Don’t let your recent past mess up your present …or your future

A contact suggested that I check-out  Adam Fraser on YouTube.   Basically Fraser’s ideas seem to centre around the way we take our emotional states from one part of our lives to the next – and how helpful it is if we can avoid doing so.  So arriving at work after  a row at home might impact on our day – and similarly, arriving home while still pumped up over work issues might not be great for our evening!

I read  “The Up-Side of Irrationality” by Dan Airley.  Amongst the many fascinating insights into how we behave irrational, Airley described an experiment where they looked at the persistence of mood (“priming”) from one task to the next …and how it can cause us to adopt an “unhelpfully” position or actions.  In one experiment he “primed” some subjects to be “mean-spirited” and then asked them to make some unrelated  decisions… unsurprisingly perhaps, the mean-spirited took that attitude into their subsequent decision making.  What was more amazing was that when they went back to the task weeks later the subjects  still took the same types of decisions  in comparison with a control group – so this suggests that the effects of such “mood priming” can persist for months once established!

So if you have a car accident on the way to work – and then deal with the needs of some new client then you might let the one thing impact on the other –  and you may be little too harsh.  Yet Airley shows us that you may continue to “punish” the client that way… even when the traffic accident is a dim and distant memory… and your sleek bodywork has been fixed.

So what to do? – Well the US military has shown that practicing mindfulness means that soldiers need less decompression after stressful or high pressure experiences;   and are less likely to suffer PTSD.  And mindfulness can allow people to find “acceptance” for situations or for the actions of others. [NB: by “acceptance” I mean “accepting that these things have happened” rather than accepting that they were “fair and just” etc.]

So it seems  we need a kind of “emotional airlock” after torrid events… or when moving from one experience to another .  A brief grounding meditation – may take only seconds – buy might limit this emotional contagion.

In my next blog post I will look at how “Rajio Taisou” – Japanese daily “radio exercise”  practiced in factories –  might be doing just that.

The Happiness of Flow

I recently received some feedback from a friend trying out our Rezl app.  Rezl builds resilience by delivering  a course in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) though a series of audio tutorials and guided meditations.  The early steps involve becoming more aware, to avoid distracting thoughts… and to become more able to focus.  My friend’s feedback represented an enthusiastic response to his early progress. One comment caught my eye:

“My brain has become much better at absorbing information, there seems to be much more clarity – that sounds strange. It’s different… and it makes me happier.”

It’s true that less detraction and more focus enable us to concentrate on what we read, hear and see… and to retain more; yet there is something else here.  My friend is starting to  experience “flow”.

Flow is a state of engagement and heightened awareness while participating is some activity.  It is beautifully described here in Melli O’Brian’s blog:

“Time seems to slow down, your sense perceptions are heightened – colours are sharper and brighter and each sound seems to ripple right through you.  Your mind shifts into a new space. A sense of vibrant aliveness, connectedness and peace infuse your being. You feel in tune with life, moving with a precision and poise you don’t fully understand but at the same time relish. You’re in the zone. You’re in flow.”

The state of flow is often associated with elite athletes, actors, writers or even with scientists and mathematicians. The basketball superstar Larry Bird said that, for him,  at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion.  This state allowed Larry to see the whole situation; to see opportunities and to be crystal clear on and what he had to do.

So what’s going on? Well I believe that it’s about being able to shut out external distractions and quieten any internal mind-chatter and thoughts of the past or of the future;… and to set aside bigger goals… so you can focus, right now, on the task in hand;  and this leads leads to an intense focus… that builds engagement… and total absorption… to achieve “flow” … where time distorts… your senses are heightened… everything become clear… as you take the actions to succeed. Flow delivers a state of happiness that leaves a lasting glow.

“In flow, your ‘ego’ withdraws, making way for the process to happen, unimpeded— you’re not conscious of inhibitions, hunger, thirst, fatigue, aches or anything outside of the activity. All worries, thoughts and memories seem to melt away,” says Melli O’Brian.

