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Articles by Dr Tom Nehmy on topics such as workplace wellbeing, student wellbeing, preventive mental health strategy, mental health & resilience.

What Human Resources Professionals Need to Know About Building the Resources of Humans

I imagine being an HR professional today must feel like being the meat in the proverbial sandwich: torn between competing demands from compliance to workplace policy to business strategy. Like a juggler on a unicycle, they require immense skill and fortitude to keep all the balls in the air. Challenges come from all angles, while balancing obligations to company directors and managers with the demands of staff at the coal face. Managing ‘up’ and ‘down’ turns into ‘round and round’, all the while trying to keep tabs on the state of their organisation’s people, performance and culture.

Now I don’t claim to have the solution to all of an HR professional’s conundrums, but I have made some observations from working with organisations large and small that seem to ring true time and time again. See if they resonate for you too – I hope they make your HR journey that little bit smoother.

1. Work performance and wellbeing are inseparable

No matter how much we like to assume that professionalism means leaving one’s personal issues at the door, it is neither realistic or reasonable to expect this will always occur. Regardless of how much I might like to forget my relationship issues, family stresses or financial woes, human nature means it is likely these will intrude on my consciousness from time to time, whether at work, home, or socialising. Not having a convenient ‘off’ switch for worries (and even symptoms) means the workplace is an environment that will benefit or suffer from the state of every employee’s wellbeing.

When your people are really well, they will be more focused, energised, motivated and clear thinking. Rather than thinking of mental health as just being a phrase to invoke solutions when someone is overtly suffering, think of it as a continuum that threads together two ends: from being unable to function at work at one end, to thriving and fulfilling work potential at the other.

2. As rates of mental ill-health grow, the costs and risks of mental ill-health in the workplace will grow (but your organization can be the exception).

Once an episode of mental ill-health has occurred, it can be both costly and complex to treat, and confers risk for future problems. Reports on injury management and workplace rehabilitation frequently cite mental disorders like anxiety, depression and chronic stress as among the most expensive for employers and insurers. So how can employers reduce their risks and costs for these conditions when they seem like a creeping, unstoppable tide?

Research suggests it is possible to prevent the onset of symptoms of depression and anxiety, but this does not occur from good intentions alone. The majority of attempts to establish effective prevention programs have failed, and the corporate wellbeing space is inhabited by many well-intentioned players without a scientific evidence-base and the rigour of ongoing evaluation of their work.

By implementing a well-established, evidence-based prevention program with a proven track record, your organisation can be the exception.

3. Psychological skills training to prevent anxiety & depression will reduce stigma and normalise wellbeing conversations.

Rather than simple awareness-raising and information-giving, teaching the skills of how to have a healthy mind is crucial if you want to prevent and reduce risk for mental ill-health. This basically involves giving individuals the psychological toolkit that allows them to become effective self-managers of their own mental health and wellbeing. This requires the application of knowledge and skills in sustainable daily behaviours, and is the mental health equivalent of exercising to keep fit, or eating well to reduce early symptoms of cardiovascular disease.

An integrated, evidence-based model such as the Wellbeing Wheel (below) takes a holistic and pragmatic view of what it means to be truly mentally healthy, with specific biological, psychological, and social factors at play.

When all of your staff have been exposed to this fundamental wellbeing training through a company-wide rollout and ongoing implementation as part of your induction procedures, the concepts, language, and behaviours of wellbeing become a natural element of your workplace culture. Wellbeing conversations are then devoid of stigma and self-consciousness, and become a normal and desirable part of being supported at work.

4. When wellbeing conversations are normal, you can solve problems early and often.

If we accept that work performance and wellbeing go hand in hand, why would we engage in reviewing the performance of our staff without also reviewing their wellbeing? Think of the ‘Wellbeing Review’ as an integrated performance review (wellbeing + performance), or ‘Performance Review 2.0’. The stressors and challenges that employees face exist with or without your organisation’s awareness. So, is it better to know or not know?

The insidious challenge of managing a human workforce is that while physical ailments are often readily noticeable, psychological ailments are not. Presenteeism, impaired productivity, and the quiet distraction of a problem unsolved can fester and worsen until it manifests as absenteeism or staff turnover. And you may never know.

Wellbeing conversations do not, contrary to popular concern, require the manager to necessarily solve a problem or even intervene. A solution may be evident, in which case help has arrived early and both the manager and staff member are quickly unburdened. Alternatively, a wellbeing conversation may not have a clear solution on the part of the employer, but the conversation can nevertheless convey support, validation, encouragement, and may inspire further help-seeking or motivate helpful action. Staff are never obligated to disclose personal matters, but are encouraged to formulate their own plan to enhance their wellbeing.

