Street art and art therapy

If you walk along the streets of most major cities, you will almost certainly come across graffiti on the walls, pavements and bus shelters.

Not so many years ago, graffiti artists prowled late at night, covertly creating their masterpieces for city folk to see the next day. However, things are changing. Rather than rushing to remove artwork and white-wash walls, local councils are starting to embrace the wonders of street art.

One city that has taken street art to its heart is Stavanger in Norway. Now in its 19th year, the longest running street art festival in the world, the Nuart Festival brings a host of international artists to the city.

Nuart aims to challenge existing thinking, generate new ideas and push the boundaries of what constitutes public and private space.

Stavanger is twinned with Aberdeen, a city in the north east of Scotland, and they too have embraced the concept of a street festival to celebrate art, artists and public space.

A two-hour walk around the centre of Aberdeen reveals an eclectic mix of colour, themes, styles and expressions. There is even a wall devoted to a group of over-60s, who were trained in the use of spray paints before being given the chance to paint on walls.

Not only is the art in these festivals impressive pieces in their own right, many of the artists have ceased upon the opportunity to ‘say something’ about themselves, their causes, their passions and their emotions.

Street artists who use art to express their emotions

I came across a street artist from the US, Ryan Brunty. While suffering from depression and anxiety, Ryan, who goes by the street name of ‘depressed monster’, created the character, Yerman, a sad cartoon yeti. Ryan felt that his cartoon character represented how he felt about his mood and illness. His artwork is unique because it approaches the topic of mental health in a way that makes the issue somewhat light-hearted and therefore easier to talk about.

Ryan comments: “When my grandfather passed in 2012, I went through an extremely deep bout of depression that resulted in me not leaving my house for two weeks and losing my job.

“I began to draw self-portraits as a way to cope and one day a fuzzy yeti watercolour stared back at me. I called him Yerman.

“People started to relate to Yerman and they started to draw their own ‘depressed monsters’ to help with their own anxiety.”

Ryan continued: “I decided to write a blog in 2014, for Suicide Prevention Day since not a lot of people knew where the yeti had come from. The post was shared and people started sharing their own stories and I realised one of the most powerful things you can do is open up and share your journey for others.”

Yerman the yeti

yerman2

Another artist, Gioele Corona, designed and painted a mural in Shoreditch, East London. She says: “My idea behind the piece was to show how we all see life in our own way. Every person will appear in a certain way to us, due to our personal lens.

“I chose a close friend of mine as the subject for the mural. Sabrina is a transgender and we have spoken about how sometimes she can feel life is ‘not real’ or ‘present’ due to the way she’s treated by the rest of the world.” Gioele painted the piece to be a positive reminder that our mind is a lens that can colour how we see things.

Art is an incredibly enjoyable experience. It is little wonder that street artists use the experience to express their thoughts and to help them communicate with the world. Art is also an amazing therapy as well.

People who suffer from a wide spectrum of mental health issues can often feel overwhelmed by the problems they face. There are pressures on everyone but those who suffer from mental ill-health can find those pressures are magnified considerably. Art therapy can give people the opportunity to pause and to work at achieving self-expression.

Some of the street artists I came across in Stavanger, Aberdeen and London felt as though they couldn’t turn to anyone to express their thoughts and feelings. However, given the chance to create something in a public place, where it can be seen by the public, helped them to communicate their emotions in a way that was not possible otherwise.

Anger, sadness, confusion and grief can be difficult for many people to talk about. Sometimes, an alternative release is just what is needed.

But it is not just modern-day artists who have expressed their emotions through art.

The Scream

Edvard Munch, who painted one of the most iconic and widely recognised masterpieces of the 19th century, had his own demons. After painting The Scream, he said the idea had come to him in a vision, where the ‘sky turned blood red’.

He said that he stopped walking one day and leaned against a fence, feeling unspeakably tired. “Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish fjord. Then I heard an enormous and infinite scream of nature.”

Experts believe The Scream represents the anxiety of man, coupled with Munch’s internal torment, which fuelled his art. Munch wrote in 1908, that his condition was verging on madness and he entered electrification therapy for hallucinations and feelings of persecution.

The Scream

The_Scream

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy

Of course, you don’t have to paint on walls to get the therapeutic benefits from art. You don’t even need to be an artist.

Various studies have been carried out, and there are many scientists who believe that art therapy is a valuable psychotherapeutic treatment. One study that was carried out in 2014, using brain scanning technology, concluded that art is particularly valuable for rebalancing brain functions that have been compromised by trauma.