Dr. Mihaly Chentmihalyi, studied this state of being and coined the term “flow”  (see his book  “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”); he tells us that things, possessions, money  don’t play much part in how happy someone is. He found that humans are at their happiest when in flow –  in part because when we are so absorbed in a single task, we don’t have enough attention left over to get lost in the inane chatter of our “monkey mind”, to worry about things beyond our control, or to stress about our endless to-do-list.

The new experience of flow is especially rewarding for those setting out on embedding the skills of mindfulness – grounding to eliminate any distractions or mind-chatter; and awareness so that you are able focus and to  refocus should the mind wander.  Why not give it a try?

Don’t call me a snowflake.

A report in The Times tells us:  “72 per cent of those in Generation Z would be afraid of being branded a ‘snowflake’ if they took a sick day because of poor mental health, with 43 per cent saying that this would stop them taking one”.  (Generation Z is generally defined as those born after 1995. The survey was carried out by the graduate recruitment website  Milkround.)

And so it turns out that most of these Z-ers exercise the option to be “economical with the truth”:  The survey found that 62 per cent of Generation Z workers had taken a sick day because of a mental health problem but that only 24 per cent of these were honest about their reasons.”

It’s a big problem …the HSE tell us that mental health accounted for 57% of all sick days lost in the UK in 2018….  and this study shows the problem is even bigger for Generation Z:   across  all age ranges, 29% of workers had taken a “mental health sick day” and half of these felt that they could be open with their bosses; yet 62% of Generation Z workers had taken a “mental health sick day” but that only about a quarter of these were honest about their reasons.

So the level of “mental health sick days”  is significant for all ages… but the problem more than doubles for Generation Z – and for Generation Z the level of honesty plummets. Even if we make some allowances for, as some commentators suggest, the “mental health sick day” being the new version of a “bad back” or a ”day off after a late night out” – these results are still very high indeed.

The Times piece suggests this lack of openness might be because the generation Z-ers fear being labelled as “snowflakes” – but I expect it’s more likely to be due to their worries about the serious  longer term impact on their careers…  and their prospects of progression.

“Snowflake” is a pejorative term popularised on social media to stereotype young people; to suggest that they are more prone to feelings of distress and outrage than previous generations.; yet we know that generation Z-ers are slower to mature e.g. to leave home, to start families, to buy a home etc; while they value their “work life balance” (the flip side of this is that they are less prone to “work work work”); they have always had the internet so think nothing of connecting with other across thre world… at any time;  and they apparently have a strong  sense of individuality (- yet I suspect they just want to be like their friends as per all other generations!).  Of these traits,  I expect that while generation Z-ers do seek a life that has a better work-life balance they are a bit defensive about being seen as less committed to their work by their employers – yet this is two sides of the same coin.

In my opinion “snowflakes” should embrace the terms – and say “yes I want a better work life balance – to do otherwise will not make me more productive in the longer terms… for me or my employer”.

Now, it seems to me that most major employers are very tolerant and supportive of employees with  mental health problems (from whatever generation) – yet most private sector jobs are now within small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who may well be less tolerant*. So maybe it is time for the SMEs to get their act together and provide support to help  employees to avoid  mental wellbeing challenges.

As you may be aware, we at Carina Sciences are proving our Rezl app to employers to help build resilience within their employees – to help their staff to deal with stress and to reduce their likelihood of developing conditions like anxiety and depression.  The app uses Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The proof is in the pudding… and research shows MBCT significantly reduces absenteeism and staff turnover.  Yet it also  improves the performance of all employees:  research shows MBCT helps people to improve their focus and to make better decisions under pressure; and it improves their ability to listen;  it also improves “open mindedness” and empathy – research has shown that teams with mindful team-members are more effective and more likely to collaborate towards achieving team goals.

What were are finding is that, while many large organisations have programmes in  place, it is the smaller organisations  (<5000 employees) that often lack such proactive interventions.

So I guess the solution may be for “Snowflakes” to be more open about mental health and less defensive about their choice.. and for employers, especially SMEs, to be more supportive.