5. When you solve problems or provide support, engagement and loyalty grow

How is it possible, then, for the astute HR professional, the meat in the proverbial sandwich, to satisfy the complementary aims of workforce performance, staff wellbeing, organisational culture, and talent retention? By doing workplace wellbeing really well. In particular, by enhancing the intra-personal resources of humans through evidence-based psychological skills training you empower them to become self-managers of their own wellbeing, creating positive flow-on effects that reach up (to achieve company aims), down (to more effectively deal with their direct reports), outward (enhanced client-facing work performance), and inward (to their home and social life). Workplace wellbeing done really well will create a ripple effect of magnitude that can benefit everyone.



Dr Tom Nehmy is a clinical psychologist and Director of Healthy Minds Education & Training

The 5 Essential Qualities of Schools that Do Student Wellbeing Well

Having worked with thousands of students, parents and teachers throughout Australasia over nearly ten years immersed in prevention and school-based wellbeing, I have found these five elements essential to making a big impact.

Does your school demonstrate these powerful qualities? The schools I've seen with the most impactful wellbeing approaches always exhibit the following:

1. They teach psychological skills

At the heart of good mental health is a cluster of essential skills known as ‘emotion regulation’. This somewhat opaque term is actually the single most important protective factor in the prevention of anxiety, depression and eating disorders – the 3 conditions most likely to impair the mental health of young people. Emotion regulation skills include balanced, realistic, helpful thinking; making good decisions in the face of strong emotional ‘reaction urges’; self-control generally; flexibility; distress tolerance; and self-compassion.

Some kids will be fortunate enough to have lucked out in the genetic and environmental lottery and will naturally have strong emotional regulation skills. But for the many who do not, they require a specific, structured, and developmentally appropriate means of acquiring those skills, which is best done in a universal, curriculum-based way that does not segregate or stigmatise. The skills and knowledge for good mental health must be elevated to compete with nutrition education, exercise, drug and alcohol interventions and other health topics. After all, mental health difficulties are by far and away the likely cause of disease burden in young people.

2. They know the difference between ‘early intervention’ and ‘prevention’

Let’s face it, prevention isn’t sexy. It isn’t like the urgent, satisfying and visible task of putting out a fire. But if you stop the fire from starting the first place, you’ve actually done more.

Many school-based interventions operate under the guise of ‘prevention’ when they are actually aimed at reducing symptoms. This is treatment, however. Primary prevention leads to a lower rate of onset of symptoms over time. By teaching healthy kids how to remain healthy, it is possible to provide skills-based psychological immunisation that makes it less likely they will get stuck in a state of psychological disorder, and arms them with a tool-kit for emotional self-management into the future.

3. They consult scientific research into student wellbeing.

Many schools would be familiar with the term ‘evidence-based’, yet how many actually consume scientific research? By either examining controlled trials of wellbeing interventions or consulting with experts in wellbeing research, schools can redeem the important phrase ‘evidence-based’ so it is more than a buzzword. At its heart, ethical decision-making requires educators to be reasonably sure that an intervention is likely to have the outcome it purports to have. Without this, schools risk their well-intentioned actions having iatrogenic effects, where effects of harm or increased risk might linger well after the warm glow of good intentions have faded.

4. ‘Connectedness’ is evident everywhere you look

Schools with a culture of wellbeing are always high in ‘connectedness’. School connectedness is the sum total of the rapport, understanding, value and importance that each member of a school community feels in relation to each other. Perfect connectedness is not required, but if the least connected members of a school community feel relatively connected, there will be a vastly lower rate of mental health issues within that school.

School connectedness can be cultivated through specific strategies over time, and is powerful in how it permeates like a benevolent invisible thread tying the school community together.

5. Engaging parents is central to their student wellbeing approach

Trying to enhance student wellbeing without fully engaging parents is like expecting an omelette to cook itself – the ingredients might be there but an essential process is missing. Parenting is a constant and pervasive influence on the developmental trajectory of all students in a school. If parenting styles, parent knowledge, or the home environment are fundamentally misaligned to what we know promotes robust mental health and resilience in kids, the success of a school’s efforts will hit a glass ceiling.

The thing schools have in their favour is the fundamental goodwill that parents have for their children (and their children’s future). Generally speaking, parents want their child to be happy, accepted, and successful. The stumbling block is usually not the intentions of parents, but the occasionally misguided or misinformed way they may go about realising those intentions. Informed school communities can apply their good psychological knowledge to appropriately challenge parents with what I call the ‘bullet-proof rationale’: “I believe this will help your child’s wellbeing and development.”

Dr Tom Nehmy is a clinical psychologist and Director of Healthy Minds Education & Training.

