the world, meaning grows. We know how to relate to the stimuli reaching us and we feel more agency over it. Whilst we still experience difficult emotions, we understand why we are experiencing them and that they are in the service of something meaningful…
And that’s a fair summation of my life as a psychologist.
Klinger, E., (1998). The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications. In The Human Quest for Meaning, Wong, P., & Fry, P., Eds. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of Life. New York.
So I did want to reflect on what I learned during these past few years because so much of it is Working with ACT-relevant.
But I am wary of writing one of ‘those‘ type of posts, or one of those ‘it was tough but I am so glad I did it!’ things.
Fact is, I am not sure I am glad I did it. But I’ve done it now, so here’s what I think I learned:
1. Make every session count
If there was one principle that stood out, it was this. Every time I sat down to work, I focused on taking one step forward.
Sometimes this was impossible, or I even went backwards (the climbing a mountain metaphor helps here – i.e. sometimes you have to go down the mountain to go up again). However, by accepting the tiniest step as progress, including correcting one typo, I can’t think of a single instance where this didn’t work.
And one day, I woke up and it was done.
2. Create deadlines
There were days when I felt totally overwhelmed and my mind would wander to all the things I wasn’t doing / couldn’t do. If this resonates you need deadlines. The pomodoro technique is good for this. So are children.
I would often work during my children’s nap times, which created an exquisite sense of urgency. Sometimes – agh! – one of them would wake before I’d made any progress. To my surprise I was still always able to find one thing to do before running off to the bedroom. It’s amazing how deadlines focus the mind, and a crying child is a very good deadline*.
* My children are for rent on an hourly basis.
3. Intensity beats time
I placed intensity front and centre of my strategy. This led me to do seemingly strange things, like working for around 60-90 minutes on the Doctorate even when I had more time available and getting involved in kanban, which sounds like is a cult. I also learned the value of 5-minute runs as a way of breaking things up and thinking things through.
I had ‘TAKE A BREAK’ stuck to my laptop and made it a rule never to stare at my screen defeated.
4. Remember it’s a choice
One especially dismal day I shared my pain on Twitter and got some lovely responses – ‘hang in there’, ‘keep going’ etc, which I was grateful for.
But Mat Rawsthorne said ‘give it up and walk away if you choose’, which felt liberating.
‘Do I choose to do this today?’ was a far more helpful question than ‘Do I feel like doing this today?’, because the answer to the first question was generally yes, and the answer to the second was always no.
5. Ditch social media
Although Twitter etc can be helpful (see above), in general it is DEADLY* to a deep work project such as doctoral research. I basically had to cut it out altogether. What’s interesting is I grew to dislike Twitter much more during this time, as I came to see it for what it is. And if I can’t convince you, let Cal Newport have a go:
* not in the Irish sense
6. I had a lot of help
The fact is I couldn’t have done it without a supportive partner, and I had one who protected my sleep, too.
I literally fantasised about the words of thanks that I would give my family once it was all over, so here they are:
So each one of these principles of committed action really made a difference. But to be honest, they only tell half the story…
Going where you mind says you cannot go
“Where does your mind say we cannot go?”
Steve Hayes, A Liberated Mind
I completed my final write-up in a long, hot London summer with my little children playing in a playground opposite my office.
I can still see them; 2-year-old Orla pretending to be an airplane whilst bouncing on a trampoline. And tiny Sam, toddling and falling about like a gorgeous, drunken penguin.
I have a place in me, perhaps stored in my body more than in words, that remembers the feeling of my own Dad vanishing at about the same age. It’s like a feeling of permanent emptiness where a hug should be.
And so of course that summer it felt like I was doing something similar to my children. Almost at a cellular level, I had a feeling that I’d been here before somehow, and that this struggle inside my office was not where I should be.
At the time, I wrote:
The brutal truth is, there won’t be another summer where my daughter pretends to be Mo Salah or when my little boy is learning to run and talk.
There won’t be another summer when, at bath time, my babies scream with laughter when I shower their toes.
And there won’t be too many summers when they both shout ‘DAD!’ and jump into my arms when they see me.
In 10 years’ time what will I give to have even one of these moments back?
It’s fair to say I had some low points.
And this led to the final thing I learned.