Art therapists, who are specifically trained in this type of therapy, skilfully encourage a combination of spontaneous, relational and creative engagement; functions associated with the right hemisphere of the brain.

In order to promote the integration of both brain hemispheres, art therapists facilitate attention, focus, communication and logical understanding through the art-making process.

Clients are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world.

Art, as a means of expression and as a way to regain emotional wellbeing, is a fantastic therapeutic tool.

And, as the popularity of street art festivals grow, hopefully we will see many more people expressing their views on the walls of our cities.

Please let me know if you have tried art therapy, or perhaps you are an art therapist yourself?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bendy trees and bendy brains

 

I was walking in a forest a few days ago and came across some interesting trees. Their shapes and structures are amazing.

Why are they so bendy?

Well, the answer is simple. These trees grew near the top of a hill, on its south-west facing slope. When the trees were growing as young saplings, they were constantly blown by the wind coming off the side of the hill. Their root structures must have been good because they were able to adapt to the early onslaught from the wind and develop into trees with unusual architecture.

I thought it would be good to reflect on these bendy trees and write a little about how our early years as children play a huge part in shaping our later years.

The first few years as young saplings have dictated the bendy tree’s unusual characteristics. The human brain is similar.

Our brains develop from the bottom up. The architecture of the brain is laid into place before birth and continues into adulthood, but our early experiences very much affect the quality of that architecture. A solid foundation, or a fragile one, can lave lasting effects.

Research conducted at Harvard University has found that during the first few years of childhood more than one million new neural connections are formed every second. This rapid proliferation of connections lays the groundwork for further development and further refinement.

The really fascinating thing about brain development is the idea of pruning. From the massive amount of neural connections, the child’s brain ‘prunes’ these so that many of the early connections are disregarded, allowing the circuitry to be refined. Pruning and refinement is influenced by both genetic and behavioural factors.

So, how do we influence good and effective pruning that is going on inside the child’s brain? How do we help baby and toddler get the best brains possible?

The ‘serve and return’ theory of brain development is an important one. When baby cries, an adult usually responds, with eye contact, kind words, a hug, and maybe some food. The brain recognises these responses and, as a result, positive connections are formed. Young children babble and reach out with their hands, only to find that an adult responds with gestures, noises, words and happy smiley faces. The child’s brain frantically processes these responses, and it forms neural connections, refining its circuitry. The baby serves, and adult returns. And the brain grows.

The early brain is bendy too

Just like the young saplings in the forest, a two-year-olds brain is flexible and plastic; it needs to be to cope with the massive proliferation of activity. The more the child is exposed to positive interactions, the more its brain develops.

Things move quickly during the first two years of life. By the end of the first year, the brain can differentiate sounds and, even at this early stage of development, it has learned to tune out sounds from different languages. It is busy and it needs to focus on the things that are important, so if it hears a language from people other than mum and dad, it deems these sounds unimportant. The process of pruning is well underway.

However, things can go wrong during early development. The scientists at Harvard found that brain architecture can be changed if stress occurs during early years. Stress that damages the developing brain can have lasting consequences. Unrelenting stress in early childhood, caused by neglect or by the inability of parents to respond properly to baby, can seriously affect the ability to function properly in later life.

Stress is good though. Look at the bendy trees. They managed to cope with the early prevailing wind. The young child can adapt to stressors too. Positive stress is an important and necessary aspect of development. Think about the young child being told ‘no’ with a stern look from mum or dad. The child learns that sometimes it cannot have everything it wants.

The first 2,555 days of life

‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’, said a well-known Greek philosopher. If this saying is true, it means that human beings are made in the first 2,555 days of life (ignoring any leap years!). Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but research certainly suggests the foundations are put down during those first few years.

So, what do we need to do during those first two thousand days? Can we really influence the child’s later life?

Absolutely, yes.

Children who experience lots of interaction with their parents will form better social and communication skills in later life. Games that show the child you are paying attention offer wonderful training for a child’s brain. Games that use the serve and return concept are excellent.

On the other hand, where parents don’t recognise the importance of interaction, and therefore don’t give the child the attention it craves, developmental issues can result. Sometimes parents are under too much stress themselves and they don’t spend enough time with baby because of this stress. Or, sometimes it is simply lack of knowledge or education that prevents some parents interacting.

How to play serve and return

It takes two to play. For many parents, the game is instinctive. When the child looks at something or points to an object, many parents will pick up the object and hand it to the child. This is serve and return working at its best. The child serves and the adult returns.