The Future of Work Health & Safety: Why your organisation needs a preventive mental health strategy

Do you recall when you started in your current job, the procedures you were ‘inducted’ into in order to keep you safe and well? Chances are they included manual handling, electrical safety, working from heights, ergonomics, chemical hazards and emergency procedures. Yet some of the greatest costs from workplace injury and illness don’t fit a standard WH&S ‘procedure’ at all: mental ill-health and problematic stress.

In Australia, the cost per case of compensation claims from ‘mental stress’ in the workplace is among the highest: $292,770*. Very common conditions such as depression, anxiety and chronic stress are not only costly but disruptive to work flows, pose staffing challenges, and impair the productivity of an organisation across the board.

A hidden pathology also exists: staff who are symptomatic and impaired, but who would not meet criteria for a diagnosis and who will never make a claim. Like a silent web of reduced focus, inefficiency and low energy, these ‘sub-clinical’ cases nevertheless greatly influence work outcomes and the financial bottom line.

How then, can we mitigate risk for the onset of mental ill-health in the workplace, and what are the implications for your organisation of implementing an effective prevention strategy?

Teach Psychological Skills

Whether your workforce is physically healthy or not, it is likely that most employees have a reasonable knowledge of what they need to do to keep their bodies healthy. Whether they actually do what they know they should do is another matter, but at least there is a minimal level of awareness of physical health and wellbeing.

The glaring deficit in public health approaches to mental health is that the entire system of mental health in the developed world is built around remediating problems. Unless someone was to attend a psychologist for therapy, it is unlikely that they would have the opportunity to learn the psychological skills that cause good mental health. Balanced thinking, flexibility, understanding emotions, self-compassion, healthy decision-making tools and an overall framework for thinking about and managing wellbeing, have been largely confined to the therapy room. Until now.

When companies provide the skills of effective emotion regulation they greatly reduce likelihood for onset of problems such as anxiety and depression. Presenting psychological skills training as an essential part of personal and professional development is non-stigmatising and creates a language and set of concepts that should become as much a part of the health and safety lexicon as knees-bent lifting, hard hats and electrical safety testing.

Link Wellbeing to Performance

The phrase ‘mental health’ casts a large shadow in many people’s minds as they immediately conjure images of mental ill-health. Yet good mental health is associated with focus, energy, motivation, persistence, clear thinking and creativity. Essential qualities, for sure, of high-performing teams. By using the broad definition of mental health endorsed by the World Health Organisation, the preferred term becomes ‘Wellbeing’ which encompasses the absence of disease but also the fulfilment of potential.

There is an abundance of evidence that mental health is associated with work performance, inviting open discussion of what we call the mental health / wellbeing / performance continuum:

Take a Universal Approach

By taking a universal approach – meaning everyone gets the training – there is no speculation as to who should or shouldn’t, or who most ‘needs’ to learn psychological skills, because everyone does. Senior managers leading by example drive high participation rates and model the (mentally) healthy behaviour that will drive the desired health outcomes.

Most importantly, employees can obtain a framework for thinking about, evaluating and self-managing their own mental health and wellbeing. At Healthy Minds, we teach the Wellbeing Wheel, which is designed for subjective self-assessment - meaning it does not rely on standardised norms to be useful: the usefulness is in your ability to self-assess the relative strength of six key wellbeing indicators, and then generate strategies to improve your own self-ratings. It accounts for each of primary relationships, biological needs and physical health, exercise, psychological skills, work-life balance (fun, interests and a social life) as well as meaning & purpose.

With an emphasis on psychological skills training (because this tends to be the wellbeing segment in which people are most consistently lacking knowledge), it is possible to reduce risk for the onset of symptoms of anxiety and depression. By keeping healthy workers healthy, and giving them the skills to become effective self-managers of their wellbeing, organisations can simultaneously prevent problems and enhance the effectiveness in a workforce.

Improve Management Processes

Once a common framework for thinking about and discussing personal wellbeing is established as part of the organisation’s collective consciousness, it then becomes an inherent part of discussing and understanding work performance. It is neither presumptuous nor offensive to openly discuss mental health as represented by the Wellbeing Wheel, because it is accepted that these wellbeing factors are intrinsically linked to work outcomes. Routine management practices then become as much about wellbeing KPIs as performance KPIs because they are inseparable.

Dr Tom Nehmy is Founder and Co-Director of Healthy Minds.

Beyond PERMA – A New Approach to Wellbeing & Performance

To many, the realisation that we could legitimately study and pursue happiness for happiness’ sake, and could elevate wellbeing enhancement to sit alongside the treatment of psychological disorders, was a revelation. A school of thought mired in the discussion of distress, problematic behaviour and problematic thinking could finally bask in some sunshine and break free from a focus on the negative.

But has the effectiveness of positive psychology matched the enthusiasm with which its proponents endorse its merits?

What does the evidence say?

