Self-Forgiveness

We have all hurt ourselves and other people during our lives – it’s part of being human.  Unfortunately, we can carry around the associated guilt, negative self-evaluation, and sense of unworthiness that act as a dead weight holding us back and weighing us down.

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are essential for our mental health and wellbeing and for the development of wisdom.  Sometimes, the accumulated guilt for the hurts we have caused seems too great for us to tackle it.  The sense of guilt and shame becomes buried deeply in our psyche as we avoid confronting the hurt we have created by our words, actions or omissions.  Self-forgiveness is the way forward and the means to release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt.

However, we can often be held back by the misconceptions and unfounded beliefs we hold about forgiveness meditation Jack Kornfield identifies three myths that get in the road of our practising self-forgiveness:

  • Myth 1: Forgiveness is a sign of weakness – in reality, forgiveness requires considerable courage to “confront our demons” and deal with the pain of self-discovery.  The demand for courage is especially pertinent when addiction is involved.
  • Myth 2: Forgiveness means we are condoning the hurtful action – in fact, we often resolve never to do that hurtful action again or to avoid the situation where we are tempted to react inappropriately.  If we fail to address the guilt and shame, we are held captive and are more likely to take that hurtful action again
  • Myth 3: Forgiveness is a quick fix – it can be far from this.  Jack Kornfield recalled a mindfulness teacher that requested that he do a 5-minute forgiveness exercise 300 times over a number of months.  If we undertake forgiveness meditation, we can procrastinate or fall into the trap of the opposite of forgiveness (blame, self-loathing).  Sometimes self-forgiveness will involve a lot of pain, regression, diversion and ongoing effort to avoid falling back into a lack of loving kindness.

Self-forgiveness is something we have to keep working at as we go deeper into our feelings of shame and guilt and their hidden sources.  Jack Kornfield suggests that self-forgiveness releases us from the burden of the past and allows us to open to our heartfelt sense of our own goodness.

As we grow in mindfulness through self-forgiveness meditation, we can gain a sense of freedom to be ourselves, a newfound self-respect and energy for kindness and compassion towards others.  We will become less self-absorbed and weighed down and feel free to open up to others.

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Action Learning, Mindfulness and Mental Health in the Workplace

Over the past few months I have been exploring the linkages amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.  I have found that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and enable the development of an organisational culture that is conducive to mental health. The image above represents my current conceptualisation of the relationships amongst action learning, mindfulness and mental health.

Mental illness in the workplace

The pressures of modern life have led to the increasing incidence of people in the workplace suffering from mental illness.  This is compounded by the increase in the number of narcissistic managers.  My own experience of consulting to organisations over many years has highlighted for me the urgency of taking action in the area of mental health in the workplace.

One particular consulting experience involved helping a manager and their group to become more effective.  The senior manager exhibited high levels of narcissistic behaviours, the middle manager –  while sincere and very conscientious – lacked self-awareness and interpersonal skills and one of the team leaders was suffering from Asperger Syndrome.  This workplace environment was toxic for the mental health of all involved, including myself as a consultant.

Action learning and toxic work environments

In the course of my research and work as an organisational consultant and academic, I came across an action learning intervention in an educational context in South Africa that addressed the mental health issues resulting from a toxic workplace.  This doctoral study has been published in article form and is described in my post on overcoming a toxic work environment through action learning.

Around the same time, I had the good fortune to study another doctorate that addressed the trauma experienced by midwives in a hospital in New Zealand.  This research used action learning to change the culture from a punitive one to a culture that supported health professionals suffering trauma, reduced the impact of the traumatic event and enabled them to be more resilient in the face of the trauma experience. I discussed this case in my blog post on agency through action learning.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning

Reflecting on these two studies about action learning and toxic workplaces raised my awareness of the positive mental health implications of the action learning-based, manager development that I had been conducting with my colleague, Julie Cork, over more than a decade.  I came to conceptualise that manager development program as creating a mentally healthy workplace through action learning.  The perception of this program as developing a culture conducive to mental health in the workplace was reinforced by a report by two lawyers titled, Mental Health at Work.