Finally, reading thru the comments attached to the Times article there were some clear themes including… Why do people stay in jobs that are causing them to have such problems? Of course, once you have a record of mental health absences then moving to any new job might be difficult – but I wonder if some people should continue with jobs or with employers that make them feel unwell – if you have a duff employer then move on quickly.


*In 2018 employment in SMEs however was 15.7 million i.e.60% of all private sector employment in the UK.  

Listen up – Mindfully

How effective are our conversations? Do we really understand the “points of view” of others?  Do we address their key issues? Do we understand “their reality”?  Do we clear make our own positions clear? When we interact with others,  are we listening, or, are we impatient to make our own points… even if these fail to answer the concerns of others?

In her book, “The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction”, Rebecca Shafir  tells us, that just a few minutes after a conversation, the average person can remember only 25 percent of what someone has said.  That’s just 25% – no wonder we often fail to respond to the right issues. (It’s a great book by the way …and really opens your eyes to the power of listening mindfully to improve your relationships with customer, colleagues and family).

It seems clear to me that we cannot address the right issues or even ensure that our own communication is effective unless we are able to understand the points of view… “the realities”… of those we converse with.  So let me introduce the idea of “Mindful Listening”.

The goal of mindful listening is to silence the external distractions and internal noise of your own thoughts; and to set aside any “barriers” that you may have so that you can hear the whole message, and so that the speaker feels understood. Mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness encourages us to be aware of the present moment, and to let go of distractions and of our physical and emotional reactions to what people say to us. To listen mindfully we must focus and observe without judging – and yes, it requires practice.

And further, we need to have empathy for the position of,  and the pressures upon, the person we are listening to.  Rebecca Shafir suggests that we need to “get into the other person’s movie” to see things from their point of view… to “inhabit their reality”  – I guess we need “to walk a mile in their shoes” so that we understand their priorities, their objectives and their concerns… if we don’t resister these issues then how can we help to address them?  This is all about empathy.

So, even if you are yet to work on your own mindfulness, here is a quick checklist to improve your listening skills.

  • Prepare… ground yourself – sounds deep doesn’t it? Yet to be ready to converse you need to set aside all the chatter in your own mind.  I mean the thoughts and emotions you are preoccupied with: worries, hopes, aspirations and emotions.  If you have had a disagreement yesterday or even a big win – or if you are apprehensive about some up-and-coming event – whatever it is you have to set it aside.  How can you concentrate on what someone is saying if your mind is elsewhere?  Try a simple breath mediation to clear you mind: breath slowly and count you breaths;  and if your mind wanders… as that is what minds tend to do… then restart from one again.
  • Be present – focus on the conversation – have time and eliminate external distractions – phones, interruptions or screens.
  • Listen… Allow the other person to say what then want to say – and try not to react emotionally or  defensively… just listen to their points of view.  Maybe probe by asking for more: what is their opinion, how do they feel, or ask for an example… so that you can read the bigger picture. Hold back on the impulse to jump in and fix their issues… you may find things are deeper than you think.
  • Empathise…  objectively reflect on why they may be saying what they are saying.  They may stressed, be tired, unwell, conflicted, angry, frustrated, apprehensive, worried or even frightened.  Are they being open their motives – they may have personal issues or values or reasoning that they think you may not care to hear.  Ask yourself what is driving their statements?  IF you can understand their point f view then you may decide it is valid or you may be able to provide reassurance or persuasion to address any underlying concerns.
  • Be clear and succinct… if you have an issue to raise then state it clearly and suggest how you think it might be best to proceed – so that you can get their input – again listening carefully to what they say and their reasoning.  Don’t be impatient to make your own statements – as this impatience may prevent you from “hearing what they are saying” and reading their non-verbal cues.
  • Observe your own cues… listen to your own speech and the non-verbal cues you are sending out.  If you project the wrong attitude or mood you may inhibit conversation. Do not appear distracted – look at them as they talk. 

Of course none of this means that you can’t be clear or assertive if that’s what the situation requires –  yet most people will accept decisions with grace if they feel they have been listened to.

