How can psychological flexibility help with workplace stress?

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Health Assured team

21 November 2019

Stress in the workplace is an all too apparent issue. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) puts the number of working days lost because of work-related ill health and non-fatal injuries at 30.7 million in the year 2017/18.

The cost to the UK economy rose to £18 billion in 2017.

We’ve published various articles speaking about the impacts of stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace. We’ve also explored options for reducing its impacts on the workforce and processes.

And with employees spending a majority of their time in the workplace, employers need to recognise the need to balance the needs of the business with the needs of their employees.

To address issues relating to stress in the workplace, some experts use psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health and wellbeing.

In this piece, we’ll define psychological flexibility, compare it to resilience and highlight how it can help reduce stress levels in the workplace.


What is psychological flexibility?

It’s the ability to ‘stay connected’ in the present moment.

Part of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model, the goal of psychological flexibility is to give people control over certain areas (including work) by letting go of thoughts, emotions and impulses and instead focusing on the long-term values and objectives.

There’re various aspects to consider for improving employee performance and productivity in the workplace, including:

  • Effective communication.
  • Appropriate decision-making,
  • Providing adequate training.

However, when your staff are not in the right psychological state, it can affect their focus, clarity, motivation, behaviour and approach to responsibilities.

This is where psychological flexibility measures come in. The framework is said to assist employees by helping them to:

  • Become more mindful and to concentrate on tasks for longer periods.
  • Increase the importance of tasks by associating them to goals and values, which in turn increases motivation.
  • Recognise when to be resilient and when to change their behaviour as opposed to being trapped in the same ineffective pattern of behaviour.

While there may be some similarities between psychological flexibility and resilience, it’s important to note they do have their differences.

  • Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, threats and even trauma.
  • Psychological flexibility relates to how we manage or control our emotions.

In relation to stress, while resilience helps employees to withstand and adjust to changing situations, psychological flexibility like the name suggests promotes the adaptability of emotions and thoughts.


How can psychological flexibility help with workplace stress?

The aim is to stay in the present, choose the appropriate behaviour for a specific situation, and in the process reduce stress. Employees can achieve this by practising some psychological flexibility exercises.

As behaviour, emotions, thoughts and feelings all relate to the brain, the purpose of these exercises is to keep it emotionally fit and mentally sharp.

The first step in mental flexibility involves stepping out of your comfort zone. As humans, our default setting is to stick to familiar behaviours, patterns and habits.

While it’s convenient and comfortable, it’s not doing our brains any favours. Just like our physical body needs to be pushed to get stronger, our brains need to be challenged to build flexibility.

Other exercises for maintaining flexibility psychologically include:

  • Stimulating the mind: This activates parts of the brain’s essential structures. Employees can achieve this by committing to learning something new every day. It’s a great mental exercise and doesn’t have to be too complicated. Try out anything from remembering historical dates, learning new words or facts, etc.

  • Doing something different: Instead of repeating the same routine day in and day out, break the habit and consider changing it up. This mix up allows pathways in the brain that aren’t as active as the ones used in everyday behaviour, which in turn builds mental flexibility. Changes don’t have to be too drastic, sit somewhere different, use your less dominant hand, take a different route to work, etc.


Expert support

If you’d like any more guidance on how to encouraging open communication in the workplace, get in touch with Health Assured today on 0844 892 2493.

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