7. Hard choices need self-compassion
My heroes in life aren’t Buddhist monks who meditate on hilltops or Silicon Valley CEOs whose incredible ‘life hacks’ spare them the need to make difficult choices.
My heroes are the ones who struggle and fight for something, and who live all of their values fiercely and imperfectly.
I care for my children, but I care for evidence-based psychology, too. To fight for only one of these would be a shallow victory. Yet to fight for both meant the fight of my life.
So what will I want my children to do when faced with a similar situation?
I want them to care for their kids of course, but I want them to struggle and fight for what matters to them too. Otherwise, what’s the point?
From this perspective – and only from here – I reach a place where I can finally grant myself some compassion.
Because this was the summer where I stared at one of my most powerful demons and didn’t flinch.
And this was the summer my kids saw their Dad doing that.
And maybe this was the summer – who knows? – that their choices expanded a little.
And many summers from now, when the time comes for them to fight for something, maybe they will have a feeling stored in a place beyond words that they have been here before, and that this struggle is where they are meant to be.
I recently completed a Doctorate, all whilst raising my two young children and running a business. This is what I learned about how brilliant I am.
The most important thing was to always wake up at 4am.
Here I am doing that, every single day.
Next I’d make healthy juices for my family and we’d all admire how great and tasty they were.
This led them to mindfully consider how great and tasty I am.
It was clear throughout this process that my kids love me so much.
The next thing I would do is make time for self-care.
Self-care is so important!
I would always do this by around 5am, on one of London’s many beaches:
You’re probably still asleep at this time, but I have already achieved so much.
I would next make time for some HIIT so that my body stays perfect, and then I’d make some client calls whilst cycling into the office whilst also eating avacados and thinking about whether a Bonferroni correction is needed on my stats.
Focus is key.
Cycling is so good for the environment.
Avocados are actually fruits, not vegetables.
It is now 0830am and you are probably only just getting up, but in contrast here am I:
I get up early but I am also exceptional at everything.
And in summary that’s how to do a doctorate, whilst raising a family and running a business incredibly successfully, all at the same time.
Coaching questions for you to reflect on in the comments:
Shouldn’t you be trying just a little harder?
When was the last time you played really mindfully with your kids?
Shouldn’t you be doing more on the environment?
Do you really think this is the way to bag an invitation to Davos?
I was describing the frustrations of running a small business to a friend who works in venture capital. In my mind I felt like the kind of dysfunction I was describing would shock her. Far from it – she seemed surprised at my surprise.
What’s odd is that as an ACT practitioner I am used to the idea that our own thoughts and emotions can frequently be unhelpful. Yet somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that organisations – built by dysfunctional humans like me – should be run in an entirely functional way.
The Dysfunctional Beatles
In early 1967 the greatest band in the world were in trouble.
John was behaving even more cynically than ever, only really coming alive when working on his own material. His relationship with Yoko was also causing resentment among the others.
Ringo was convinced he was surplus to requirements and considering his options in other careers – photography and furniture making. George was also feeling cut adrift, thinking that the others were deliberately excluding his songs.
Whilst Paul may have appeared the happiest, he was himself only a couple of years from his own breakdown. The author of Yesterday aged 26, was beginning to doubt himself. The Beatles were pulling apart.
The Dysfunctions of World-Leading Companies
In 1982 Tom Peters wrote his seminal book In Search of Excellence, looking at some of the best run companies in the world.
It’s a compelling read, until you realise that nearly all of the companies chosen as ‘excellent’ have since either underperformed or gone bust (think Atari).
Phil Rosenzweigh called this the “delusion of connecting the winning dots“. Yet we still do this. We pick the most successful organisations and then buy the myth that their success is down to their culture and leadership. Think Laszlo Bock from Google, pretending their success is to do with culture; Sheryl Sandberg lecturing on work-life balance, or anything to do with Steve Jobs.
Take a look at this clip of Microsoft in 1995 and ask yourself if that can possibly have been a functional place to work:
Think of investment banks, family-run businesses, the NHS…pretty much everything is dysfunctional.
It’s funny how the idea of acceptance – particularly accepting my own difficult thought and emotions – has freed me so much in my own personal life, yet when it comes to the places I work I expect organisations to work exactly as I think they should.
I’m not suggesting that working in dysfunctional organisations is easy or that we shouldn’t try to fix them. But I am suggesting it’s not the only way of assessing whether our jobs or careers are right for us.