The infant has limited ways to serve. They will point, wave their arms, babble, and stare at things. These are all indicators that the child’s brain is ready for more development. By picking up an object, or by returning facial gestures, or by naming the object that child was looking at, the child starts to form those vital neural pathways in the brain, pathways that will stay there forever.

Every time you return a serve, wait a little. Watch the child process the information. Suppose a child points at something and you pick it up and hand it to them. They will ponder it for a few moments. Then, you might point at the object and name it. Again, they will ponder. After a few moments, you might interact again, perhaps moving the object around. This simple interaction, which takes only a few minutes, have helped build and refine circuitry in the brain. During those minutes, the child’s brain will be frantically whirring, processing, pruning and building circuits that it can use over and over.

Just be good enough

The ‘good enough is enough’ principle is a good one to remember though. Parenting is not easy and sometimes it is enough to be just good enough. Fulfilling children’s physical and emotional needs by giving them food, tucking them into bed, making them feel safe and secure, and enjoying moments of delight can greatly help those neurons to form properly. Add into the mix some time each day for serve and return play and you will have a great child.

Neural connections are like the roots of a tree. If the roots are well-nourished and form properly, the tree can withstand trauma and grow to be healthy. The bendy trees on the hillside are a great example. Early environmental factors have influenced how the trees developed but they have lived long lives, full of interest and character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are mental health problems at work caused by our unconscious bias?

A lot of business leaders and managers are talking about mental health at work, which is great because it raises awareness of this important topic.

But, not so many people are talking about how ‘they’ are often the main cause of mental illness and distress in the workplace.

Think about it. Who impacts the wellbeing of people at work? The boss!

A stressed-out manager will almost certainly result in a stressed-out team. A boss who can’t recognise an employee who is close to melt-down will almost certainly cause a melt-down.

The big questions is, do leaders and managers consciously behave in a way that negatively impacts on the wellbeing of employees, or do they cause mayhem in complete ignorant bliss?

Unconscious bias plays a big part

The reality is, our attitudes and behaviour towards other people can be influenced as much by our instinctive feelings as by our rational thought process. In fact, our brains and minds are highly developed organs that rely almost entirely on unconscious decisions.

Imagine if you had to consciously process every step of your journey to work each day. Your conscious mind would be faced with a massive task, with hundreds of decisions to make. It would collapse under the strain. Instead, our brain uses the unconscious part to get us to work. Autopilot, some would say.

Take a look at the picture below. Very quickly, think about five words or thoughts that come into your mind while looking at the image below.

head-illusion

Your unconscious bias is a work. Some people will instantly think ‘dislike’ when they see the photo because they hate coffee. Some people will immediately think positive thoughts, associating the image with their favourite brew.

I often use this image when delivering our Unconscious Bias for Leadership course. It always amazes me at some of the things people come up with when they see the image.

We categorise people too

We instinctively categorise people and things around us using rapidly observed information, just like with the coffee image. Facial expressions, movement, skin colour, hand gestures are all observed rapidly by the unconscious mind. We judge people unconsciously because it frees up the brain to get on with other things.

However, the impact of this biological method of conscious versus unconscious processing can get us into all sorts of trouble. Our behaviour, which is largely driven by our unconscious mind, can lead to perceived discrimination. It can lead to unfair treatment of employees, and it can result in mental distress too. It can result in frustrations and negativity amongst our teams, and it can lead to low productivity and low morale. And, all of this is done without the manager even realising it!

What is the answer?

Thankfully, we can avoid unconscious bias.

There are lots of tests and exercises that can help people to uncover their unconscious biases, thereby reducing the impact on their teams.

Understanding people’s feelings is a critical skill in today’s workplace. Leaders and managers need to acquire this skill. How do your employees really feel towards the demands being placed upon them? Are they engaged. or are they just saying they are engaged? Are they motivated, or are they just telling you what they think you want to hear, all the while thinking, what a prat!

Managers let deadlines, they allocate resources and they give out work. But do they do these things in the full knowledge of how they are being perceived by their employees? Or, is their unconscious bias so strong that they press on regardless, without realising their teams are close to braking point?

Project Implicit

Amazing research is being done at Harvard University on the subject of unconscious bias. They have a few fantastic questionnaires that you can try, to find out if you have unconscious biases.

Coffee beans and coffee faces

By the way, did you see the face in the coffee beans? If not, perhaps one side of your brain is working more than the other. Bliss!

Let me know if you have any thoughts or experiences of ‘unconscious bias’.

Find out more about our courses for leadership.

 

 

Are you suffering from PTSD?

When people see the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many associate this with the armed forces or war veterans. PTSD was indeed first recognised in soldiers returning from war, but today the condition can be diagnosed in anyone who has experienced trauma.