Although often citing the prevalence of mental ill-health as the motivation behind positive psychology interventions (including ‘positive education’), the field still suffers from a dearth of high-quality evidence that it can dramatically affect mental health outcomes long-term. And despite having some important wins on the board, it has neither replaced traditional evidence-based treatments for psychological disorders, nor has it demonstrated the ability to prevent the onset of psychological disorders.

As I predicted two years ago, the pendulum is beginning to swing back toward the middle, and positive psychology is losing a little of its gloss – forcing its proponents to strive for an integrated middle-ground between addressing the need to effectively regulate negative emotion while also generating positive emotion.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) rightly utilizes wellbeing and fulfilling potentialas part of its definition of mental health, but it also disseminates sobering reports on the burden of disease worldwide. No matter how many positive emotion generating strategies we can devise, no matter how many times we can identify and use our strengths, the prevalence and burden of becoming stuck in negative emotion – clinically manifest in depression, anxiety, eating disorders and chronic stress – is a leading and growing source of disease burden worldwide.

Don’t ignore the elephant

Unless we can effectively deal with the pathological manifestation of negative emotions, the trumpeting of positive psychology as the exclusive focus of a wellbeing approach is like ignoring an elephant in the room.

PERMA, the acronym developed by Professor Martin Seligman as part of his ‘positive’ psychology, stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.

Gradually the PERMA acronym has grown, however, as it seeks to encompass wellbeing factors it had previously ignored. PERMA + now includes physical activity, nutrition, sleep and optimism.

Despite there being much to agree with in the PERMA+ model, the most glaring omission is the lack of mention of psychological skills for acknowledging, understanding and regulating negative emotion. Every living human being can testify to the presence of so-called ‘negative’ emotions. Negative emotions are natural, they have conferred a survival advantage to the human race, their function is to be adaptive in some way, but depending on how we respond to them they can also cause us to become stuck in a state of psychological disorder. The Burden of Disease reports from the WHO do not cite a lack of positive emotion as a public health imperative, they cite anxiety and depression as the urgent priorities for health policy worldwide.

From a public health perspective, preventing psychological disorders is more important than feeling good, and building positive affect should be seen as only one part of the journey to mental health and wellbeing, not the destination.

A new model of wellbeing

As an organisation that has been at the forefront of peer-reviewed scientific research into the prevention of psychological disorders, Healthy Minds is in a unique position to propose a new way of thinking about wellbeing. Our Wellbeing Wheel represents an integrated approach to preventing psychological disorders, remediating problems, and enhancing wellbeing. Unlike PERMA+, the Wellbeing Wheel includes six evidence-based factors that encompass the full spectrum of psychological functioning. We acknowledge that mental health is on a continuum: at one end is disorder and disease, and at the other end is focus, energy, motivation and fulfilling potential.

How to generate your wellbeing score

The Wellbeing Wheel is designed for subjective self-assessment, meaning it does not rely on standardised norms to be useful: the usefulness is in your ability to self-assess the relative strength of six key wellbeing indicators, and then generate strategies to improve your own self-ratings.

Give yourself a score out of ten in each of these domains. From there, it is possible to start planning pragmatic and personally relevant tasks to enhance your wellbeing.

Here are the factors:

Primary relationships

The primary relationships segment refers to the people you live with, spend most of your time with, and/or who are ‘closest’ to you in an emotional sense - for better or worse. Relationships provide a huge amount of context to our experiences of life, and influence our wellbeing greatly.

If the relationships we have with those closest to us are healthy, encouraging and supportive, they will enhance our wellbeing; if not, they will detract from it.

Biological Needs and Health Status

Our diet, the amount of sleep we get, consuming enough water and not too much caffeine or alcohol are essential aspects of wellbeing. On the extreme end, very poor diet or the excessive consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks will result in serious physical health problems including illness and chronic disease. Some people are also highly sensitive to foods such as sugar and caffeine and therefore experience mood swings and peaks and troughs in their energy levels. Sex, medication compliance, and regular visits to the GP will influence our score.

Exercise

Exercise gets a whole segment for itself, despite seeming as if it should come under the Biological Needs segment above. Why? Because it has such a big influence on mood management and stress relief. Research has found that for a certain subset of the population, vigorous exercise several times a week can have a major mood effect similar to or greater than that of antidepressant medications. It discharges stress, increases our physical capacity for daily life, and causes the release of endorphins that make us feel good. For any mildly depressed client I see, the first thing I get them to do is to increase their activity levels, and one great way to do this is to simply exercise. Exercise will also positively affect sleep, metabolism, and will lower risk for many potential health problems.

Psychological Skills

It is probably not surprising that the psychological skills segment is the one people find the most difficult to rate. And this is the area in which we spend most of our time training others – from corporate audiences to high-school students.

