Well-being: A Dirty Word?
As an ex-financial controller, I can imagine the furious activity that must be taking place in the finance departments of businesses around the globe as they try to put together realistic budgets for the coming year, after a month of unprecedented stock market falls, and talk of bail-out and bankruptcies hitting the headlines every day. It’s accepted that uncertainty is one of the hardest things for us to deal with but is the sure knowledge that you’re about to nose-dive into a recession any better? Hmmm, that’s a tricky one.
One knock-on effect of this economic crisis is the growing reluctance of my UK business colleagues to talk about the value of positive psychology at work. On the one hand this is understandable, it hardly seems appropriate to be discussing happiness when you’re not sure if you’ll have a job at all the next day. My experience of working in finance is that the majority of businesses treat staff training and development funds as discretionary spend – so anything that would have been available for well-being interventions all but dries up as soon as there’s a whiff of a potential financial shortfall. And whereas well-being, and the UK government’s interest in it, was getting increasing media coverage over here, it has barely got a mention since the spectre of recession appeared.
When the Going gets Tough…
In reality though, this is exactly the time for positive psychology practitioners to show what it’s really made of, and to dispel the myth that it’s “all about happiness”. I know the Gallup organization has done several studies into the connection between happiness and business productivity, but research carried out with your own clients is hardly objective. And in reality many UK business people fall at the first hurdle – they feel uncomfortable talking about happiness in the first place, so even if the link to increased productivity were cast-iron, I’m not sure they’d be persuaded.
So does positive psychology have a role in today’s business climate? Well, the clue is in the word uncertainty. Having worked in the change management field for many years I know that in reality, most employees don’t welcome change, particularly when it’s forced on them. There may be several reasons for this (the status quo bias, for one), but here I want to focus on perceived control. It’s inevitable that when change is forced on people their sense of control is affected. We know from many studies that have been carried out on perceived control over the years (e.g. Gale & Batty, 2008; Glass, McKnight & Valdimarsdottir, 1993; Grote, Bledsoe, Larkin, Lemay & Brown, 2007; Ruthig, Chipperfield, Perry, Newall & Swift, 2007) that having a healthy sense of control over one’s life, work and environment is important for both physical and psychological well-being. A low, or external, sense of control may result in feeling depressed, anxious and unable to cope.
Developing Resilience and Perceived Control
There’s a role here for positive psychology in business to help their employees to increase their resilience in the face of economic insecurity and the inevitable work and/or personal changes that result from it, as well as to develop the ability to cope with setbacks, whether at work or at home. Starting with general coping strategies, there are really only two possible options to maintain or regain control:
1. change your environment and start to resolve the issues which are causing your stress,
2. change yourself and adjust to the new circumstances so they don’t worry you so much.
[In reality, you may have both, but sticking your head in the sand and doing nothing is not an option – that means you’re not coping.]
Option 1 sounds straightforward enough, but there may also be a self-efficacy deficit to deal with; perhaps you need to acquire new skills or knowledge in order to achieve such a change. This in itself would help you re-establish a sense of control.
And say you’ve exhausted all the possibilities which fit into Option 1, or that the challenge you face really is outside of your control, what does Option 2 mean? It’s all about developing mental flexibility, i.e. the ability to change the way you interpret what goes on around you. If we turn to Thompson’s (2002) definition of perceived control (“A person’s self-assessment of their ability to exert control”) we can see that three possible courses of action arise:
- Changing to goals that are reachable in the current situation, i.e. lowering your expectations of what can be achieved in the circumstances.
- Creating new avenues for control, such as focusing on other life domains where achieving control is more likely, such as in your hobbies.
- Accepting the current circumstances. As mentioned above, this doesn’t mean doing nothing, it means making sense of the situation in such a way that you can move on from it. There are any number of different techniques which could help here, from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy techniques (Hayes & Stroshal, 2004) to Stephen Covey’s (1989) Circles of Concern model.
In addition to exploring ways to increase perceived control, we could also consider using resilience models such as ABCDE, or explanatory style – either of these would help develop the flexible thinking patterns that are a pre-requisite for healthy coping. Any or all of these suggested approaches could be used in 1:1 coaching or in groupwork.
There is also the bigger issue of whether positive psychology itself will survive the economic meltdown. Critics often cite the lack of empirically tested interventions as a weakness of this ‘science’. With research funding difficult to find even in the good times, I’m sure many academic researchers have been wondering how they’re going to continue to finance their projects. I think we need to make a concerted effort to ditch the frivolous connotations that the subject has acquired over the past 10 years. By positioning it as a set of tools which businesses can use to increase their ability to cope with adversity, it’s more likely to demonstrate its true value and thus survive into the next decade.
P.S. Reference Gail Schneider’s posting on the topic of the credit crisis on October 23. In the UK we say that London is the financial capital of the world! ;->
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Gale, C. & Batty, D. (2008). Locus of control at age 10 years and health outcomes and behaviours at age 30 years: The 1970 British Cohort Study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 397-403.
Glass, D., McKnight, J. & Valdimarsdottir, H. (1993). Depression, burnout and perceptions of control in hospital nurses. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 147-155.
Grote, N, Bledsoe, S., Larkin, J., Lemay, E.P. & Brown, C. (2007). Stress exposure and depression in disadvantaged women: The protective effects of optimism and perceived control. Social Work Research, 31(1), 19-33.
Hayes, S. & Strosahl, K. (2004). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer Edition.
Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5, 193-206.
Ruthig, J., Chipperfield, J., Perry, R., Newall, N. & Swift, A. (2007). Comparative risk and perceived control: Implications for psychological and physical well-being among older adults. Journal of Social Psychology, 147(4), 345-370
Thompson, S. (2002). The role of personal control in adaptive functioning. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds). Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 202-213). New York, Oxford University Press.
2. David Reece