It is great if you are someone with the ability to say the right thing, at the right time, to the right person to achieve your objectives – but first you must understand the issues that must be overcome  if you are to be successful.  So listen up… Mindfully.

Psychological Safety

I have been reading Matthew Syed’s new book “Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking”.  It’s a great book showing how many groups often lack diverse views (“cognitive diversity”) and are therefore prone to collective blind spots; and how “game changing” innovations often require the recombination of ideas from different fields… which in turn necessitate input from those with diverse knowledge and experience. (Here)

Further, Syed explains, that of the many dynamics that can frustrate such “open thinking” is the way that leaders can dominate – which may inhibit team members from making contributions that could appear counter the position of the leader – I won’t spoil the book further as Syed explains it all beautifully.

This type of scenario demonstrates a lack of “psychological safety” – and such a lack of psychological safety can prevent team members from speaking up even in life threatening situations… or may make them fearful of making errors.

Here’s a definition: Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In “psychologically safe teams”, team members feel accepted and respected.

One of the traits of a “mindful leader” is that they have increased openness and empathy – so that they may listen to the views of others and may consider opposing points of view in an open and objective way… and even reflect on what may lie behind a colleague’s comments and actions – especially if they process a point of view that the leader may have overlooked or may never have been exposed to.   A mindful leader should not be defensive – but grateful for such contributions which may or may not cause them adjust their thinking.  The important issue is that team members should be encouraged to contribute and not feel inhibited.  (I have written before how such “surface acting” – the need to suppress your own views in order to conform – causes employees to have very low job satisfaction (here).

Research has shown that teams with mindful team-members are more effective and more likely to collaborate towards achieving team goals – and now we can see that such teams, with empathy and openness, exhibit increased psychological safety and therefore leverage the inputs from the whole team…  eliminating blind spots and increasing buy-in.

Even if a leader is dominant –  and not at all mindful – then in some situations safety may require that the concerns of team members are shared; so even the most dictatorial leader should regularly ask each member of his team about any issues that have arisen so far…  and especially to share any concerns they may have about the future of the enterprise.  It doesn’t fix the leadership style – but it could save lives.

Social anxiety disorder is more than just shyness…

Social anxiety disorder is more than just shyness or nervousness.  Many people get nervous or self-conscious on occasions, yet Social anxiety disorder involves intense fear of certain social situations—especially situations that are unfamiliar or in which you feel you’ll be judged by others; and where are afraid that you won’t measure up or that you will be exposed as inferior.  The thought of such situations may cause you to get anxious just thinking about them and you may go to great lengths to avoid them, disrupting your life in the process.

Social anxiety is a bigger problem than you might expect.  It is estimated that up to 13% of American adults will have social anxiety that reaches clinical proportions in their lifetime…. In the UK Social Anxiety Disorder is estimated to affect between 10% and 15% of subjects in the community at some time in their lives.  It is more prevalent in women.

Research has shown that social phobias often start in adolescence and are centred around a fear of scrutiny by other people in comparatively small groups, often peer groups, and  leads to the avoidance of social situations. Sometimes, there may be specific problems such as eating in public, public speaking, or encounters with the opposite sex; or, they can involve almost all social situations outside the family circle. A fear of vomiting in public is not uncommon.

Here’s a quick test – the Mini Spin test:    Score yourself: 0 = not at all, 1 = a little bit, 2 = somewhat, 3 = very much, 4 = extremely – a score 6 or more suggests a social anxiety problem:

  1. Fear of embarrassment causes me to avoid doing things or speaking to people.
  2. I avoid activities in which I am the centre of attention.
  3. Being embarrassed or looking stupid are among my worst fears.