The psychological skills I am referring to include concepts like helpful thinking; techniques for managing emotions; relating to ourselves in an encouraging and compassionate way; being flexible; understanding and prioritising personal values; being willing to tolerate discomfort; and more.

This segment is the most challenging to self-rate. As a helpful prompt, try to give your rating based on your best impression of:

  • How well you ‘manage’ strong emotions. Do you feel like you can make good decisions when having a strong emotional reaction to something? Do you find, in hindsight, that your responses fit the situation well or do you over- or -under-react? Do you get ‘stuck’ in states of ‘negative’ emotion or do you tend to bounce back quickly.
  • How accurate your thinking is. Do you tend to predict disaster that never seems to eventuate? Or do you under-estimate risk? Would your friends describe you as ‘level-headed’ and ‘flexible’?
  • How you relate to yourself. Are you harsh and hard-hearted in what you ‘say’ to yourself, as in self-talk? Or are you an encouraging coach who employs constructive criticism but also acknowledges what you do well.
  • The quality of decisions you make. If someone was viewing your life as a movie, would they say you have navigated life well? Would they say you have demonstrated an ability to learn from the past, and become ‘wiser’ over time?

It doesn’t matter if your rating feels like a guess – that’s all it needs to be.

Fun, Interests and a social life

A healthy life is a balanced life. And no matter how driven or focused you are, it is part of being human that we need to take time away from work and goal-directed activities to recuperate, focus on pleasurable things for their own sake and enjoy social connections and pastimes.

Apart from your primary relationships, this segment also nurtures that human need to feel connected to, and supported by others.

Values, Meaning and Purpose

This segment pertains to who we are, and why we are here. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Your sense of purpose is the broader meaning with which you engage in life. Is it your work? Is it your role as a parent, grandparent or carer? Or is it volunteering your time for a cause that is important to you and goes beyond your own needs to give something back to society as a whole?

For some people, having a spiritual or religious practice and belief-set provides a context that both soothes and drives them in their life’s direction. Others still might be driven by a large goal that they are working hard to bring to fruition. Whatever the cause, that sense of meaning and purpose, of having a ‘role’ of importance and relevance, is an essential component of overall wellbeing.

Likewise, living according to what we value is an intrinsic part of living in a purposeful way. Beyond enjoying good feelings, living according to your values provides a life rich in satisfaction and contentment that goes far beyond the pleasure of being comfortable, feeling ‘happy’, or leading a low-stress life.

What to do with your score

Once you’ve rated each segment around the Wellbeing Wheel, take a look at the scores in relation to each other. Which segment is your strongest? Which is your least strong? Have a think about your less well-developed segments and come up with 3 specific strategies to enhance your number on one or more of your segments. That is, 3 pragmatic things you can do that are likely to cause you to score higher on one or more of the segments if you were to conduct a wellbeing audit using the wheel in a couple of weeks or a month’s time.

Make sure at least one of your self-generated wellbeing strategies should be something very easy. Set yourself up for success!

We recommend that you revisit your Wellbeing Wheel regularly to see how your scores have changed and to help you manage your wellbeing like a personal project.

Remember: rather than having the goal of experiencing positive emotions (which can be fleeting, as emotions are designed to come and go), focusing on your wellbeing is the golden key to overall emotional self-management. When your wellbeing is high, positive emotions will naturally follow, and you will notice yourself being more resilient in the face of challenging times. You will also have unlocked the secret to the very foundation of your quality of life: to be well, and able to perform at your best.

Media reporting must not sensationalise mental illness

Imagine you suffer from anxiety and panic disorder, and have not yet sought help.

You are terrified by the intense physical sensations that seem to come out of nowhere... your racing heart and rapid breathing signal the onset of the one thing you are trying hard not to experience.

Worst of all, your anxious thinking - unchallenged yet by therapy - suggests that if these sensations keep escalating you might have a heart attack, pass out, or might even die.

These catastrophic thoughts might seem far-fetched to someone who has not been caught in the grips of panic disorder, but to someone who has these worries can seem very, very real.

So, what then if you were flicking through your phone and happened upon this story, from popular website 9Honey:

Wanting desperately to be reassured, you open the article to find the following headline:

The implication is that a panic attack has possibly killed the new mother. In fact, the subject of this report experienced a complex and extremely serious medical episode and tragically died of "cardiac arrest and internal bleeding".

One of the core tasks of a psychologist treating panic is to challenge the inaccurate beliefs the client has about the 'cycle' of panic including the common belief that panic attacks can cause physical harm or even death. This unhelpful belief is part of the vicious cycle of anxious thinking which in turns triggers a powerful adrenal response and all of the associated sensations that are so frightening to the anxious client.