The Dysfunctional Beatles (2)
In May 1967, amidst their heightening dysfunctions, the Beatles released Sgt Pepper.
It was a staggering achievement, made all the more remarkable by releasing Stawberry Fields and Penny Lane earlier that year, neither of which made the album.
The Beatles were overflowing with creativity and inspiration whilst growing increasingly frustrated with each other.
The following year, with relations at an all-time low, they released the incredible White Album, having earlier released Hey Jude, which was also not on the album (!)
Finally, in 1969 they released the mighty Abbey Road and in the death throes of the band, Let it Be (which was released after they had split).
In other words, some of the greatest music of all time was recorded amidst some of the most stressful and dysfunctional working relationships.
It’s the same everywhere. Dysfunctional companies run the world; they power things, finance things, change the way we work and live, and in the case of the NHS they save lives and give dignity to people when they need it most.
What Are You Building Amidst Dysfunction?
In ACT, one of the key ideas is that we can move towards our values and goals in the presence of difficult thoughts and emotions.
The test with our own careers, therefore, is not just how dysfunctional something feels, or how frustrating your colleagues are, or how undervalued you feel. (Of course, this is not an argument to just put up with these things – that is not what acceptance means). It is just not the sole measure.
The other part of the equation is what are you building in return? How often do you get to move towards your most important values and goals, amidst the dysfunction?
When I was a management consultant the answer to that was ‘almost never’. But as a psychologist, it is every day – my most meaningful contribution to the world ever.
In the same way that mental health is more than an absence of disease, your job’s worth is more than an absence of dysfunction.
Instead of buying the story that dysfunctional organisations leave us helpless to make a difference, we can learn to hold our stories lightly, and find room to create something of value, amidst the dysfunction.
This week someone asked me for a meeting, so I looked at my diary….kept looking…and eventually came up with a date in early December.
It’s not just me – though of course I am terribly important.
I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy (and terribly important) and perhaps no surprise – many of us feel stressed as a result.
Some of the stress statistics would be shocking if they weren’t so familiar:
In the UK, work-related stress accounts for 37% of ill health and 45% of days lost (Health and Safety Executive, 2016).
1 in 6 people in paid employment will suffer a common mental health issue this year (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).
The estimated cost of poor mental health is £74 – £99 billion p.a. (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017).
So what can be done?
Tackling Stress at Work
In a recent interview for the New Scientist (on behalf of one of my Fintech clients), I argued that interventions at both organisation and individual level were required.
But given that 75% of people suffering from a mental health issue will never receive any form of psychological support (Seymour & Grove, 2005), this places extra emphasis on other forms of support, such as workplace training, to help people deal with the demands of the modern workplace. The trouble is, of course, that workplace training often gets a bad name.
And a lot of it lacks even that most basic criterion; evidence that it works. Ideally there should also be evidence of how the training works too.
The Case for Using ACT to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace
As part of the preparation for the New Scientist interview (and prior to publishing a Systematic Review on the subject) I looked at some of the main evidence for ACT training. Below I’ve listed five workplace studies which caught my eye.
1. Dahl, Wilson and Nilsson (Behavior Therapy, 2004)
This study gave an ACT intervention to a group of Swedish care workers selected as being at high risk of long term work disability due to stress and musculoskeletal pain. An ACT group was compared to a group who received their respective medical treatment as usual (MTAU).
At post and 6-month followup, ACT participants showed fewer sick days and used fewer medical treatment resources than those in the MTAU condition, with a mean of 1 sick day versus a mean of 11.5 sick days for the MTAU condition.
2. Flaxman and Bond (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2010)
This study randomly assigned 311 local government employees them to either stress management training based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (n =177) or to a waitlist
control group (n =134). The ACT program consisted of three half-day training sessions.
Across a 6-month assessment period, the ACT training resulted in a significant reduction in employee distress for those who had been at high risk initially, as well as a significant reduction compared to the waitlist group. In fact, of these initially distressed SMT participants, 69% improved to a clinically significant degree, compared to 31% in the waitlist group.
This study demonstrated that even a short, one-off training intervention can have positive effects. A 1-day ACT workshop was offered to 17 care home workers in Wales, UK with a further 18 assigned to a waitlist control group.
