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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Image source: Ron Passfield, Copyright. 2018

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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 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.

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

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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.

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The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace

The Mindfulness Initiative is a policy group that developed following mindfulness training for British MPs, peers and staff and now works with politicians from around the world.  It helped UK politicians to establish a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

It is interesting to note that the primary patrons of the policy group are Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ruby Wax, comedian, who has completed a Masters in mindfulness-based, cognitive therapy at the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre.

The Mindful Initiative also assisted the MAPPG to undertake a parliamentary inquiry into mental health in a number of arenas, resulting in the production, after 8 parliamentary sittings, of the Mindful Nation UK report.

Shortly afterwards in 2016, The Mindfulness Initiative published a new document, developed by the Private Sector Working Party, which was called, Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.   This document is the primary focus of my post.

The latter document focused on mindfulness in the workplace and provides an explanation of mindfulness, identifies the potential benefits for business and discusses workplace implementation issues and strategies.  The ideas advanced in Building the Case are strongly supported by reported research and shared experience captured in documented, organisational case studies.

It provides an excellent starting point for any organisation envisaging the development and implementation of a mindfulness program for their executives, managers and staff.  Besides individual mindfulness training, it also touches on organisational mindfulness as a cultural approach.

One significant point that Building the Case makes is that mindfulness is not the province of a particular religion, such as Buddhism.  The report contends, based on the work of Dane (2011) and Kabat-Zinn (2005), that:

mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.

The problem of course is that with life in our fast-paced world, obsession with social media and concerted efforts by interested parties to disrupt our attention, we are fast losing the power to concentrate and focus – we increasingly experience “disrupted attention” and recent research confirms that our attention span is declining rapidly.  Additional research demonstrates that we spend almost 50% of our time thinking about the future or the past and not being present to our internal or external environment.

We also carry with us memories, emotions, prejudices and biases that distort our perception of reality.  This, in turn, results in workplace stress, mental illness and declining productivity.

The Building the Case report highlights the potential business benefits that accrue from the pursuit of mindfulness, focusing on:

  • enhanced well-being and resilience
  • improved relationships and collaboration
  • enhanced performance
  • improved leadership
  • better decision-making
  • growth in creativity and innovation.

To ensure that people approach the implementation of workplace mindfulness programs in a level-headed way, the report challenges a number of myths about mindfulness and addresses the issues involved.

Of particular note, is the emphasis on regular practice of meditation and organisational support mechanisms beyond the initial training to sustain mindfulness within the organisation.

It is clear from the research and case studies cited, that as people in the workplace grow in mindfulness and sustain their meditation practice, they experience real personal benefits that, in turn, flow onto the organisation, work teams and colleagues.

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

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Mental Illness in the Workplace

There are two compounding trends that, in concert, are beginning to increase the issues associated with mental illness in the workplace.  They are the incidence of narcissistic managers and the growth in the number of people in the workforce who have a mental illness.  I will deal with each of these trends in turn and link the issues to the offsetting influence of mindfulness.

The Incidence of Narcissistic Managers

Many significant publications such as Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review, Inc.com, Health.com and Time.com, have recently discussed the incidence of narcissistic bosses and ways to self-manage in the workplace to protect yourself from psychological damage caused by these bosses.  It is suggested that most people will encounter at least one narcissistic manager in their working life – I have experienced three that I can recall.

What are the characteristics of narcissistic managers that contribute to mental illness in the workplace?  Well the characteristics of these managers have been summarised by the underlying philosophy of “me, myself, I” – that is  I “first and foremost”.

Characteristics of Narcissistic Managers

There are many characteristics of narcissistic managers described in the articles and in research. Some of the more common traits described (and confirmed by my own experience) are:

  • Self-aggrandisement – believe they are more capable, competent or efficient than they actually are (believe they create high performance teams when the reverse is true)
  • Obsession with self advancement – their careers come before anything or anybody else
  • Over-concern with visibility and being seen in a good light
  • Blame others when mistakes occur (to deflect blame from themselves) – always looking for a “scapegoat”
  • Will lie to save their projected image
  • Take credit for other’s work if it advances their own positive visibility
  • Insensitive to the needs of others, especially their own staff
  • Will constantly change priorities depending on what advantages them, without regard for the impact of such constant change on others
  • Will have an in-group, but any member can become part of the out-group at anytime if they cause embarrassment
  • Create unrealistic time pressures for staff to try to show that their area is highly productive
  • Will publically criticise their own managers in front of the manager’s own staff
  •  Will micromanage to try to ensure that mistakes do not occur and that what they want to occur will actually happen.

The Impact of Narcissistic Managers on Mental Health

The reality is that these managers do not achieve control. In fact, their situation becomes progressively out of control  and they experience high levels of stress as a result, on top of their self-induced stress caused by self-obsession.  They may gain compliance through fear, but lose commitment because people physically or psychologically withdraw to protect themselves – no longer caring about the work, unwilling to offer suggestions for improvement, avoiding contact with the manager or engaging in covert sabotage (to get back at the narcissistic manager). They also lose confidence and begin to question their own competence.

The narcissistic manager, then, not only creates an environment conducive to the development of mental illness in staff, they also potentially aggravate  the condition of staff who already have a mental illness before joining the narcissistic manager’s workgroup.  The compounding issue is that the narcissistic manager lacks the insight to see how they contribute to the conditions creating, or aggravating, mental illness; nor are they overly concerned about the individuals negatively impacted by the highly stressful workplaces they create.

People in the Workplace with a Mental Illness

Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of all Australians, estimates that there are 3 million people in Australia suffering from anxiety or depression and eight people die each day from suicide.  This suggests that anxiety and depression are an issue in the workplace.  Beyond Blue funds an extensive research program covering anxiety and suicide for all categories, including young people, women, men, aged people and the LGBT community.

The Black  Dog Institute also supports the development of mental health in the community.   They draw extensively on research to support their role.  From this research, they are able to maintain that:

Mental illness is very common. One in five (20%) Australians age 16-65 experience a mental illness in any year.  The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance  use disorders.

What is particularly concerning is that they report that suicide “is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 25-44 and second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24”.

This means that suicide is potentially prevalent among people who are in early-career or mid-career as well as those entering or about to enter the workforce.

The role of Mindfulness 

The narcissistic manager exhibits the characteristics that are the opposite of the mindful manager.  They particularly lack self-awareness and hence self-management. They are by nature lacking in empathy and compassion and are unable to communicate with insight as they are blinded by their own emotions and selfish-obsession.  Their only motivation is to advance themselves – they have no source of motivation beyond themselves and  are thus unable to engage committed individuals.

As we mentioned in recent posts, emotional intelligence skills can be learned through mindfulness.  The challenge is finding ways to engage narcissistic managers in mindfulness training when they have a “keep busy” mindset.  Offering mindfulness training as a means of stress reduction may provide the motivation for them to be involved – because it focuses on “where they are hurting”.

Hence, mindfulness has the potential to help narcissistic managers to manage their stress levels, change their management style and assist other individuals experiencing mental illness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has demonstrated over more than 30 years that his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training has very substantial benefits for people suffering different levels of stress and forms of mental illness.  His findings through his practice have been confirmed by neuroscience research.

As individuals in either group grow in mindfulness, they will experience the benefits, and contribute to the development of a more humane workplace.

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

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