When facilitating the Confident People Management (CPM) Program with Julie, we have the participating managers identify the characteristics of their worst and best managers.  Then we ask them to identify their feelings when working for the best managers and then when working for the worst managers.  Over more than a decade there has been almost unanimity over more than 80 programs in terms of the relevant managerial characteristics and the resultant feelings of subordinate staff.  This is independent of whether the participants are from the capital city or regional areas and does not differ substantially amongst participants of different occupations and professions – whether the participants are police officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, mental health professionals, nurses, hospital managers or public servants engaged in child safety, accounting or marketing roles. Participant managers know intuitively what managerial behaviours are conducive to mental health and what are injurious.  We set about in the CPM to develop the characteristics of “good managers” in the program.

Mindfulness and mental health in the workplace

The research supporting the positive impact of mindfulness on mental health and its role in overcoming mental illness is growing exponentially.  The ever-growing research base in this area led to The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK and the creation of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

The benefits of mindfulness for mental health in the workplace were then documented in two very significant reports, Mindful Nation UK and Building the Business Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.  I have discussed this proactivity in the UK and the associated reports in a post, The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace.

The Mindful Nation UK report incorporates feedback from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which argues strongly that mindfulness alone will not solve the problems of toxic work environments.  They contend that organisations need proactive interventions (not just isolated mindfulness training) to ensure that organisational culture is conducive to employee well-being.  I have argued that action learning is an intervention that can develop a culture conducive to mental health.

In my discussions I take this conclusion one step further by contending that action learning and mindfulness are complementary and contribute to mental health through the development of agency and self-awareness.

Action learning and mindfulness as complementary interventions.

Reflection is integral to action learning and some mindfulness practices rely on reflection on events and personal responses to build awareness.  I have discussed the similarities and differences in these reflective practices within the two approaches in a post titled, Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection.

Elsewhere, I have shown  how action learning can contribute to the development of mindfulness through “supportive challenge”, mutual respect, equality and “non-judgmental feedback”.  This discussion is available in a blog post, titled Developing Mindfulness Through Action Learning.

After discussing the complementarity between action learning and mindfulness, I wrote a reflection on the previously mentioned action learning intervention designed to change a toxic work environment in an educational setting.  In this reflection, I discussed how mindfulness training could have helped the participants to exercise more fully the responsibility that came with agency.  In a subsequent post, I looked at how mindfulness expands our response ability.

In a further reflection on both the doctoral studies mentioned above, I highlighted the capacity of mindfulness to break through the “conspiracy of silence” about mental health in organisations and to strengthen both self-awareness and resilience.

The complementarity betwen action learning and mindfulness in terms of developing a culture conducive to mental health comes into sharper focus when we consider the contribution of each to “agency” and “self-awareness” in the workplace.

Action learning and mindfulness develop agency in the workplace

Drawing on the work of Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, I have shown how agency is a necessary prerequisite for mental health in the workplace.  I have also explained how action learning can contribute to both employee agency and managerial agency.  One of the things that stop managers from providing employees with agency (control over their work environment and the way their work is done) is fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness enables a manager to overcome this fear, provide agency to employees and grow their own influence in the process.

I contend further that mindfulness enables agency to be sustained in the workplace for both managers and employees.  Managers are better able to realise their potential by “letting go” and enabling employee agency.  Employees, in turn, build their capacity to take up the agency provided through their own pursuit of mindfulness.  “Sustainable agency” is an organisational condition that provides a nurturing environment for managerial and employee growth and for the mental health of all concerned.

Action learning and mindfulness develop self-awareness in the workplace

When you look at the underpinning philosophy of both action learning and mindfulness you find that both actively work towards achieving self-awareness by removing the blindness of false assumptions, unconscious bias, prejudice, and self-limiting “narratives”.

