Workplaces can be harsh environments in which mental strength is considered a prerequisite, and mental illness is perceived as weakness. This needs to change if we are going to generate more meaningful conversations about our mental health, because most of us will experience challenges to our mental health at some time during our working lives.
A commitment to pro-active Resilience means you are creating a cushion that can help protect your mental health for the long term. It can also create a lifelong platform for success. So why do we find being pro-active about our wellbeing a challenge?
The following question was raised in a recent session and it got me thinking about the impact of stress on our capacity for Resilience.
What is the evidence that humans tend to focus on the negative?
A recent study published in ‘Psychological Science’ in the US stated ‘It is interesting to see that the human mind which is considered to be the most ordered and conscious system in the world is not left untouched by the negative effects of the environment. Negativity is all pervasive, it seems’.
So where does the propensity for negativity come from? It seems human beings may have been predisposed to be more negative than positive from as far back as our cave man ancestors. Research shows that our brains evolved to react much more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. It kept us safe from a world where danger threatened our survival daily. But now, where physical danger is minimal, it often just suppresses our ability to be our best selves. This effect is called the negativity bias.
In Dr. Rick Hansen’s excellent book on this topic, “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” he writes that humans share ancestors with “bats, begonias and bacteria that go back at least 3.5 billion years.”
Hanson describes these ancestors as living in a world of carrots and sticks, carrots being rewards (food, sex, shelter) and sticks being punishment (predators, disease, injury). “Over hundreds of millions of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay extra attention to sticks, react to them intensely, remember them well, and over time become even more sensitive to them.”
How the negativity bias hurts our productivity.
The negativity bias can be seriously detrimental to our work productivity. Not only does negative stimuli trigger more neural activity, but research shows negativity is detected more quickly and easily. The amygdala — the brain region that regulates emotion and motivation — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news, Hanson wrote.
Think about this, two thirds of your motivation regulator is designed to focus on negativity. That means the odds are seriously stacked against us mentally speaking. Also, economic studies have shown people are more likely to make financial and career decisions based not on achieving something good, but on avoiding something bad.
Older workplace models may have supported this behavior — 20th Century assembly line workers were not expected to “fail fast” or innovate. Being a good employee was following a series of don’ts. Don’t show up late, don’t talk back to the boss, and don’t touch that button.
Most of us aren’t working that way anymore. We need to focus on growth and progress, behaviors that inherently need action, not avoidance. Success in life does not just come from technical competence alone; a positive attitude seems to be a common feature in high performing individuals. Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, explored why we need to develop our capacity for optimism through his work on Positive Psychology. Sporting professionals provide us with excellent parallels to explore this further.
Operating at the top requires the mental agility to focus on what’s important. The tendency to look for the threat to our wellbeing can become heightened the further we progress towards being at the ‘top of our game’. This reduces our mental agility to focus on what is important. It can also pose a threat to our mental wellbeing.
Many sports coach’s will advise players on the losing side to look for the opportunity not at the scoreboard, and will also say don’t watch too much TV, block out the noise, clear your head ahead of an important fixture and focus on the simple things. By creating mental space, we slow down the stimulation of our mind and this is where we can re-gain our objectivity and create opportunity for a breakthrough.
Leadership starts with self, knowing who we are and what is important. Creating the time and space for personal Resilience, enables us to achieve the wellbeing, energy and mindset of a leader. Taking care of our inner environment to support sustainable personal Resilience, we can begin to support those around us.
You may be reading this and saying, but I have heard this before. I know the science – what I want to know is HOW do I make thing better for myself?
Paying attention to the basics to keep on track.
To answer that question – how can I begin to make things better for myself – I want to look at our relationship with technology. It could be argued our relationship with tech is in a state of deep imbalance. On average, people in the UK spend 8 hours or more per day in front of a screen. A recent study showed 75% of us even take our phones to the bathroom! In a rapidly evolving technology fuelled environment, these statistics may not be surprising, but they do ring some alarm bells. Research is emerging constantly about the negative impact of technology on our health, particularly our mental health.
To thrive personally and professionally we need to be pro-active about dealing with the stress created by constantly pinging phones and bulging inboxes. We can support our wellbeing by paying attention to what we eat, quality of our sleep and a commitment to exercise. The fourth pillar is now the relationship with technology.
Bedtime is an important part of this stress management. Many of us now find ourselves reading work emails on our personal handsets last thing at night, sending our brains into overdrive just when we need to wind down. However, if we switch off at the end of the day, and build in time to mentally rest the mind, we can create the space to focus on what is important and be diligent about not allowing ourselves to dwell on the negative!
Communication channels are now better than ever, but people are interacting on a less personal level as a result. Technology may have created a faster, more efficient way of working, but the pressure this creates means we need to become better at stepping away from the screen, switching off our devices and talking to people face to face on a more regular basis. This human connection is essential not just for optimal performance but also for greater happiness from life.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own individual wellbeing and we need to prioritise ourselves and take the power back to create that mental headspace. We need to soothe down the natural human reaction to look for and focus on the negative that dates back to our cave dwelling days. If nothing else, take the recommended 2 minutes away from your screen in every 20 minutes and focus on something good that has happened today, however small that may be.
A commitment to pro-active Resilience also means you are creating a cushion that can help protect your mental health for the long term. It creates a lifelong platform for success and the ability to notice when you are being drawn too much towards the negative. To recap:
5. Turn off the tech
Regardless of age, everyone needs time out, and by creating boundaries and prioritising time away from your inbox, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to become more resilient, and more positive.
If we create these boundaries we start to create the headspace to think and reflect before reacting. We can then address how we might deal with setbacks and failures more creatively and with more Resilience.
Our attitude towards mistakes can help build Resilience. We are often remembered for how we manage and navigate failure or challenge far more than we are remembered for our performance success. Being flexible and adaptable is key! It shows strength of character to challenge the negative bias we all have – there are days things don’t go our way -and we need to develop self reflective practices to consider: This didn’t go my way – what do I need to do differently?
Despite the advantages, many of us still don’t grasp the value for creating more Resilience. Ask yourself if 25% of the computers were not working well, would you get them fixed? Why then do we not extend the same courtesy to our own wellbeing and capacity for optimal performance?
It is no surprise that the World Health Organization predict depression will be the biggest cause of disability globally by 2020. To support this prediction, the mental health charity Mind also estimates that 1 in 4 people in any one year will be experiencing a level of stress that will be impacting their health. As a result, more and more of us may find ourselves considering developing Resilience not just for ourselves, but for our children and our teams in order to manage negative bias, manage the impact of tech and manage ourselves for more success in life.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I hope this will be a spotlight on Mental Health Awareness and that you will commit to taking at least 1 positive and pro-active step to support yourself.
This article from the British Psychological Society is a good summary with research references on the minds tendency to focus on the negative:
The Mayo Clinic’s advice on nutrition and healthy eating: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/basics/nutrition-basics/hlv-20049477
The 10-step sleep solution by Neil Shah.