When someone experiences a traumatic event in their lives, such as a sudden death in the family, or while witnessing a serious accident, they will often feel numb or they may find disruption to their sleep patterns. These symptoms are usually referred to as ‘acute stress reaction’. Most people will find these symptoms disappear after several weeks. However, when symptoms last longer than a month, PTSD could be the problem.

GPs often categorise PTSD as mild, moderate or severe, depending on the symptoms and how they are impacting a person’s life. Regardless of the category of PTSD, it is important to recognise when someone is suffering from the condition, so that they can seek help.

It is really important to remember that any traumatic event can cause PTSD. Different people will react differently when faced with trauma in their lives. Some people have very high thresholds while others will experience symptoms soon after the event.

Typical events that trigger PTSD

Traumatic events in life are unfortunately all too common. The sudden death of a family member or a close friend can be extremely disturbing. However, so too can other events that come along. A car accident for example can sometimes bring on delayed reactions, called delayed-onset PTSD. Witnessing a serious accident or a crime can also be a trigger.

One of my recent clients worked for a construction company. He was at work one day, working at height with a colleague on a scaffold. His colleague reached over the handrail, which failed, and he fell 40ft to the ground. My client rushed down to help his chum, who had suffered serious head injuries. My client came to see me four months after the accident because he was experiencing flashbacks and nightmares. He definitely had PTSD.

Witnessing a crime can also be traumatic for many people. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to be witnessed to become a problem. Many people who have their property broken into and personal items stolen suffer PTSD symptoms. Fear of living in the property or, in very serious cases, fear of going outside are often experienced by victims of crime.

Common symptoms

One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is when someone relives aspects of the event. Flashbacks and the feeling that the event is happening again can be very disturbing. Nausea and trembling while recalling the event are important signs that something is wrong.

Feeling on edge is another symptom that should not be ignored, especially when there are feelings of panic when reminded of the event. Hypervigilence is common too, which is often described as a ‘constant state of alertness’. This is often accompanied by being jumpy or easily startled.

Another serious symptom that can follow traumatic events is the feeling of being unsafe. Many people think they can’t trust anyone anymore, while others feel that the world has become unsafe or unhealthy. Blaming themselves for what happened is another very common symptom, which, if left untreated, can be very harmful.

Complex PTSD

If someone experiences PTSD symptoms while also suffering from associated issues, such as anxiety, depression or self-harm, their condition may be classed as ‘complex’. Although not a definitive list, complex PTSD can be caused by; ongoing domestic violence or abuse, childhood abuse, being a prisoner of war, repeatedly witnessing trauma or violence, neglect or abandonment.

People who suffer trauma at an early age can sometimes experience complex PTSD in later life, particularly if the trauma lasted over a long period of time or if the child was harmed by someone close to them.

Complex PTSD needs careful and planned treatment and therapy, possibly for many months and even years.

Therapies for PTSD

Trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) is a very important treatment for PTSD. Adapted from CBT, this type of therapy was developed 25 years ago to help children recover from early trauma. Essentially, the technique aims to help those who have suffered from trauma to learn to recognise their symptoms and to learn coping strategies.

There are three distinct phases of treatment with TF-CBT. The first phase, known as stabilisation, involves teaching the client about trauma; what it is and how it affects us. Relaxation techniques is an important part of this phase too.

The second phase is to recreate the trauma, through a trauma narrative. This is done while allowing the client to explore their feelings and emotions during the recreation. Many think this is a negative thing but recalling the event while thinking about emotions can be extremely positive. Talking through the event is a really powerful way to help a person.

Finally, phase three consolidates the lessons learned from the first two phases, while continuing to build coping skills.

A short questionnaire to help diagnose PTSD

Proper diagnosis of PTSD can only be carried out by a trained and experienced therapist or doctor. However, there is a useful set of questions to help assess whether PTSD might be an issue.

Take the simple test to find out if you are suffering from the symptoms of PTSD.

I would love to hear if anyone has tried trauma-focussed CBT as a therapy.

 

 

 

Magicians, pick-pockets and successful people: the power of NLP

The magician snaps his fingers and the ball disappears right in front of your eyes. How is this possible, you ask? You know a little about physics and science and you know too well that it is impossible for a solid object to simply vanish. But it did, right in front of you.

Or, did it?

Magic and magicians allow you to experience the impossible. Derren Brown and the Dynamo are two illusionists that leave audiences gasping for breath. For centuries, other magicians have been doing it too. So, how does it work?