Action learning and mindfulness can thus act together to build self-awareness, a precondition for mental health.  In the process, they provide the payoff from self-awareness in terms of increased responsiveness, creativity and self-management.  Action learning and mindfulness also enhance self-awareness by encouraging us to admit what we do not know.

As managers grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practices they are better able to contribute to action learning and to build a culture that is conducive to mental health.  Mindfulness helps both managers and employees to develop deeper self-awareness and to build their capacity to take up the agency provided, thus leading to a more sustainable organisational capacity for agency.

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Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

In my previous post I described an action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington to overcome a toxic workplace within the education sector in South Africa.   What I would like to do now is share some reflections on this discussion.

Action learning intervention – overcoming narcissism

If we look at narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency,  mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this “divide and conquer” approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.

The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organisation intervention designed to embed a new set of values.  In the action learning intervention discussed previously, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

Agency and responsibility

In an earlier discussion, I emphasised how agency supports mental health by giving people a sense of control over their work environment and how their work is done.  In a toxic environment, agency is destroyed through micromanagement and the pursuit of control over managers and their staff. Action learning, on the other hand, builds agency 

However, when you enable agency, managers have to take up the responsibility that goes with it and this requires conscious effort to build managerial confidence.  Action learning is one way to do this.  Evaluations of action learning programs consistently demonstrate that managers grow in confidence about their authority and their capacity to exercise their responsibility and to be accountable.

In the action learning intervention discussed previously managers moved from a state of helplessness to being more assertive and proactive – thus demonstrating their increased sense of responsibility and empowerment.

In these reflections, I have focused on the need to address the differences in values between action learning and narcissistic managers who create a toxic environment.  In the next post, I will explore how mindful meditation could be integrated into the action learning intervention to grow mindfulness and enhance the outcomes from the organisational intervention.

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Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment through Action Learning

Dr. Rod Waddington, PhD, recently published an article about his doctoral research which incorporated action learning as a central intervention.  His article, Improving the work climate in a TVET [Technical & Vocational Education} college through changing conversations, tracks his intervention as Human Resource Development (HRD) Manager in a college in South Africa that had five campuses.

Organisational toxicity and its impacts

The college was characterised by a toxic workplace that resulted in both physical and psychological problems for employees, both managers and staff.  Rod discussed the toxicity of the organisation in terms of the “toxic triangle” described in the article by Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

Rod was then able to address the three elements that contributed to toxicity in the college – toxic leaders, toxic followers and a toxic organisational context (systems, processes and procedures that enabled toxicity to develop and grow).  Toxic leaders were identified as narcissistic managers who micromanaged, abused and bullied staff, failed to address poor behaviour (in part, because of favouritism), threw tantrums and undermined engagement, productivity and wellness of managers and staff.

The Action Learning Group

Rod was able to create an action learning group (action learning set) comprising a representative group of nine managers who managed campuses and reported to the Corporate Centre where the HRD manager worked.   His description of this approach to organisational intervention was in terms of engaging people who were directly impacted by, and were contributeding to, the toxic organisational environment:

I had to learn to adopt an inclusive, participative, democratic paradigm to guide a bottom-up approach.  I thus recruited other managers as participants, co-researchers and change agents to constitute an action learning set. (p.9)

The Action Learning Process

Rod chose to use a process of drawing and story telling to capture the experiences and feelings of the managers who formed the action learning group.  He provided a large calico sheet for them to draw on and space around a central drawing of a river which symbolised the flow of events and the connectedness and interdependence of the group members.

In the first instance, the managers in the participating group were invited to identify events that contributed to their experience of trauma and stress.  The invitation to draw and use colours and shapes engaged their right brain and moved them away from their usual mode of thinking – thus providing some sense of safety in exchanging information that was self-disclosing and uncomfortable, leaving them vulnerable.