In the UK, NICE suggest that social anxiety can be treated by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or by drugs. Physical symptoms may include: nausea and stomach complaints; sweating ;trembling and muscle tension; difficulty talking to others; immense fear of talking in public; avoiding public spaces and social situations; difficulties making friends and avoiding meeting new people; fear of being judged or watched by strangers; cancelling plans at last minute; and panic attacks

To be clear social anxiety is not the same as being introverted.  While introverts may seek to avoid attracting attention to themselves or may wish to avoid appearing precautious and prefer to have time to consider and reflect on things… this is very different actually fearing some up-and-coming social situation… often weeks in advance.

Now, there may   be some situations which are dominated by people making a show of their intelligence or their experience and this can be intimidating and cause significant anxiety about saying or doing the wrong things… or being exposed as in experienced or stupid.    Indeed the British class system can often intimidate those who feel they don’t fit in to a group… and so may say or doing something that make then look foolish

People with social anxiety are often low on self-esteem – or have a low feeling of self–worth.

So what can be done if you experience social anxiety? Well there are coping strategies – to strike up a conversation, or to find people to talk to; or to ensure you have the option to quit an uncomfortable situation.  You can say to people you meet that you find the gathering daunting (…this is empowering). One drink can make you feel more relaxed – but more can make yopu do things you might regret and just increase your “hangxiety”! Yet these tricks don’t address the core problem.

Better to acknowledge the dynamics that make may you feel uncomfortable.  Imagine being in a situation where everyone else is so eloquent and seems to knowledgeable – almost competing to demonstrate how much they know or how successful they are.  Perhaps you think they may make snide remarks about those who that feel are not “on their level”.  Extroverts may have big egos – or they may be trying hard to project their status or expertise to overcome their own self-doubt or lack of self-confidence – so when someone behaves in this way spend time reflecting on which of these motives might be causing them do so.

Yet there is no shame in not knowing about something.   So, ask how people got started – ask for advice on where you should start; say that things seem so intimidating yet you want to learn.  If someone is rise then simply say – I am trying to find out more… it is not very generous to make fun of others.

Now, there are lots of websites with tips to help you to comp in social situations  – here are some tips listed in the Huffington Post to help you keep calm in a social situation.

Yet rather then just “cope”… it seems to me, that becoming more aware of the issues that may cause you to feel anxious may be a better way to go – there is a very helpful self-help guide here .

And finally, I come back to the issue of low self–esteem .  It may not be to everyone’s’ taste but I have noted that work of psychologist Marisa Peer seems very relevant here. She suggests that we are often influenced and affected by incidents and actions from the past … yet these are no longer relevant.   Here is an interesting piece from the “livingfaithoverfear” blogg by Kara (“Elementary Teacher, Writer, and Spirit Junkie”).  It is a good introduction to power of the “I am enough” mantra.

40% of young adults exhibit perfectionist tendencies – it’s not good!

I have been thinking about perfectionism.

Some of my friends won’t start a project or a piece of work because they believe it won’t “be perfect” – so they have a kind of “perfection paralysis”.  Yet “perfectionism” runs much deeper than that this – and it can lead to serious problems in the lives of those prone to it. And worryingly, perfectionism is on the rise.  So what is it and why does this rise matter?

Perfectionism is the desire to produce work, or to perform,  to high standards – not necessarily a bad thing – yet, for perfectionists, any failure to meet such expectations can cause them to feel frustrated or angry or even that they can “never be good enough” – often leading them to “quit the field”; and worse, perfectionism is linked to  the development of conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm…  and it is linked to suicide.

You see perfectionists tend to “beat themselves up” for mistakes or for any failure to reach their high standards.  Yet we know that for those striving to become elite performers in some field – maths, sport, performing arts etc –  then it is important to practice just outside their current level of performance – making failure a part of the learning journey so that they are “stretched to improve”.  I wrote some months ago about Shizuka Arakawa who worked to become an Olympic gold skater;  yet she had, over the years, fallen on her butt some 20,000 times… and got up again. ( )

IMO, it may not be “high standards”… but having “unrealistic short-term expectations” that cause perfectionists to react negatively to “coming up short”.  Rather than see setbacks as an opportunity to learn and to focus on what needs to be righted, a perfectionist, may just see it as evidence that they can “never be good enough”.

