The British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology 2016 Conference took place in January. The theme was “Building resilience in the workplace”. Dr Nicola Davies gives an overview.
“Change is here to stay. Health, resilience and wellbeing are key to a sustainable workforce,” was the message from Philip Gibbs, director of global product development, quality assurance and insights at GlaxoSmithKline.
With ever-increasing job demands, employees continue to face factors that challenge their health and wellbeing. The conference underscored the role of occupational psychologists in developing resilience interventions and expanding the current literature on occupational psychology.
Seminars discussed methods that promote OH, such as resilience, mindfulness and stress management, as well as other factors affecting employee wellbeing, such as age, disabilities, bullying and job design.
Occupational psychology and workplace resilience
Sharon De Mascia, director of Cognoscenti Business Psychologists, discussed how mental illness has become costly for businesses. Indeed, UK employers spend an average of £24 billion annually on mental health management. Other costs include revenue and talent lost due to absenteeism.
De Mascia said managers should be taught how to identify physical, behavioural and psychological symptoms so that they can open a dialogue about mental health with individual staff members. However, they should not assume there is a mental health problem.
Employees, diagnosed or undiagnosed, must be given access to OH services. When possible, organisations can also provide support through flexible working hours, telecommuting and mentorship.
Mindfulness and stress management
Jenni Nowlan, chartered psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, has studied the “living theory” approach, in relation to using mindfulness practices to build resilience among staff at the university. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment purposefully and without judgment, while living theory seeks to explain the educational influences that shape an individual’s learning process and help validate one’s claims to knowledge.
Nowlan’s study aimed at creating a “mindful institution” by identifying the mindfulness techniques individually practised by employees and considering how those techniques could be institutionalised. The research concluded that deep reflection, reflective dialogue, and keeping a journal could help build individual and organisational mindfulness.
The “living theory” approach asks the questions: “How can I improve my practice?”; “How should I handle any problem that emerges?”; and, “What is my evaluation of my action?” It is therefore a mindful approach towards education research.
Nowlan said that mindfulness facilitates change management because individuals are more prepared to handle changes in attitudes and behaviour to align with those that suit a mindful institution. Mindfulness also allows personal exploration into how one influences the implementation of change.
Phil Wilson, chief psychologist and chief assessor at Civil Service Fast Stream, said that the increasing literature on mindfulness showed it was not mere hype. It has several work-related benefits. It reduces emotional exhaustion, stress, and turnover intention (plans of quitting), and improves job satisfaction, job performance and overall quality of work life (Hülsheger et al, 2013; Zeller & Levin, 2013; Dane & Brummel, 2013).
Wilson discussed techniques that broadened sensory activities – breathing, auditory experience and visual imagination. The majority of empirical research suggests that mindfulness is developed and promoted through meditation (Davis & Hayes, 2011). Meditative techniques such as expressing gratitude, body scanning (keeping still and being aware of every part/sensation in the body), and reflective writing (keeping a journal of one’s thoughts, prejudices, behaviours and experiences) were discussed. Body scanning has been found to significantly decrease stress (Call et al, 2013).
Keeping a meditation diary is also found to be useful in developing an “observing self” that can better handle negative experiences (Kerr et al., 2011).
PhD student at the University of Salford, John Hudson’s paper “Risk assessment using the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) Stress Management Standards Indicator (SMSI)” acknowledged that stress risk assessment is a complex subject, but stress work insights remain crucial for stress management.
Hudson argues that the SMSI test helps identify work-related stress factors, but it is still unclear how employers can determine which factors to prioritise. He suggests placing open-text boxes in the SMSI questionnaire to gather qualitative data that can supplement an employer’s understanding of stress factors.
Factors that counter wellbeing
Some presentations looked at conditions that negatively affect employee wellbeing, such as age, menopause, bullying, presenteeism, email behaviour, and dyslexia.
Professor of industrial/organisational psychology at Portland State University, Donald Truxillo suggested that employers give more attention to age-related changes among employees to maintain their wellbeing, productivity, and performance. He argued that there is limited evidence on this matter and called for more research on the development of age-related workplace interventions.
Independent practitioner, Roxane Gervais presented on “Supporting women’s wellbeing during menopause”. The Menopause Scale measures the work environment perceptions of women undergoing menopause. Previous studies suggest that physical workplace conditions can heighten their levels of discomfort, anxiety and stress.
“As women go through ‘the change’, they will require a variety of resources to assist them in developing resilience to maintain their wellbeing within the work environment,” said Gervais. Organisations can adapt the scale and use it as a resource for women in managing their workplace responses.