It is all about psychology

Human brains are complex, but they are simple at the same time. Our brains have limitations and it is these limitations that illusionists exploit. For example, let’s take one of our senses, vision. Most people will have come across the following image. To most people, one line looks longer than the other, but when we get the ruler out we see both lines are exactly the same length.

optical-illusion

We are amazed and surprised when we see the ‘real’ length of the line. So why do we get it so incredibly wrong? When we look at the diagram, complex neuronal processes within our conscious and unconscious minds get to work. The subconscious mind processes information coming in through our visual cortex, but it then does something incredibly strange. The subconscious mind starts to dredge up past experiences, it starts to rationalise, and it provides an ‘estimate’ of what it is seeing.

The subconscious mind uses past experiences and rationale to make estimations about what it is seeing. It then passes this information back to the conscious mind and it is this part of the brain that then thinks that one line is longer than the other. It is these errors that are exploited by illusionists.

Another important misconception about our visual experience relates to the amount of detail that we think we are aware of. Intuitively, we think that we are aware of most of our surroundings, but this turns out to be incorrect. Processing large amounts of information comes at a cost, brain size. Instead of evolving massive brains, which would mean massive heads to accommodate these big brains, humans have evolved with a compromise. Our brains have an interesting strategy that allows us to prioritize aspects of the environment around us, but at the same time, keeping the information we have to process to a minimum. This is another crucial thing that can be exploited by magicians.

Watch your wallet

Of course, it is not just magicians who use these deficiencies of the human mind. Pick-pockets have been distracting us for centuries. Imagine this scene. A stranger approaches you in the street. They are holding a map, looking a little lost. They ask you if they are near to Covent Garden tube station. Their right index finger makes swishing moves across the map, while they overload your brain with a deluge of verbal trash. Your conscious mind is taken up with the visual images of the map and the fast-moving fingers swishing all over the place, and with the auditory information that is coming in through your ears. Your conscious mind has forgotten all about the other hand. Too late, your wallet, your tube ticket and your hotel keys have all gone!

The human mind is clearly capable of getting things very wrong. But, it can be re-programmed so that it can get things incredibly right.

A professor of psychology once told me that when we decide whether or not we like someone, only 7% of that decision is made from their verbal communication. About 38% is made from their tonality and a whopping 55% is made from their physiology. Non-verbal communication carries much more weight than verbal.

The subconscious brain at work

Here is another scenario to think about. Imagine we meet someone new. We talk to them for a few minutes, exchanging general chit-chat before saying our goodbyes. Next day, we are walking down the high street and we notice the same person again. We recognise them and stop to speak. We spend a few minutes chatting away to them. Sometimes we will remember their names, and sometimes we will remember lots more about the person. However, sometimes we won’t remember very much from the previous encounter. Sometimes, we go out of our way to avoid speaking to the person again, perhaps crossing the street as soon as we see them coming. Isn’t all of this amazing, simply based on that first few minutes we spent with the person on the previous meeting. Once again, it is all to do with our subconscious mind.

When we meet a person for the first time, our subconscious mind uses information from the eyes and ears. We don’t consciously think about how the person moves, nor do we consciously think about their body gestures, their hands and arms or the tonality of their voice. We don’t consciously note the style of their clothing and we certainly don’t consciously analyse the type of words they are using or the inflection in their voice. However, our subconscious mind is very busy and it is doing all of those things. It is analysing, rationalizing, and estimating. Our subconscious mind is ‘linking’. It is taking in all the information around us and it is working out whether we should like this person or not. The subconscious mind is processing, estimating and deciding.

In the above example, when we meet the person a second time our subconscious mind has made a decision and it is this decision that is communicated to the conscious mind so that we can decide to cross the street to avoid the person or whether we should chat some more.

Using the subconscious mind for success

Have you ever wondered why some people have ‘charisma’ or ‘instant appeal’? Some people are naturally gifted in the way they can build rapport with others, but for many people building relationships is often hit or miss.

Imagine if you are a sales person, earning a living from selling products or services. The last thing you want is for potential customers to dislike you as soon as you meet them. What you need to do is to send out non-verbal signals that are picked up positively from your customer, signals that will show them you are a friendly soul and you are someone they can trust. Just like the magician or pick-pocket, you can use techniques to help you to ‘control’ the situation. These techniques are called Neuro Linguistic Programming, or NLP.

Imagine how amazing it would be if we could ‘make’ people like us.

Building rapport to build success

Can you think of all the situations in life where knowledge of ‘connecting with people’ would be immensely beneficial? Interviews, presentations, negotiating with colleagues, counselling are just a few.