The story telling or narrative that followed the drawings enabled the managers to articulate what they each had been feeling for a long time but that they had denied, submerged and kept hidden from others.  The process gave them permission to be honest in their communication with each other because it helped them to realise that they were not alone in their experience of personal hurt and dissatisfaction.

The participating managers identified different feelings – a strong sense of abandonment through lack of support, devalued because they were not listened to, dehumanised because they were verbally abused and hopelessness because there was no positivity or direction provided.

In a second round of drawings, the managers were asked to develop a picture of a changed workplace which incorporated the values that had been denied through the toxicity of the work environment.  This second drawing enabled the managers to tap into a sense of empowerment and hope that they could create an environment conductive to improved personal physical and mental health and to the development of an organisation characterised by wellness and mutual respect.

Outcomes of the Action Learning Process

Participants started to admit their own feelings as well as the part they themselves played in perpetuating the toxic environment.  This growth in self-awareness enabled them to move from helplessness and self-blame to take up the “agency and responsibility” offered to them through the action learning process.  In this way, they developed skills in self-management.  Hence, the intervention overall enabled the development of managerial agency for the participant managers.

The focus of conversation amongst the managers moved from negative thoughts and stories to discussion focused on hope and aspiration.  A key outcome was the development of a sense of responsibility, not only for their own area of responsibility but also for the organisation as a whole.   This was reflected in the managers’ agreement to initiate a “values campaign” in their areas of responsibility based on five core values –  inclusiveness, participation, trust, empowerment and consultation.  They developed an agreed format for posters to be used as part of this “values advocacy”.

Through the processes of drawing, sharing and reflecting, participants built trust in each other, changed their mind-sets, developed better coping skills and increased resilience as proactive change managers.

The action learning process and the development of mindfulness

The action learning process enabled the participant managers to grow in mindfulness – becoming increasingly aware of themselves and the impact of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour on their organisational environment.  Along with this increased self-awareness, they developed enhanced self-management skills, taking up responsibility for shaping their work environment and becoming more assertive in communicating and pursuing their own needs and those of their staff.

The participant managers were able to develop awareness through a clear focus on improving a toxic work environment and doing so in a non-judgmental way, moving from self-blame and blaming others to acting to improve the situation for all who were experiencing the pain and suffering resulting from organisational toxicity.  So, they were motivated not only to remove their own pain and suffering but also that of others affected by the work environment. This then reflects compassion , a key feature of emotional intelligence and mindful leadership.

[Note: Dr. Rod Waddington published the abovementioned article with co-author, Leslie Wood, Research Professor, Faculty of Education Sciences, North-West University, South Africa.]

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Calming the Busyness of Our Minds

Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese author, in his book  A Wild Sheep Chase,  gives us an insight into the busyness of our minds when his lead character comments:

My body was hazed to the core, but my mind kept swimming swiftly around through the convoluted waterways of my consciousness, like a restless aquatic organism.

This churning of our brains, stimulated by endless disruptive advertising, means that we spend so little time just being still in both mind and body.  There is so much of life we miss out on because we are so unaware with our focus oscillating beyond the present to the past or the future.  As Andy Puddicombe suggests, it only takes ten minutes a day to be still and do nothing, while experiencing calmness and happiness – escaping the torment of a turbulent mind.

Jack Kornfield, in discussing awareness, tells the story of a famous violinist who took part in an experiment to demonstrate peoples’ lack of awareness.  The violinist was due to play in a concert on a particular night before 1,000 people.  However, during the day of the concert, he set up in a busy street in New York and started playing his violin in his inimitable, brilliant style.  At the end of the day, he had only $17 USD in his hat which he had left out for donations.  Very few people stopped to listen, only young children tended to stop and take in the music.