So perfectionism is a problem for those who wish to make progress and is also bad for their mental wellbeing… and perfectionism is one the rise.  Research shows around 40% of young adults exhibit perfectionist tendencies – like being concerned over mistakes, feeling like you are never good enough, having critical parents, or simply having high personal standards – and these tendencies can predict issues like depression, anxiety and stress.

Even worse, being self-critical leads to depression which makes self-criticism harsher – i.e. a downward spiral. Further,  perfectionists are more likely to think about suicide; and that that nearly every perfectionistic tendency is correlated with “thinking about suicide more frequently”.

So why is Perfectionism growing?  Well, failure is so severe in today’s society. Competition has been embedded in schools: parents are putting more pressure on themselves and on their children to achieve more and more… so that  kids become averse to mistakes.  Researcher Thomas Curran says “If children come to internalise the idea that we only can define ourselves in strict, narrow terms of achievement – then you see perfectionistic tendencies start to come in.”  If Kids learn that they only get praised when they do something well; or  that they’re only really worth something when they’ve had others’ approval; or if kids feel guilty for making a mistake… then these messages  make children more likely to become  perfectionists – and go on to develop depression.

Plus “Fear of Failure” is getting magnified in other ways… the rise of social media means that any mistake or poor results is so public.

So what can be done to if you are showing perfectionist tendencies?  Well, it seems that the most important thing is to talk with others – to gain some objectivity and to set realistic short-term expectations;  to recognise progress; and to accept that failure is an important part of learning and improvement.  Maybe talk with a teacher, a coach or a friend about where you are; what you have learned from any recent setbacks and the short-term progress you now think it reasonable to make… so that you can reset your short-term expectations.

Secondly, you must show yourself some self-compassion – if a friend was trying to achieve something and failing, you would point out the positives, recognise their effort, suggest that they work on any weaknesses and encourage them by saying that you’re confident that, with effort, they will succeed.  So why not offer this advice to yourself?

And finally, boost your self-esteem.   Focus on the distance you have come – and bear in mind that your progress to date demonstrates how you will always improve will effort.

Standards are still required for university mental health practices

Starting university can be challenging – students are stressed by high expectations – their own and those of others – yet there are students must adjust to a new way of life: new leaning methods,  living in halls yet often without any friends – it’s is easy for some to just hide away.

Ceara Thacker, 19, committed suicide in her halls of residence at the University of Liverpool in May 2018. She had previously attempted to kill herself by taking an overdose. Her family were not told of the earlier suicide attempt. Iain Thacker, Ceara’a father, insisted it would have “made a difference” if they had known about an overdose just three months earlier. Some universities are trialling an opt-in scheme, whereby students allow the authorities to tell their parents if they develop problems, to help ensure their families know and can help to support them… yet not all.

It seems that there is little monitoring of the wellbeing of students – and not way to catch any sudden deterioration.  Surely our universities could recognise that families can provide significant support to students experiencing difficulties – the impact of  preventing such support can be devastating.  Why is it not already mandatory, that as part of enrolling at a college, a student must register a family member to be notified of [specified] serious health issues?

The problem of student mental health issues is rising – and quickly . A survey of 2,573 first-years, conducted by Unite Students, found that 17 per cent of respondents reported suffering from anxiety, depression or another mental health condition – up from 12 per cent in 2016. Yet only 23 per cent said they trusted their university to provide them with the right level of support.

This week, Sir Norman Lamb, the ex-health minister, published the results of his research to show that students with mental health problems are being forced to wait up to 12 weeks for help from their university…  prompting fears that some may take their own lives during the delay – as reported in The Guardian:

Undergraduates at the Royal College of Music in London had to wait the longest to start counselling last year, with the worst case being 84 days. “Twelve-week delays to start counselling are scandalous, particularly when we know that so many students are taking their own lives,” said Sir Norma. “That’s longer than a university term. It’s extraordinary that some universities are subjecting students to such long waits and failing their student populations so badly. Universities with these long waiting times need to remember that students suffering from mental health conditions very often need help as a matter of real urgency. The risk is that their mental welfare will decline even further while they wait and wait for care and support.”