Here is a little experiment for you to try. When you are talking to someone today, consciously think about the words they are using. Are they using words that describe a visual, for example, are they saying things such as “I see what you mean” or “yes, I can picture what you are saying”. Or, are they using different adjectives, such as “I can hear what you are saying” or “now, that rings a bell”. Perhaps the person is using expressions such as “I could really get a hold of that idea”.

What does all of this tell us? Well, people habitually use language that aligns with their preferred representational system. I won’t go into detail here, but representational systems are fascinating. Most people fall into one of three categories or representation: visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

People who prefer visual representation will often use words such as look, see, picture, vision; words associated with visual things.

Those who prefer auditory representation will frequently use words associated with sound: hear, resonate, harmonious and pitch are some examples.

Kinaesthetic people will use adjectives associated with touch, such as grasp, hold, tacky and sticky.

The power of mirroring

Is there a point to all of this? Well, yes there is indeed an important point. A great way to build rapport with someone is to mirror their language. It is amazing how you can encourage a person to chat away to us if you reflect back the words they use. If we use the same language as the person we are talking with, their subconscious mind recognises this as a form of ‘association’ and ‘similarity’ and therefore instructs the conscious mind to approve of the person.

Building rapport is only one step in the NLP journey, but it is an important one. Whether they knew it or not, the great illusionists, and indeed the great pick-pocket people, have all taken advantage of the way the conscious and subconscious mind works. Successful people too have learned the benefits of NLP.

I hope you enjoyed this post on NLP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to build mental health resilience in the workplace

Public awareness of mental health and wellbeing has never been greater. On television, in newspapers and online, there are daily references to mental health and its impact on people, employers and on society.

This is great news, because talking about mental health is an important step towards really helping people. The more we talk about the subject, the less taboo it will become. However, we still have an awful long way to go.

Business leaders are taking this seriously too. Almost weekly, I get a call from a company asking what they need to do to put in place a mental health and wellbeing strategy. This is really good news, because it shows that the message is getting through to employers.

In this post, I don’t want to reel off statistics and data, suffice to say mental ill-health is now at the top of the list when it comes to time lost at work. Instead, I would like to spend a little time discussing the main things a company should do to help their employees.

I believe there is a six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. Put simply, the six stages are:

  • Identify the risk: the baseline
  • Pledge support: the commitment
  • Develop a plan: the journey
  • Champion the cause: the support
  • Coach leadership: the change
  • Providing support: the counsellor

Identifying the risk: the baseline

The first thing that employers need to do is to identify whether or not they have a problem. A company may have perfectly happy employees, who are all fulfilled at work and who thrive on their daily challenges.

At the other end of the spectrum, a company may have a very negative culture, with high absenteeism, and with some of their employees on the brink of collapse.

The first step is to identify the risk. Is your company at one end of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle? You need to know where you are so that you can plan your journey for improvement.

There are many ways to identify the risk. The simple approach is to ask employees to complete a mental health and wellbeing questionnaire. There are some very good off-the-shelf questionnaires that will help categorise where the risk lies. However, I don’t think questionnaires on their own are effective. I much prefer a combination approach; completing questionnaires and one-to-one sampling of the workforce. A properly trained interviewer (usually a counsellor or psychotherapist) can glean a huge amount of information during a ten-minute one-to-one session with an employee.

The output from the questionnaire and from the sampling will provide an accurate picture of the level of risk within the company. More importantly, it will show which areas are weak.

Pledge support: the commitment

Next comes the pledge. Let’s hear it from the boss. It is incredibly important for top management to address mental health in a proactive manner. They need to pledge support and they need to commit to a policy. I find a one-page policy on wellbeing works nicely. It is something that can be published across the company for all employees to see. The pledge needs to be signed by the top dog.

A policy and pledge should clearly show that mental wellbeing is high on the company’s agenda. It should show commitment from the boss, and it should include something about early intervention and securing appropriate funds to finance wellbeing initiatives. The policy should challenge the stigma of mental ill-health by committing to raising awareness across the company.

Develop a plan: the journey

The third stage is to plan. Armed with information from the baseline survey, the journey for improvement needs to be planned and documented. The journey starts here.

It is a great idea to set up a consultation group to help develop the plan. The consultation group should consist of volunteers from across the company and should include representatives from senior management, from line supervision, representatives from each department and from trade unions too.

