Workplace Stress & Psychological Flexibility

When a colleague takes time off for illness – what is your first thought?

Was it ‘they have gone off sick because they are stressed?’ Probably not. Few realise that 49% of all working days lost in the UK in 2016-17 were caused by work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

Although short-term stress, such as working to an imminent deadline, can be beneficial, if the pressure never goes away, it risks leading to chronic stress, which can bring on significant mental health issues. This, in turn, creates further stress on the employee and their colleagues and families.

There can be long-term consequences of stress on physical
health. For example, studies have shown that long-term stress leads to a compromised immune system, contributing to debilitating headaches, digestive disorders and cardiovascular disease.

Very few firms know how to improve this dire situation; in fact,
many are unwittingly making things worse.

The good news is, we are starting to get a handle on how to beat stress and – even better – prevent it from becoming a problem in the first place.

One of the most important protective factors is a resource known as psychological flexibility.

Studies have shown that it has profound effects on mental health and workplace performance, helping people do their jobs more effectively while improving health and well-being. It enables people to become more resilient in their responses to high work demands, and is about creating a different relationship to thoughts and emotions – meaning they become less powerful as drivers and motivation.

Psychological flexibility is an ability to let longer-term values and goals, rather than immediate thoughts and emotions, govern decision-making and behaviour.

Does it Work?

Research would suggest that it does.

  • In a 2004 study of a group of Swedish healthcare work, it was found to make a significant difference in absence from the workplace. In the study, workers who reported chronic stress or musculoskeletal pain were split into two groups. Both groups received the standard medical treatment, but one group also participated in sessions designed to improve psychological flexibility through acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
    • This group subsequently took an average of 1 day off per year.
    • The group that received standard medical treatment were still taking 11.5 sick days per year on average.
  • A 2011 study in the US also showed strong effects for ACT interventions among nearly 700 addiction counsellors.
  • In 2012, Frank Bond at Goldsmiths, University of London tested the effects of ACT training in team leaders of financial traders working for an investment bank. In the eight months following the training, the teams led by those who had received ACT training made around £17 million more than those whose leaders had received training in negotiation skills. Significantly, they also reported better mental health.

The key is gaining control over your response and behaviour, rather than trying to control thoughts and emotions.

Gaining such perspective can have wide impacts. If immediate demands overwhelm workers, they often start to be hooked away from their values. Once a person loses touch with their values, it can lead to huge risks, both for individuals and organisations.

Equipping staff with psychological flexibility will enable them to get through the tough periods by maintaining awareness of
their values and goals – remembering why they got into their job in the first place, and what the short-term intense work will
help them achieve.

However, there are three important things to note:

  1. These high-intensity episodes should not become prolonged or never-ending. A culture of permanent high performance is not sustainable, as people will be unable to recovery.
  2. When people feel that they are trusted to manage their own workload (i.e. control), stress levels tumble.
  3. There can be a lot gained from standing up and talking about these things and also from hearing about the
    experiences of the other people in the same situation.

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