More than a million Australians experience panic attacks in their lifetime. An irresponsible and misinformed headline such as in the article above serves only to reinforce the unhelpful beliefs that drive this very treatable psychological disorder.

All journalists should follow the MindFrame media reporting guidelines: http://www.mindframe-media.info/ These guidelines help ensure media reporting does not promote inaccurate beliefs about mental illness or perpetuate stigma.

Individuals experiencing anxiety or panic can seek effective treatment from a clinical psychologist, via their GP.

The Exceptional Qualities of Psychologically Skilled Leaders

What is it that sets some leaders apart from the rest? Outstanding leadership necessitates a psychological skill-set that goes beyond the ordinary. Here we take a look at some of those exceptional qualities.

1. You challenge – rather than encourage – perfectionism

Although it may seem anathema to achieving in a corporate environment, the relentless pursuit of very high, self-imposed standards that go well beyond the completion of work tasks will usually detract from team goals. The law of diminishing returns means that extra hours of unnecessary project revisions would be better spent by going to bed earlier, hitting the gym, or getting onto the next item on the To-Do list. Perfectionism often goes beyond healthy achievement striving and into the world of over-stress and anxiety – where feedback is interpreted as harsh criticism and successes cannot be savoured. Psychologically skilled leaders can identify the fine line between healthy striving and unhelpful perfectionism.

2. Emotional labour is a core part of your repertoire

Emotions are contagious, and this principle operates regardless of whether you’re having a good day or a bad day. People management runs on the energy of emotion, and emotional labour is about the proactive effort that goes into our emotional displays. Have you ever noticed how someone who brings enthusiasm and warmth to the meeting room can change the entire tone and direction of the discussion? Or how an attuned manager can instinctively mirror and match the energy level of a struggling colleague just enough to validate and confer comfort? These nuances may often go unnoticed, but reflect a subtle skill that is part of the powerful ‘x-factor’ of a charismatic leader.

3. You model resilience by choosing to go out of your comfort zone

True leaders do not deny their humanity and this is what makes them accessible on a psychological level. Rather than portray an image of flawless calm, impervious to the concerns and pressures of mere mortals, great leaders show an ability to stretch – and risk failure – when required. A willingness to be challenged, an acceptance of discomfort, and the courage to take risks, are all ways to demonstrate the behaviours that make champion businesses thrive. Showing you’re human while at the same time reaching for bold new horizons provides a compelling display of leadership in action.

4. You prioritise ‘connectedness’ with the least connected members of your team

There is an invisible thread that weaves its way through all highly productive team environments: connectedness. While seemingly intangible, this under-emphasised factor not only reflects group cohesion, it is also a predictor of wellbeing. The difference between a good and great leader is that great leaders can build a strong rapport even with people they encounter with whom they do not naturally ‘click’. It’s easy to get along, influence and inspire when two people connect easily. But unlike the social world, at work we have to spend time with other people even if we feel we have little common ground. Rapport building is not the same thing as liking, and it is possible to reliably build connectedness through open, empathic communication. By applying this skill with the least connected members of their team, great leaders cause everyone to feel validated, respected and valued.

5. You realise that wellbeing is about more than feeling good

In its most fundamental sense, psychologically skilled leadership prioritises the wellbeing of others. And true wellbeing is about more than slogans, platitudes and generic ‘positivity’. It’s the sum of many biological, social and psychological factors that enable individuals to operate at their best. Sophisticated psychological skills do not come about from posters on a wall, or one-off motivational hype-sessions. Leaders who invest in the personal development of their people will not only be rewarded by greater productivity and lower staff turnover but will see the benefits daily in their consistently healthier, happier colleagues.

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball: Predictions for the future of mental health and wellbeing in Australia*

[First published on LinkedIn September 28, 2015]

It seems an age since I ventured wide-eyed into the professional world as a psychologist, brimming with enthusiasm and energy. Time and experience has changed me and my practice in many ways over the past ten years, mostly for the better. But how has theprofession evolved in that time, and what does the future hold?

Peering through the cloudy depths of my crystal ball, four striking visions become clear for what to expect in the ten years to come.

1. Changes at the top of the APS will finally lift the representation of psychology as a profession.

Whatever you think about the Australian Psychological Society, and clearly it has its strong points, two major missed opportunities define the tenure of the most recent governors of the largest membership body representing psychologists in Australia.

First, the public profile of the profession remains a patchwork quilt. Not enough has been done to seize opportunities in the media to clearly communicate the role and benefits of psychological services. A lack of clarity of the role of psychologists in contrast to counsellors, social workers and psychiatrists is emblematic of this. And while improved, the remaining stigma attached to seeking psychological services could be obliterated by a substantial public education campaign. Paid and unpaid media opportunities will do much to remedy this in the years to come as charismatic ambassadors place the benefits of consulting APS members more firmly in the public eye.