That average delay of seven-and-a-half weeks was seen at the University of Bristol despite its mental health support for undergraduates coming under scrutiny as a result of the suicide or suspected suicide of 12 students there in the last three years.

The Guardian reports:  “Universities have been heavily criticised for the mental health provision they offer undergraduates, as the number of them seeking help has soared in recent years. Students’ struggles can lead to them dropping out, doing poorly academically or killing themselves. An estimated 95 students in higher education took their own lives in the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales… Reported student mental ill-health has increased fivefold since 2010. Research has found that one in five (22%) students has been diagnosed with a mental ailment and that even more (34%) have struggled with a psychological issue with which they felt they needed professional help. In addition, 45% use drink or drugs to help them cope with problems, 43% worry often or all the time and 9% think about self-harming often or all the time.”

Tom Madders, campaigns director at the charity YoungMinds, was quoted by The Guardian: “It is very worrying that there is considerable variation in the level of mental health support offered at universities around the country. Counselling for students should not be a postcode lottery. Many young people start university expecting to have the time of their lives. But for some it can be a stressful experience: moving away from home, financial difficulties, problems with your course, making new friends and changes to your support network can all pile on the pressure.”

So when is the Department of Education,  perhaps through its the Office for Students, going to impose safeguards and minimum standards to be delivered by universities – insisting on  disclosure to a nominated contact and establishing minimum referral times?

The BBC quoted a spokesman for Universities UK – some kind of grouping of Universities –  said: “Funding to support mental health services at universities will vary depending on the needs of each student population. Universities cannot address these challenges alone. The NHS must provide effective mental health care to students, and Universities UK is working closely with NHS England to ensure that commitments in the NHS long-term plan are implemented.”

Hmmm… it sounds like they are passing the buck. I wrote about this before… back in july 2018: Student mental health must be top priority – Universities Minister Sam Gyimah says issue requires serious leadership from vice-chancellors .  The then Universities Minster, Sam Gyimah, was calling for  the universities to introduce as schemes to notify the families of students experiencing problems – and yes, he seemed to be suggesting that the universities were not accepting a leadership role in sorting things out.  Worryingly, the quote from the universities (in the form of “Universities UK mental health in higher education advisory group”)  suggested the that they were passing the buck even then.  Yet how many more suicides will it take before the universities to step up?

High Stakes Decision Making

I wrote recently about how the US Special Forces have adopted training in mindfulness to help soldiers make better decisions in chaotic situations… to be able to focus and avoid distraction.  (See “Focus in the midst of chaos- US Special Ops” )

This set me thinking about how to help people make better decisions when the stakes are high.

I’m talking about “crisis management”… coping with disaster scenarios… or having make significant calls: stop, go, invest, expand, closedown, buy, sell or hold.

Clearly mindfulness is part of the solution… together with a few other techniques that can help also:

So the first thing: you must be able to focus and to avoid distraction.

You must set aside emotional reactions… and certainly avoid becoming overwhelmed.

And you must set aside thoughts about the “weight” or significance of the current situation… sure, you‘ll need to balance the likelihood and the impacts of success or failure associated with the choices you have…  but this should be approached with  a cool dispassion.

Further, to make the right decisions in the current situation, you should set aside the emotions and reactions from previous situations… good or bad. Every situation is different and you must assess the current issues that you face rather than be influenced by the past.

Mindfulness practice will help you with each of these…. you should try it.

So what else?

In preparation, you should ensure that you are aware of your biases… such as any tendency to take reassurance from “confirmation bias” (that seeks confirm your current understanding but may cause you to ignore evidence that might suggest your understanding may be incorrect) or “cognitive dissonance” (where the presence of evidence that contradicts your understanding causes you to reframe your interpretation of the facts to keep most of your theory intact).

Other biases may cause you to be overly confident in your own ability, or the ability of your team, to carry out necessary tasks.  So you need to talk regularly with colleagues about any biases that you may have (…“sense checking” you opinions).