Most people who walked past the violinist, or hurried past, were “lost in thought” – unable to hear and focus on the beauty of the music.  If only we could recapture the wonder of young children who are intensely attuned to their senses and not yet captured by their minds.  To wonder at what we hear or see, taste or touch, or smell. requires us to be present like a child.  It takes awareness and the ability to still the ferment of our minds.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindfulness practice, we can learn to calm the busyness of our minds and to value stillness and silence – the nurturing environment for creativity and mental health and wellbeing.

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Mindfulness and Action Learning: Building Self-Awareness

So far in this blog, I have explored how agency contributes to mental health and how both action learning and mindfulness build agency –  managerial agency and employee agency.

In this post, I want to explore one of the elements that action learning and mindfulness have in common – self-awareness.  To the extent that action learning and mindfulness are working towards a common goal, they can reinforce each other and, working in concert, help to transcend the barriers that impede the development of agency and mental health in the workplace.

Mindfulness and Action Learning: Building Self-Awareness

In 2013, I explored how action learning builds mindfulness in the workplace.  I focused very much on the respective contribution of action learning and mindfulness to the development of self-awareness.   In that blog post for our consultancy company, Merit Solutions, I concluded that action learning builds self-awareness through the norm of “supportive challenge” by peers, along with the challenge of “doing something significant about something imperative” which forces us to redefine our roles, our values and how we perceive ourselves.

I contended there that both action learning and mindfulness have a common goal of building self-awareness – freedom from false assumptions, from entrenched negative thoughts and stories and from narrow perspectives on what people are capable of achieving.  This self-awareness, in turn, builds agency and mental health.

In discussing what is definitive about action learning, Reg Revans, in his book, The Origins and Growth of Action Learning, explained that action learning, involving real commitment to action in the here-and-now, causes the participants to “become aware of their own values” and entails a “voyage of self-discovery” which enables them to “fix attention upon this inner and personal self”.  In the process of taking action after disclosing their own motives for change “to close and critical colleagues”, they are “obliged to explore that inner self otherwise taken for granted and never questioned”.  Critical but supportive colleagues help the action learner to assess their own ideas and outcomes in an often-hostile organisation environment and this, in turn, will “purge them of any lingering self-deception”.  Thus, action learning involves “development of the self by the mutual support of equals” who are also engaged in the “struggle to understand themselves”. (pp. 630-633).

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a global leader in the mindfulness movement, in an interview with Krista Tibbett, stated that mindfulness meditation results in a new level of self-awareness:

…you change your relationship to who you think you are as a person and in particular to the story of who you are or think you are.

As we grow in mindfulness and engage in action learning we realise that we are on a journey of self-discovery where the limitations of our thoughts and actions are exposed and we are forced to confront ourselves and the level of alignment between our words and actions.

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Managerial Agency through Action Learning

In an earlier post I discussed how mindfulness enabled sustainable employee agency.   I subsequently discussed the need to underpin mindfulness training with organisational interventions that develop managers and leaders and create a culture that is conducive to mental health and enables the realisation of the individual capacity-building benefits of mindfulness.

Building managerial agency through action learning

Previously, I discussed a particular longitudinal action learning intervention that addresses both manager and leadership development and appropriate cultural change.  The Confident People Management program is designed to enhance the people management skills of managers and leaders.

One of the consistent findings about this action learning program, drawn from self-reports and external reviews, is that the action learning based, manager development program is an intervention that builds manager confidence to take up the authority and responsibility that derives from their managerial position.

The action learning based program builds managerial capacity to develop people management practices that are conducive to mental health in the workplace.  Of note, is the development of managerial and employee agency embedded in the philosophy and approach of action learning.

Managers have the responsibility to improve their work environment, build the competence and confidence of their staff and establish a workplace conducive to mental health.

The authors of Mental Health at Work stress the legislative underpinning of a manager’s responsibility for mental illness in the workplace.  They point, for example, to relevant Australian legislation such as:

  •  Health and Safety legislation (which varies between States)
  • Common Law and related Case Law
  • Anti-Discrimination legislation
  • the Fair Work Act
  • Worker’s Compensation Legislation

Our experience with the Confident People Management (CPM) Program is that, despite the weight of this legislation, managers often need “permission” to shape their workplace culture and to engender employee agency through delegation, employee development and positive feedback.