Second, the reduction in the limit of annual Medicare-funded psychology sessions from 18 to 10 by the Gillard government was damaging and avoidable. Members were urged in panicky emails to contact parliamentarians, which, while an obviously necessary strategy, revealed the failure of the APS to effectively lobby government, one of its core responsibilities. In terms of service uptake and scientific evidence-base, psychology should be a clear front-runner in any review of Medicare services, and should be championed by the government of the day as one of the most successful public health initiatives of the past forty years.

2. Corporate leaders will seek substantive answers to the cost of mental ill-health in the workplace.

If the more than $10.9 Billion annual cost to Australian businesses is not enough to motivate the corporate world to address mental ill-health, then economic arguments surrounding potential solutions will. Analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers has indicated a return of $2.30 for every $1 spent by investing in effective mental health strategies. When presented to corporate players as streamlined, ‘in-house’ programs that highlight the benefits of increased productivity, lower staff turnover, reduced absenteeism and attractiveness to prospective employees, new initiatives will grow rapidly. A staff-room fruit bowl and lunch-break massages will no longer be the standard of ‘corporate wellbeing’ and sophisticated psychological skills will increasingly be taught as a routine part of staff development and induction sessions.

3. The shine of ‘positive education’ will fade as the pendulum swings back toward integrated preventive-wellbeing interventions in schools.

Like many others, I strongly applauded the advent of positive psychology to explore the keys to ‘happiness’ and increased wellbeing and life satisfaction. At long last the scientific study of the ‘healthy' half of human psychology was legitimised by the leading researchers who became the movement’s founding fathers. Unfortunately the inherent appeal of positive psychology as a foundation for school-based wellbeing is posing a problem as a function of its success. While the World Health Organisation is unambiguous in presenting the prevalence and burden of psychological disorders as a global public health challenge, ‘positive education’ threatens to draw resources away from the effective prevention of adolescent depression, anxiety and disordered eating. Remember: positive psychology is predicated on eschewing discussion of psychopathology. Increasing positive mood states and identifying and using strengths is appealing and useful in helping people to feel good. But like the self-esteem movement that preceded it, an exclusive focus on feeling good without dealing with the difficult task of preventing the onset of depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, is tantamount to ignoring an elephant in the room. Eventually, approaches that integrate effective preventive strategies with the best of positive psychology will become the gold standard and will likely be subsumed under the banner of ‘positive education’ or a hybrid variant. From a public health perspective, preventing psychological disorders is more important than feeling good, and building positive affect should be seen as only one part of the journey to mental health and wellbeing, not the destination.

4. Transdiagnostic approaches will become recognised as the impending ‘4th wave’ of psychotherapy.

High rates of co-morbidity between psychological disorders are the norm, and this suggests shared mechanisms. Heterotypic prediction (the occurrence of Disorder A indicating increased risk for the later occurrence of Disorder B) provides further evidence of this. By targeting those processes that operate across and between psychological problems, ‘transdiagnostic’ theory will generate therapeutic and preventive interventions that are more efficient and cost-effective, and will proliferate.

* I do not actually own a crystal ball, and these predictions are likely to be as much a reflection of my own wishful thinking as any genuine precognitive ability. Feel free to add your own predictions in the comments below.

Why Self-Compassion is More Important than Self-Esteem

[First published on LinkedIn February 3, 2015]

More research articles have been written about self-esteem than any other psychological construct. Does this mean it is the most important topic psychologists should focus on? Since 2010, self-compassion has become a burgeoning area of interest. Could being kind to ourselves be more important than evaluating ourselves in a favourable way?

For years, society and researchers have been preoccupied with helping people feel good about themselves. Born out of good intentions, the rationale was that if we could only figure out how to make people feel good about themselves they wouldn’t get depressed or anxious, they would be filled with confidence and feel robust and protected from the hard knocks inherent in life.

Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough. Self-esteem did not confer the psychological benefits that were predicted, and some even argue rates of depression increased as a result. Here are five reasons why self-compassion is more important:

1. It's not normal to always win.

Self-esteem is predicated on comparison and competition with others. If feeling good about ourselves requires us to be the winner, someone else needs to be the loser. But it is not realistic to always come out on top. If having a bad day means seeing ourselves as worse because of it, we are left inherently vulnerable to being adversely affected by everyday ups and downs. Similarly, if well-intentioned others tell us we’ve done a great job when we know we haven’t, we distrust the entire process and feel helpless.

2. Self-esteem is correlated with narcissism.

Having high self-esteem can be a good thing. But focussing on the importance of being ‘better than’ those around us can also confer self-importance. Research demonstrates a moderate but notable correlation between self-esteem and narcissism. Now that doesn’t mean every high self-esteem person is in love with their own image, but it is a reminder that humility is healthy. Honest and realistic self-assessment allows us to be comfortable in our own skin without always needing to be right or be the best.