At 3 months post-intervention, those in the ACT group reported a significantly lower level of psychological distress compared to the control group, with clinically significant change exhibited by 50% of ACT participants, compared to 0% in the control group. When the control group received the same ACT intervention, 69% went on to exhibit clinically significant change.
In keeping with ACT theory, the ACT intervention also resulted in significant improvements in psychological flexibility, but did not significantly reduce the frequency of negative cognitions.
4. Vilardaga et al., (Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2011)
This was a cross-sectional survey with nearly 700 addiction counsellors working in substance abuse treatment centres in the USA.
Results indicated that burnout was more strongly associated with psychological flexibility than other well-known predictors of burnout e.g. job control, supervisor support, salary etc. The study concluded that a future approach to reduction of burnout among addiction counsellors should target psychological flexibility.
5. Lloyd, Bond and Flaxman (Journal of Work and Stress, 2013)
This study took 43 employees of a UK government department receiving an ACT workshop (3 half days over 2 months) aimed at increasing participants’ levels of psychological flexibility (PF), and 57 participants allocated to a waitlist control group. The study found significant reduction in burnout and strain in the ACT group.
Crucially the study was also able to show that it was higher levels of PF that mediated (or caused) the reduction of emotional exhaustion at follow up. In other words, this study showed not only that ACT training works, but why it works.
Of course, training psychological flexibility is only a part of the solution to a complex problem. We shouldn’t overstate the evidence, or see it as a standalone solution. But increasingly it looks to be a critical part of our response to an increasingly demanding world of work.
Right from the start, the ACT model made sense to me, and made so many things clearer.
Apart from the bit about values.
That bit left me confused, but I let it go, thinking it would all work out.
But it never did really. I still get stuck on values really easily. I think my mind loves the idea that I have a set of values, and jumps at the chance to know EXACTLY what I SHOULD be doing. Finally!
Next thing I know I’m treating values like they are a real thing. I conflate values (how I do things) with decisions (what I do). I mix up values (how I want to be) with my own needs. I look to values to tell me what the ‘right’ answer is, and when I get stuck, I blame values conflicts.
I don’t think it’s just me. Values are brilliant for bringing vitality and purpose to life, especially when options are limited. But in coaching we are often dealing with people with too many choices. Values can add to this sense of overwhelm, at least in my experience.
Yet at the same time, I feel like values have changed my life. How the hell did that happen?
How I understand values, when I understand values
The other day my two-year old daughter told me her name was ‘Orla Archer’ and I simply burst with pride. The words caught in my heart. Orla Archer.
Up to the age of about 7 or 8 I was called Robert Davies. Then my Step Dad arrived, married my Mum and on the day of the wedding they asked me whether I wanted to be called Robert Davies or Robert Archer. I was never in doubt.
Since then I’ve always been proud of that name, without ever really knowing why. Now I think it was all about choices.
I chose the name, but I also began to choose other things. I chose all the best stuff; sport, Liverpool FC and of course, The Beatles. I also chose organisation, determination, anger, softness, self-reliance.
As Robert Davies I’d never really chosen anything for myself. I was in survival mode too often. But from ‘Archer’ onwards, I started to choose things.
Crucially, I didn’t have to state in advance what my values were. If anyone had asked me whether I was ‘living my values’ I’d not have had a clue. They weren’t the ‘right’ choices necessarily, or the easy choices.
But looking back, this choosing was the beginning of the essential ‘Archer-ness’ that feels like the most worthwhile bits of me, even today.
This is how I understand values.
Values help with hard choices
Values, therefore, are different from decisions, and from ethics and morals. With values it is the choice that seems key. What am I valuing rather than what are my values.
My favourite all-time TED talk is by Ruth Chang. In it she argues that values are about ‘hard choices’; situations where there is no right answer. Those situations are tough! But from another perspective they can be liberating, because this is our one chance in life to properly choose stuff….
Avoiding stuckness with values
I still don’t really know what my values are. Or at least if I cling to the idea that I have a stable set of values for all situations, then I quickly get stuck.
But if in a given situation you ask me what my ‘values move’ is, or how I would choose to respond to a situation, or how I behave when I feel like a version of myself I can be proud of – generally I can do that.
So right now, in this moment, I try to focus on the choosing.
And one day – perhaps long after I’ve gone – Orla Archer will tell you what my values were.