The CPM Program, consistent with the action learning philosophy, incorporates a collaborative ethos and involves the participant managers in undertaking a project designed to improve the workplace environment and the way the work is done – thus engaging their employees in these endeavours which are designed to build employee agency.

Action learning, managerial agency and mindfulness 

Action learning based manager development programs, properly designed, can thus build managerial agency which, in turn, activates the individual capacity-building benefits of mindfulness, seen from the perspective of both the manager and the employees.

As managers grow in mindfulness, they become confident enough “to let go”, develop deeper insight into their authority and responsibility, experience enhanced motivation and self-control to engage employees in improving both work and the working environment and, thus, creating a workplace conducive to mental health, not only for their employees but also for themselves.

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Agency through Action Learning

In a previous blog post I focused on agency and mental health – highlighting the mental health benefits that accrue when an employee is given the capacity to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.  How then does a manager create a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health through employee agency?  One way to address this issue is for the manager to adopt an action learning approach.

Action learning and agency

Agency is a defining characteristic of action learning which involves learning with and through action and reflection on the consequences of your action, both intended and unintended.  It is typically conducted in groups within a workplace where employees are collaborating to improve the work environment and the way the work is being done.

Reg Revans, the acknowledged father of action learning, argues that the best way to improve a workplace and the way the work is done, is to involve the people who have the “here and now” responsibility for the work.  He suggests that you do not get a Professor of Medicine to solve the problems of nurses having to look after dying children – you get the nurses themselves together to explore the issues they are confronting, identify what creative solutions they could adopt and take action to implement them.

In the same way, Dr. Diana Austin found that the way to address the seemingly intractable problem of midwives experiencing trauma after the death of a baby and/or mother before, during or after birth, was to have the midwives share their thoughts and their feelings after experiencing such a critical incident.

In her presentation at the Learning for Change and Innovation World Congress in Adelaide in 2016, Diana explained that her research involved working with an “action group” of affected parties who gathered information about traumatic events and reactions from each other, from interviews with other affected parties and from external health professionals.

The “action group” identified the unconscious rules of the health professionals as the major impediment to improving the midwives’ work situation. The research resulted in the creative solution of an illustrated Critical Incidents e-book that addressed and challenged the fundamental assumptions underlying the unconscious rules.  The e-book is now accessible to all health professionals throughout NZ and the world.

Diana explained that the research by the “action group” led to some key organisational outcomes:

  • the conspiracy of silence about the personal impact of trauma after a critical incident was unearthed, challenged and removed
  • destructive assumptions and unconscious rules were surfaced and challenged
  • the e-book support package was created and made accessible to all
  • new supportive processes were implemented and self-compassion was encouraged (refer: Austin et al, After the Event: Debrief to Make a Difference)
  • a collaborative ethos was established that replaced the old ethos of “going-it-alone’ when suffering trauma after a critical incident.

Clearly, the activities of Diana and the “action group” not only improved the work environment and the way the work was done but went a long way to redressing the potential, long-term effects of experiencing trauma, by providing a supportive environment conducive to positive mental health.  In the final analysis, the action learning by the group provided increased agency through the ability to change their work environment and the way trauma of health professionals was handled.

As managers and leaders grow in mindfulness, they are better able to facilitate action learning processes within their organisation, thus increasing the agency of employees and improving mental health.

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Agency and Mental Health

Trade Union Congress (TUC), in their 2015 document, Work and Wellbeing: A Trade Union Resource, included concern about the management style adopted in some dysfunctional organisations and the negative impact that this had on “worker involvement, and the level of control a worker has over their work” (p.5).

