Distracted, Distressed and Disengaged

How Mindfulness-based Psychology can Improve Performance, Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace

Rob Archer, Bloom Psychology

In sport, we don’t just assume performance happens.

We know that only by focusing on preparation, concentration and recovery do people give themselves the best chance of executing their skills under pressure.

Yet at work we rarely think in the same way. The great paradox of our age is not that life is harder, but that it is more stressful. We assume we can handle it, mainly because we always have. But the fact is we’re damaging our performance by ignoring the blindingly obvious:
•Too much information leaves us distracted and stressed. •Feeling distracted leaves us feeling less engaged in our work. •We’re more sedentary, so the damage caused by chronic stress builds up. •We rarely think about recovery, despite its importance to performance.

So we sit at our desks, working harder and harder, assuming that ‘multitasking’ equates to good performance.

Distracted, Distressed and Disengaged
The amount of information we process daily has doubled in 20 years. Nearly all workers report a lack of attention and focus at work – costing $160bn p.a. in the US alone. Stress-related illness costs UK businesses £26bn p.a. Obesity rates have doubled in the past 20 years, whilst 20% of workers report mental health disorders. Poor responses to stress are the best predictors of early mortality in Western executives. Over 60% of workers are not engaged in their work and 20% are actively disengaged. Companies with more disengaged employees have lower profits.

So what should we do about it?

Traditional approaches have focused on getting rid of difficult thoughts – like anxiety - and thinking more positively. Many people assume that improved performance comes from improved rewards, increasing motivation and positive thinking. There’s just one problem...

That doesn’t work. Recent studies suggest that even where ‘negative’ thoughts (like anxiety) have been decreased and ‘positive’ states (like motivation or confidence) increased, performance has not improved. Not only is controlling emotions irrelevant for peak performance, attempting to do so may actually harm performance and wellbeing. Although feeling more confident and motivated seems necessary, it isn’t.

Consider smoking. The ‘Smoking Causes Cancer’ signs have been shown not only to fail in deterring smokers, but brains scans show they actually encourage cravings. They motivate more of the behaviour, not less.

Take rewards. Evidence is clear that rewards are only effective for tasks that require mechanical skills. For tasks requiring even rudimentary cognitive skill – problem solving, reasoning, creativity for example – larger rewards lead to poorer performance.

When we do find the motivation to do something positive, this often subtracts from our motivation elsewhere. So for example, if we do find the motivation to get to the gym, we’ll ‘offset’ this in other ways, consciously or not.

Over time patterns of behaviour become ingrained. We become less and less likely to make the positive changes we need to, usually because we don’t feel in the right frame of mind.

So what’s the answer?

Don’t start with motivation. Don’t try to ‘inspire’ people to action with reason, emotion or pretty pictures. Instead, teach them skills that allow them to re-focus their attention on doing what matters to them, irrespective of how they feel.

“Rather than trying to control our emotions and increase motivation, optimal performance depends on the ability to enhance our focus on task-relevant behaviors whilst feeling negative emotions.”
Professor Zella Moore, The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance


Psychological Flexibility
A new approach to performance and wellbeing in the workplace
Bloom Psychology is offering a new training course which aims to increase the effectiveness, wellbeing and health of participants by increasing their psychological flexibility. Whilst the HSE’s management standards cover ways of limiting organisational stressors, we believe that heavy workloads, greater cognitive load and interruptions all make stress inevitable. So rather than focusing solely on the stressors, we focus on changing responses to stress.


A Different Approach
Bloom’s Working Effectiveness course is based on evidence that shows performance can best be improved not by changing thoughts, but changing our relationship to them. Instead of getting trapped in the cycle of trying to feel a certain way before doing what’s important, we focus on: •Meaning – helping people clarify their strengths and values to strengthen their purpose. •Mindfulness – teaching skills that enhance focus on the present moment. •Acceptance – showing clients how to improve performance even whilst feeling negative thoughts and emotions. By adapting a protocol used successfully with athletes, we teach people how to increase their focus on the task in front of them, instead of the thoughts and emotions that surround the task. This is known as psychological flexibility.

Course Outline
Over 6 interactive sessions (right), we teach skills that enhance focus and concentration, increase engagement with work and help recovery from stress. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to improve the capacity to deal with difficult emotional states and still perform. Resilience, in other words. By simultaneously helping clients to explore their values in a fun, non-threatening way, we improve mental clarity. And by getting into action, we begin to change ingrained habits. The course is taught experientially, and is interspersed with scientific advice on recovery, sleep, stretching and nutrition. The goal of the course is to enhance psychological flexibility and enable clients to do
what really matters for outstanding performance.

Working Effectiveness Course • Session 1 – explore traditional approaches to motivation and introduce mindfulness in context. • Session 2 – identify what each person wishes to change, by clarifying their values and values-driven behaviour. • Session 3 – explore the complex psychological barriers in the way of exercise and better diet, using mindfulness and defusion techniques. • Session 4 – moving into action, mindfully experience the thoughts and emotions that hold us back and on understanding behavioural choices. • Session 5 – identify key goals and milestones related to values, plus a willingness and action plan. • Session 6 – skill consolidation session to identify successes and tackle remaining problems.

Enhancing psychological flexibility has been consistently shown to improve:  Job performance. Those willing to experience
negative emotions enjoy better mental health and work performance over time (e.g. Donaldson & Bunce, 2004).

 Attention and focus. Regular mindfulness practice
enhances attention and increases immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003).

 Improved mental health. Demonstrated in ‘high
strain’ individuals in UK government (Flaxman & Bond, in press).

 Learning and innovation. Shown with staff in
creative media organisations (Bond & Flaxman, 2006).

 Sickness absence. Shown in a wide range of public
and private sector organisations (Bond & Hayes, 2002, Flaxman, 2006).


Who are Bloom Psychology?
Bloom Psychology is an independent consultancy specialising in understanding and improving human performance at work. With a growing track record in both public and private sectors, we use scientific methods to help our clients to: •Find meaning in what they do, so they engage in work, rather than just turn up at work. •Develop the skills they need to design, manage and handle change more effectively. •Learn techniques which help them manage stress and increase their concentration. Website E-brochure Rob Archer is Bloom’s co-founder and author of this presentation. This is me. After 11 years as a management consultant, I re-trained as a psychologist because I wanted to understand the facts behind what makes people tick. Although words like disengagement and distraction aren’t line items in the budget, they have a huge effect on the bottom line. My mission is to broaden access to evidence-based skills which have been shown to improve performance, health and wellbeing in the workplace Contact me Check my credentials / Link In

By helping to shift the odds that people will make healthier decisions at work, we help to realise significant benefits for both individuals and the organisation: •Greater focus and productivity •Fewer sick days, •Greater engagement at work, •Less stress, •Better resilience, •Better teamwork and •Greater enjoyment of our working lives In addition to the benefits of the course, we work with organisations to help them identify ways in which behavioural psychology can be used more widely in the organisation, to ‘nudge’ people to make healthier decisions.

Thank you for reading
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