Build trust… in your systems… indicators… and especially in your colleagues. … in tough times you will need to focus in your task in hand and not start to question things.  Assess the reliability for these regularly… and if you can’t develop that trust then change things now.

And of course you need to trust yourself… all you have to do is achieve this or that; and so focus on doing the things that are required… and visualise moving to a successful outcome.

There are a couple more things that I believe you need to consider:

Don’t feel under pressure to respond.  When something seismic happens, many organisations look to their leader to make the call – so a leader may see it as their role to jump in and act.  But this is not always the best response especially when a situation is unclear or the corollary of any of the available actions is unclear.  A while ago I wrote how mindful leaders in such situations should set aside ego and emotions and reframe the need to act as curiosity – to investigate what is happening and to reach out for the opinions of others. (See “Transformational change – Leadership … and reframing ambiguity as curiosity!” )

You’ll need to manage your own behaviour.  Your reactions, your demeanour and your decisions will be noted by your staff and colleagues who may, rightly or wrongly, believe that the true “you” emerges when you are under pressure.  This may have a lasting impact on their opinion of you; on their loyalty to you and on their willingness to go the extra mile for you.  So, try to remain positive and relaxed. .. not irritable or tense.  Empathise with those working hard and let them know you are trying to limit the impact on them. Sometimes, when I have been in such a situations, all I could do was stay with the team and buy the pizzas.  And be generous… the words “please”, “thank you” and “good job” – they’re free and yet so valuable.

Then there’s the “Moral imperative of leadership”. You should act with integrity and ensure that your decisions and actions are moral… even when a situation is desperate. It is unlikely that staff will remain loyal if they believe your actions are not honest and fair.  I once attended to a talk by Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf who was the commander of Desert Storm… the first gulf war.  In that role he was literally asking troops to put their lives on the line.  In such a situation, he said it was essential that the troops were in no doubt that he was doing his best to limit the dangers and that he was taking the best possible care of every one them.  Fortunately most of us do not deal with decisions that can bring life or death… but I am sure the same values are key for all of us.

And finally – don’t choke – easier said than done!  Choking is when a person becomes overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation often causing them to consciously focus on small, trivial actions that have been automated long ago… so that they start to make “novice errors”.  Worse, such emotions can cause the release of brain chemicals that actually reduce your peripheral vision (real and metaphorical) and your ability to notice how the situation is changing.  So simply, set out the steps you have to take and focus on each step, in sequence, one at a time – giving each step your full attention until you have completed all – yet without thinking about weight of the whole situation.

You will get through this.

Stress and mental illness account for 57% of workdays lost in UK

When I talk to people about the impact of building resilience through mindfulness I like to emphasise its value to all – how mindfulness can increase the resilience in all of us to deal with pressure and with change; and make all of us more able to focus and to make better decisions; and to increase our productivity, our open-mindedness, our empathy and our life satisfaction… and there is evidence to show that teams with mindful members are more effective that those without such members.

Yet it is also important to look at how resilience can help people to deal with stress and to avoid becoming anxious or depressed – especially as  my recent work has shown that many people overestimate their reserve of resilience and so that are shocked when they suddenly start to experience problems.  And this happens to many people…

I recently noticed that the HSE (The UK’s Health and Safety Executive) have released figures for 2017/18 that show that work related stress and mental illness (anxiety and depression) accounted for over half of work place absences: 57%. (See here )

So nearly 600,000 employees now suffer from such conditions; and the data shows that the growth such problems has yet to plateau; growing by 13% from the previous year. The cost of this absence is now £8Billion per year.

A spokesperson from HSE commenting on the figures said: “The fact that work-related stress, anxiety and depression is estimated to be responsible for 57 per cent of the working days lost to ill health shows how important it is for employers to take action.”

At Carina Sciences we are working with employers to use our Rezl app to build the resilience of employees – to pre-empt such problems, to reduce the impact on those with such problems… and to enable all employees to boost their performance and life satisfaction.