Bullying in the workplace was another key topic. Masters student at the University of Leicester, Melvyn Grimwood, asked “Can social capital development alleviate the impact of workplace bullying?” His study looked into how psychological capital (the state of one’s self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resilience) moderates the impacts of exposure to bullying on psychological health.
Grimwood suggests that psychological capital equips employees with the capabilities to overcome the bullying behaviours of others, which are not always reported or addressed. By increasing one’s levels of hope (through empowerment), optimism (through positive encouragement), self-efficacy (through feedback and self-evaluation), and resilience (through emotion regulation), psychological capital can be improved.
Another Masters student, Ethan Shapiro from Northumbria University, discussed workplace bullying interventions that increase resilience in managers. His study highlights that bullying is the product of stress and frustration experienced by the perpetrators. Bullying requires a strategic approach that addresses issues at the organisational, team and individual levels, he says. He hopes his findings can broaden occupational psychologists’ perspectives on intervention evaluation.
Julie Jebsen, graduate teaching assistant at the Institute of Psychology, University of Wolverhampton, looked at the antecedents and consequences of presenteeism – attending work despite being sick or unfit to work.
Sickness presenteeism can be categorised as employees attending work despite being physically ill or employees who become ill due to extreme job demands. Sick employees may struggle with physical symptoms, poor productivity, demotivation and frustration.
Jebsen suggests developing a broader concept of presenteeism where it is evaluated along a continuum that includes psychological health, physical health, and engagement levels.
Presenteeism occurs due to urgent job demands, strict attendance policies, or an intense commitment in employees. Employers therefore need to control job demands and work around attendance rules to allow for telecommuting and flexible working hours. Giving employees access to health assistance and health risk appraisals can also help prevent presenteeism.
Richard MacKinnon, Insight Director at Future Work Centre, discussed “Email, perceived pressure and work-life balance”. He concluded that a one-size-fits-all rule regarding work email is unlikely to be effective for all employees. Employees who automatically received emails through their mobile devices and those who left their email accounts open the entire day experienced higher pressure. Position in the company and personality also affected the amount of pressure experienced by participants. Those who reported higher pressure also experienced greater disruption in their work-life balance.
At a symposium on dyslexia in the workplace, Sarah Cleaver, occupational psychologist at Honest Psychology, discussed “The challenges of adult neuro-diversity: evidence-based resilience building”. Neurodiversity
Neurodiversity is the learning approach that recognises the diversity in human minds so that conditions such as autism, dyslexia and others are understood to be normal variations in the human genome. It focuses on the unique strengths rather than weaknesses of people with mental health conditions.
People with dyslexia comprise 10% of the adult population, but Cleaver said research about managing dyslexia at the workplace is limited. With more workplaces requiring higher literacy abilities, adults with dyslexia are facing a bigger challenge. “We need to raise awareness and inspire hope that career goals can be fulfilled with the right strategies,” she reported.
Nancy Doyle, organisational psychologist at City University, London, suggested that employers coached dyslexic employees to reflect on work and communicate with managers. Both Cleaver and Doyle emphasised the moderating role of organisational support in helping employees with dyslexia.
Employees with and without dyslexia reported similar levels of perceived organisational support, but those with dyslexia experienced greater levels of insomnia and poorer general health. Employees with dyslexia clearly require support that is tailored to their specific needs.
Overall, the conference highlighted the critical role of occupational psychologists in learning more about the workforce segments whose OH needs are not being met. With ever-evolving demands in the workplace, resilience-building methods such as mindfulness and stress management can assist employees. However, evidence-based insights and organisational support remain essential in designing interventions that improve the health and wellbeing of employees and maintain high job performance.
Call D, Miron L, Orcutt H (2013). Effectiveness of brief mindfulness techniques in reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress. Springer Science & Business Media, New York 2013, ISSN 1868-8527.
Dane E, Brummel BJ (2014). “Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intention”. Human Relations, vol.67 no.1 pp.105-128.
Davis DM, Hayes JA (2011). “What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research”. Psychotherapy, American Psychological Association 2011, vol.48, no.2, pp.198-208.
Hulsheger UR, Alberts HJ, Lang JW (2013). “Benefits of mindfulness at work: the role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction”. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol.98, no.2, pp.310-325.
Kerr CE, Krishnapriva J, Littenberg R (2011). “Developing an observing attitude: a qualitative analysis of meditation diaries in a MBSR clinical trial”. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, vol.18, no.1, pp.80 93.
Zeller JM, Levin PF (2013). “Mindfulness interventions to reduce stress among nursing personnel: an occupational health perspective”. Workplace Health & Safety, vol.61 no.2, pp.85-89.