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.

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

Image source: Ron Passfield, Copyright. 2018

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Accessing Our Inner Resources to Cope With Trauma

Mindfulness through “resourcing meditation” can help us to cope with trauma.  It does not replace the need for therapeutic assistance but complements therapy and facilitates the process of dealing with deeply held fear or grief.

The causes of trauma

Trauma can be experienced by anyone at any stage of life.  The associated experience of profound psychological distress can result from a natural disaster such as a cyclone or earthquake; a personal life event such as the death of a parent. life partner or a child; being involved in a serious car or transport accident; the experience of going to war or being a prisoner of war; experiencing a vicious relationship break-up; being a person displaced by war; experiencing a toxic work environment over an extended period; being a refugee attacked by pirates when trying to flee a war-torn country by boat (the experience of Anh Do).

People in helping professions can experience vicarious trauma by virtue of supporting others who have had a traumatic experience. So midwives in a hospital can experience trauma when a mother and/or baby dies; professionals providing access to legal aid can be overcome by constant exposure to the recounting of traumatic experiences by clients; police, ambulance drivers and paramedics can experience vicarious trauma as a result of the work they do with victims of crime or serious car accidents; and police and their life partners, too, can experience trauma vicariously as a result of the death of a colleague through violence.

The effects of trauma

Just as the causes of trauma can be many and varied, so too are the effects experienced by people who have been traumatised.  Some people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This usually occurs when a person experiences an event that is personally life-threatening to themselves or others and is more likely in situations where a pre-existing mental illness is present, and/or a series of traumatic events are involved, such as sexual abuse.  People who have PTSD will experience “feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror” and tend to replay the traumatic event(s) over and over, so that their intense anxiety condition becomes locked in.

The spectrum of responses to the experience of trauma is very wide – from numbness and inertia to aggression and violence.  People who experience trauma can become withdrawn and avoid interactions; experience de-sensitisation to the people and situations they have to deal with; experience on-going depression; become cynical or distrustful in their interactions; or experience a profound and enduring sadness.  They may question their self-worth and accomplishments; experience difficulty in relaxing and sleeping; or be overcome by a deep sense of grief (where someone significant to them has died).

Accessing our internal resources

In a previous post, I wrote about how to use the R.A.I.N. meditation process to deal with fear and anxiety.  However, in cases of trauma and intense grief, we may not be able to plumb the depths of our feelings because the experience would be too painful and/or cause flashbacks to the traumatic event(s).

Tara Brach, in the course on the Power of Awareness, described how to access internal resources to cope initially with the psychological pain experienced with trauma.  Drawing on her own experience with trauma victims and sound research in the area, she suggests a number of ways to resource ourselves:

  • Physical grounding – this involves getting in touch with the feeling of our feet on the ground and our buttocks on the chair.  The physical sensation of contact with the ground or chair is important because it enables us to link the sense of safety and security through sitting or standing with our psychological experience.
  • Breathing deeply and slowly – this could begin with lengthening our in-breath and out-breath and move to mindful breathing, which includes paying attention to the space between.
  • Touch – touching our heart or stomach with some loving gesture that brings warmth to relax our body.
  • Talking to ourselves – we can use comforting and supportive words while engaged in conversation with ourselves.
  • Envisaging our allies – there may be relatives or friends in our life who provide very strong emotional support and constant affirmation of our self-worth.  There are others such as members of a support group for a chronic illness or for loss of a child or loved one.  Bringing these people to mind together with the feelings of kindness and encouragement they engender, can build our inner resources to cope with trauma.
  • Revisiting a place of peace or relaxation – we can do this physically or just by visioning what it was like to be in our favourite place.  It could be by the bay or at the seaside, in the mountains or on the deck in our home-anywhere that gives us strength, renews our spirit and intensifies our feelings of security.

Whatever process we use for inner resourcing, it is important to get in touch with what positive effects we are feeling in our body, as well as in our minds.  Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness course, encourages us to use resourcing meditations based on the above listed pathways to tap into, and strengthen, our inner resources.   She argues that these meditations are a true refuge, unlike the false refuges of drugs or alcohol.

Being able to deal with trauma through the R.A.I.N. meditation process (plumbing the depths of our fear or grief) may take months of resourcing ourselves before we can confront the depths of our emotions, but Tara’s own counselling experience with people who have suffered trauma (including PTSD) confirms that it is possible to emerge from the depths to live a balanced and happy life.

As we grow in mindfulness through resourcing meditations, we strengthen our inner resources to cope with the profound psychological effects of a trauma and build up our capacity to deal with the resultant debilitating emotions.

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

Image source: courtesy of Maialisa on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

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.

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

Image source: courtesy of Wetmount on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.