Agency and Worker Participation

What the TUC is referring to here in terms of worker involvement and control over work, is often referred to as “agency” – the capacity of a worker to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.

As discussed in an earlier post, Grow Your Influence by Letting Go, many managers are reluctant to delegate authority and responsibility for a wide range of reasons.  As pointed out in the previous blog post, most of these reasons for not delegating and sharing power are not valid and come from a fear of loss of control.  Mindfulness practices can help a manager to get in touch with, and overcome, these often-baseless fears.

The narcissistic manager represents the extreme case of not letting go because they need to be “in control” and will micro-manage to achieve a sense of total control, which is an illusory goal.  Narcissistic managers, then, work directly against this goal of agency and deprive workers of the mental health benefits that accrue to those who experience a strong sense of agency.  The behaviour of these managers in denying agency, leads to frustration, anger and mental illness.

Agency and Mental Health

The TUC report on wellbeing in the workplace, contrasts four worker situations (pp.3-5):

  1. unemployed people – substantially higher rates of mental health illness and suicide than those employed
  2. not employed in paid work – but who have access to a reasonable income level, and achieve lots of social interaction through community or other voluntary work – do not have increased physical or mental health risks
  3. employed in low pay work – with long working hours or little agency (control over their work environment and how the work is done) – “suffer the same health problems as those who are unemployed”.
  4. employed in productive workplaces – where there is a high level of agency for workers, effective people management policies and trust between managers and employees – a healthy workplace with low risk of mental health issues arising from the workplace.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, reinforces the strong relationship between the sense of agency and mental health when she stated that research shows that being able to control our environment “helps us thrive and survive”.

As managers grow in mindfulness they are able to increase their level of self-awareness, address their fears such as fear of loss of control and develop healthy workplaces where trust abounds, employees experience real agency and people management policies support the full engagement of employees.

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Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace

The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) commissioned a report titled, Mindful Nation UK.   The report covers the role of mindfulness in health, in education, in the criminal justice system and in the workplace.  It draws on research and shared experience of the benefits of mindfulness in these sectors.

Mental Illness in the Workplace

In relation to mindfulness in the workplace, Mindful Nation expressed concern at the rising costs to industry and government (estimated to be in the billions of pounds) resulting from absenteeism, unemployment and “presenteeism” caused by mental illness.  The causes of the mental illness are identified as stress leading to depression and anxiety.  The challenges of the normal working environment are also compounded by structural change brought on by the advance of information technology and robotics.

Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace

MAPPG was impressed by the wide range of research that has been conducted and the adoption of mindfulness in many large companies in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors throughout the UK.  However, the report highlighted the need for more in-depth research into mindfulness in the workplace and its benefits – noting that reported benefits include:

  • positive impacts on burnout, wellbeing and stress
  • improved focus and cognitive skills
  • improved creative problem-solving skills
  • better comprehension and decision making
  • improved reaction time.

Research results in specific workplaces were reported as:

  • School teachers – improved emotional skills and greater sensitivity and positivity
  • First responders (e.g. police and fire services) – quicker recovery, more sleep, less emotional reactivity and better memory utilisation and immune response
  • US companies – improvements in emotional intelligence giving rise to better decision making
  • Judiciary (US intervention) – reduced bias and assumptions along with enhanced focus, attention and reflection
  • Health professional – increase in the quality of care through improved empathy and compassion.

The 2015 Mindful Nation UK report recommended strongly that The National Institute of Health Research seek funding and undertake research to close the gap in quality research support for the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.  The report, however, concludes from two reported studies that:

Even brief periods of mindfulness practice can lead to objectively measured higher cognitive skills such as improved reaction times, comprehension scores, working memory functioning and decision-making. (p.41)

As managers and leaders grow in mindfulness through a diversity of mindfulness practices in the workplace we should see a reduction in workplace mental illness and in the flow-on organisational and social costs.  The research needs to identify what mindfulness activities best produce specific positive individual and organisational outcomes.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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