I have a few corporate clients where I chair their consultation group. We meet every quarter to discuss progress against the plan. It is a wonderfully positive meeting, full of enthusiasm and support. It always amazes me how innovative people can be. A few months ago, I sat and listened to a group discussing how to promote life-work balance. Suddenly, someone exclaimed: “We could use the WELL concept.” All eyes turned to the lady as she described her idea. She suggested putting together a company-wide initiative, using a themed approach, around the concept of Work, Engage, Learn, Live. Amazingly simple, but they have now embraced the WELL concept and everywhere you go across the company’s sites you can see posters that explain how to work, engage, learn and live.

Champion the cause: the support

The phrase ‘mental health first aid’ is doing the rounds at the moment. I think this is a wonderful thing. If an employee cuts their finger while at work, they would pop along to the first-aid station to get a plaster and a bit of TLC from the local first-aider. However, if an employee is close to emotional breaking point, who do they turn to?

Training mental health first aiders is an essential stage in building workplace resilience. Properly trained people, who can offer support to employees, can be invaluable.

Every company should have at least one Mental Health Champion. I advise the 1:50 ratio; there should be one properly trained champion for every 50 employees. Mental health and wellbeing champions are there to advise management and to offer emotional support to employees when needed.

I conduct a lot of training courses but my favourite course is the Mental Health Champion course. Delegates on the three-day course are enthusiastic and motivated, and it is a complete joy to be helping them to discover the huge rewards from being a mental health champion.

Most people don’t know what to do if a colleague is on the brink of emotional crisis. These courses teach how to recognise when a person is in need of support and how best to support them. Active listening is a key skill when dealing with emotional wellbeing and these courses teach this important skill that can be used in and out of work.

Coach leadership: the change

Who ‘controls’ the workplace? Is it the man or woman at the top of the tree?

Undoubtedly, the person who controls the company is the Managing Director or the Chief Operating Officer, but do they really influence attitudes and behaviours at the coal-face?

A few weeks ago, I was involved in carrying out a baseline mental health survey of a large international manufacturing company. I asked one of the shop floor workers, “when did she last talk with the COO?” To my surprise, she told me she had no idea who that person was, let alone having ever met them. I interviewed the COO a few days later and asked him why the majority of people in his company had no idea who he was. His reply was simple. He said: “I crunch numbers, I secure funding, and I make sure we have enough money in the bank to pay salaries at the end of each month. I employ supervisors to run the business and to manage people, so nobody needs to know me.” Interesting point, I said.

Now, whether you agree or disagree with that COO’s idea of running a business is clearly open to debate. But, he did make an interesting point. How can he possibly know 6,800 people? Supervisors and line managers know more about their teams than anyone else in the company. It is their job to look after the wellbeing of their teams. Ironically, these are the very people who can cause most damage to a person’s mental wellbeing. Poor management and poor leadership skills can wreak havoc with a person’s mental state of mind.

How many supervisors come up through the ranks, from shop floor to management positions? Most of them. But how many of them have been trained in the people-skills that are so important in today’s world? Not many.

I worked with a company last year where I got to know most of the supervisors quite well. One guy had been an electrician in the company for 20 years. He knew more about the electrical systems in that firm that anyone else. He was a very skilled tradesman. Then he was promoted to supervisor! Disaster.

That poor electrician quickly went from a position of expert to a position of incompetence. His management skills, or lack of, had a huge effect on his team. His staff were stressed out, absenteeism in his department was the highest across the company and the team’s reputation went spiralling out of control. Why? Because senior management had promoted someone on the merit of his skill and not on his management abilities. He was completely oblivious to the damage that he was causing. He became depressed and was prescribed medication from his GP.

All levels of supervision and management need to be trained in ‘managing people’. Getting the best from your staff, in a safe and healthy way, is a skill that cannot be achieved without proper training and coaching. That is why this stage in the wellbeing journey is so important.

Providing support: the counsellor

Sometimes, all the proactive stuff just isn’t enough. Sure, it is always better to fix the cage before the tiger escapes, but sometimes the lock on the cage door is just too rusty and it is a matter of time before escape is inevitable. When the tiger gets out, we need to have contingencies to find it and to return it safely to its enclosure (with a new lock on the door). Okay, enough of the tiger analogy. The important thing here is for employers to recognise that sometimes being reactive is okay.

Employees should be provided with the opportunity to get help when they need it. Every employer should set up an employee support system, so that employees can discuss their personal issues with a trained counsellor or psychotherapist. This is an absolutely essential aspect of building resilience in the workplace.