3. Self-compassion acknowledges our common humanity.

Self-compassion is about treating ourselves kindly, with a profound acceptance of the reality that to err is to be human. Realistic expectations, forgiveness for mistakes and failures, being nurtured when we experience difficulties or painful emotions - doesn’t that sound like the ideal best friend? Then why not treat ourselves that way? To be compassionate toward others is the starting point, but so often we treat ourselves more harshly than those we care about. Do yourself a favour and make it a level playing field.

4. Self-compassion produces better results.

Peak performance doesn’t usually arise from an angry spray by the coach at half-time. It is more likely to come about by acknowledging both strengths and weakness, employing criticism only when it is constructive, and being encouraging when things don’t go according to the game plan. The belief that being hard on oneself is the only path to success is the domain of uptight perfectionists who become easily overwhelmed when the going gets tough. Those high on self-compassion are not fazed by adversity and challenges – they are simply seen as being part of the journey.

5. Self-compassion is psychologically healthy..

When samples of people have been assessed for self-compassion and measures of mental health, the results are clear: higher self-compassion is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. There is also emerging evidence that self-compassion is a core mechanism in some effective new treatments for depression. Dr Kristin Neff, one of the leading theorists in this area, says there are three key components to self-compassion: treating oneself kindly as opposed to harsh self-judgement; being a mindful observer of negative emotions rather than feeling consumed by them; and recognising that difficulties and setbacks are something we share in common with those around us instead of feeling isolated by them.

Here’s a practical tip. If you’re feeling down-and-out, have made a mistake, or are simply having a tough day - ask yourself this one question: ‘If a close friend or loved one was going through this exact situation, how would I treat them? What would I say and what would I do to help them get through it and bounce back?’ Therein lies an immediate suggestion for increasing your own self-compassion. Regardless of how we think we compare to others, we can always make good decisions in order to treat ourselves well.

The Myth of the Perfectionist: 5 Ways Your High Standards Are Holding You Back At Work

[First published on LinkedIn November 11, 2014]

How often do you hear yourself or your co-workers proudly declare: “I'm a perfectionist”?

Although worn as a badge of honour for many climbers of the corporate ladder, perfectionism is not the driver of performance we've been led to believe. In fact, rather than propel your performance, it is more likely to inhibit it. Here are 5 ways perfectionism could be holding your work performance back.

1. You take too long.

Editing and re-working your report for the fifth time might improve its quality 2%-3%, but is it worth the extra hours? The boss is unlikely to notice the difference between the 4th and 5th version, but the time you spent has cost you a good night’s sleep, some time with your spouse, or a head-start on the next item on your To-Do list. The law of diminishing returns tells us this is unlikely to be time well spent. Because ‘perfect’ is impossible, if you learn to find a ‘good enough’ standard, you will notice that your time opens up.

2. You procrastinate.

The standard of the perfectionist is usually not a standard you would impose on a mere mortal. You want the results to be outstanding. Yet the task of doing something to an outstanding level can be an overwhelming one. You know it’s going to take an inordinate amount of time. The effort involved in getting there is substantial. Such a lofty challenge is an imposition much greater than ‘good enough’, and so we are inclined to avoid it. If you select goals that are more realistic, they will seem much more manageable and there will be less resistance to getting started.

3. You self-sabotage.

Perfectionists invest so much of their self-worth in achievement that the prospect of failure is not just unpleasant, it is terrifying. So how does the perfectionist prevent the possibility of having their self-image threatened when the possibility of a less-than-perfect outcome looms large? Simple: they ensure they do it at the last minute – or allow something else to get in the way - so they have a ready excuse if it doesn't work out as they had hoped. They can say to themselves: “I didn't have time to put in a proper effort, so it isn't a reflection of my true ability”.

4. You become over-competitive.

One of the unpleasant by-products of the perfectionist at work is the constant comparisons to others. Constantly checking your performance might help satisfy your self-esteem needs, but it is a turn-off in the lunch room. While a company’s performance is measured as a reflection of the whole, the perfectionist’s focus on individual performance may prevent them from sharing their great idea with the group, or sacrificing their personal work goals in order to meet a team-based deadline. A win-at-all-costs attitude may impress the guardians of the bottom-line, but it won’t do anything for group cohesion.

5. You become over-stressed.

The personal cost of perfectionism at work is that it is psychologically burdensome. Not only is the perfectionist more likely to be over-stressed, they are also at significantly greater risk of depression, anxiety, and other problems, which then becomes a burden to the employer. In an achievement-focused corporate culture, the legacy of striving for perfect is absenteeism, burn-out and psychological injury claims.

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