And so, that is it. The six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. It is important for employers to start their journey by identifying the level of risk. They need to pledge support and they need to set out a detailed plan for improvement. Training mental health champions and first aiders is vitally important, and so too is the need for leadership training and coaching. Finally, access to a counselling service for staff needs to be in place. If a company were to put all of these things in place, they will be well on the way to keeping their workforce safe and healthy.

If anyone has experience of building mental health and wellbeing resilience in the workplace, I would love to hear from you. Let me know what worked, what didn’t work, and the challenges along the way.

For more information on the things discussed in this post, please visit our website.

 

 

 

 

 

Does the carrot and stick still work?

I deliver many Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) courses every year, mainly for my global corporate clients. These companies have a strong desire to train their leadership in how to get the best from their teams and employees.

One of the sessions I find most interesting is what I refer to as the ‘carrot and stick session’. I thought it might be nice to reflect on this concept in this week’s post.

To improve performance and productivity and to encourage people to perform at their best, we tend to reward good behaviour and punish bad. If this approach works for donkeys, surely it must work for humans too?

Give them a bonus

It is quite interesting to hear business leaders talking about ‘retention bonuses’ and ‘performance payouts’. Without fail, whenever I start talking about the carrot and stick approach to management, most people on the course prick up their ears and nod encouragingly at the idea of rewarding good workplace behaviour with money.

If a good employee threatens to leave the company, why not give him a bit of extra cash to remain? If a great employee is a team-player and consistency hits her performance targets, why not reward her with a cash payout? Happy days all round? Actually, no. It has been proven that the ‘financial reward for extra work’ approach doesn’t always work in todays modern workplace.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer and efficiency guru, once said: “Work consists of simple, not particularly interesting, tasks. The only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully.” Taylor’s view of the world back in the early 20th century was possibly correct. But those days have long gone.

Money is still, of course, a big factor. We all want to earn enough to see us through, with a little extra for holidays and other luxury items. But does throwing money at employees really produce better output? There have been many social experiments and studies that show money alone is not enough to keep us motivated at work. We need much more than money.

What replaces the carrot?

The carrot, and stick, can be hidden away, providing we have three key elements in our jobs: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Far more powerful than money is autonomy. Human beings need, and strive, for control in all aspects of their lives. The need to control elements of our job is a major factor with most people. If a manager takes away our control, they take away our motivation.

I often ask managers a simple question: “When do you allow your employees to leave at the end of the day?” The response is mostly the same, such as “after they have done their eight hours” or “not before 5pm is the company policy”. Sure, the donkey will move when you beat it, but it will move grudgingly!

Another factor with the modern human psyche is ‘mastery’. It is a human condition that we want to be better and better at something. Our psychological programming is such that we are happier when we feel our skills are advancing. Take sport as an example. Dedicated sports people strive to be better and better. Their whole existence revolves around taking a second off their time, or consistently hitting a backhand to the baseline.

Of course, not every employee will be driven to success in the same way as top sports people. However, allowing a person to achieve mastery in something will go a long way to keeping them motivated and high-performing.

‘Purpose’ is the final ingredient. Doing something that makes a difference can be incredibly rewarding. Doing something that is perceived as having no value whatsoever can be incredibly de-motivating.

Kids teach us all we need to know

I am a firm believer in the idea that we instinctively know what we want. We are born with a sense of personal motivation, but it is sucked out of us by work and by working relationships.

A classic study in behavioural science was carried out by two psychologists, Greene and Lepper. They watched a classroom of children for several days and identified some of the kids who liked to draw during their free time. The researchers divided the kids into three groups. They told the kids in the first group that they would be rewarded with a nice certificate if they drew nice pictures. The second group was not told about the reward but the best pictures received a surprise gift. The third group didn’t receive any reward and were not told about the certificates. The reward structure continued for two weeks.

Two weeks later, the researchers returned to the classroom and observed the children. An amazing discovery was made. The kids who had been rewarded for their drawings now showed less enthusiasm for drawing. However, the kids from groups two and three continued to draw with the same excitement as before.

The conclusion from the above experiment was: “Knowing that you will get a reward can turn enjoyment into work.” Rewarding a person requires them to give up some of their autonomy, with the result that motivation reduces. It becomes a chore.

A nice working environment

A motivated team is one where: people are allowed to do things their own way, with some degree of flexibility and some self-discovery (autonomy); where people are given the opportunity to become the expert at something (mastery); and where team members can clearly see how their efforts will make a difference (purpose). Get these things right, and you will have a motivated and high-performing team.

Of course, a few extra pounds in the bank each month does help too!

I would love to hear your thoughts on what motivates you at work, or how you motivate your team. Perhaps you still use a big stick?

NLP is a wonderful course.