Psychology At Work Using ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy)
Christopher Lorenz, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Soma Analytics speaks with Ross McIntosh, organisational and coaching psychologist, founder of the consulting agency ACT3, and City University visiting lecturer.
In this webinar, Christopher and Ross began by discussing the organisational wellbeing crisis, and the role ACT has to play in reducing presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover.
Ross then explained the core principles of ACT with three fundamental pillars:
- Being open
- Being active – moving towards what’s important to you.
Christopher and Ross then talked about essential ACT practices. For example, ‘passengers on the bus’, an exercise in which you feel aware that your thoughts are external to you. They are like passengers on a bus you are driving. You should be aware of the passengers as you drive towards your goals, but not allow any abuse they hurl at you to deter your driving or change your course. Importantly, the goal is not to throw the passengers out of the bus, but to relate to them differently and learn to accept them.
Read the full conversation to learn more:
Christopher: Ross, welcome today. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Ross: I spent 20 odd years working in senior HR roles in central government. Then, I had this inkling that there was more to offer, and I went back to study. I left the civil service and I went to study organisational psychology at City, University of London, where I now still work, about four years later.
I’m a researcher and visiting lecturer at City. I’m also back in government but in a different form. I’m an interim and I’m working with an agency of the treasury, partly dealing with very senior recruitments, board level recruitments, psychometrics and exercises around that, but also looking at psychological wellbeing at work.
What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
Christopher: Before we dive into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I’d first like to understand, why would I want to do it and where do you see the benefits of that?
Ross: ACT builds psychological wellbeing and that in itself is a phenomenal thing in organisations and for individuals.
Psychological wellbeing is the most powerful and reliable predictor of performance and turnover in organisations.
Job satisfaction is associated with better performance only when psychological wellbeing is high, and as long as psychological wellbeing is high, even though they’re dissatisfied with their jobs, they don’t tend to leave an organisation.
I think, those combined make this intervention based upon ACT a really attractive proposition for organisations to invest in.
Christopher: On an individual level, why would I want to do ACT?
Ross: On an individual level, ACT allows us to:
Explore what’s meaningful for us in different areas of life:
What’s our purpose?
What do we stand for?
Develop a skill of noticing what’s going on around us:
Noticing the context we’re in but also the context that’s going on between our ears, that internal context.
Helps us relate to some of that unhelpful stuff that our mind produces, that chatter.
It helps us relate to that in a different way, to allow us to pursue meaningful paths of action.
Christopher: If we look at some of the aggregated data and statistics, we actually find that a lot more people are really stressed out than what management or leadership might actually assume.
Ross: We’re seeing an increase in reported mental health conditions in the workplace and stress related absence has also increased. It’s gone up from 41% in 2016 to 55% in 2018.
In our own research we’re seeing people with borderline clinical levels of psychological distress which could manifest, in terms of anxiety or depression in the workplace and that’s born-out by reports like the Thriving at Work report, the Stevenson and Farmer Review and other evidence.
There’s so much evidence out there that it’s such a big issue in the workplace.
Christopher: That’s an innovative benefit of ACT. It can help mitigate and manage some of these issues.
Ross: It can help us connect with the meaning in our careers.
It’s not just treating someone as a person at work, we don’t use this information to get more work out of a person, it’s something they can use for their whole life:
Christopher: One of the key benefits of ACT is, it’s an intervention. It can help people who are really stressed out and we know from our experience that a lot more people are borderline stressed out than we would actually assume they are.
Ross: It’s that issue about, do we talk about stress at work? Do we talk about issues if we’re stressed?
So, many, many people can benefit from ACT. It’s not just those who are feeling psychological distress. If someone’s feeling absolutely tickety-boo, they can still benefit from these skills we share and practice in our sessions.
How Does It Work: The Pillars
Christopher: We’ve been talking about ACT, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, and we’ve heard about the benefits, but what is it and how does it work?
Ross: This is how we typically describe ACT in our training.
Underlying this are six processes of ACT, which I’m not going to go into today because they’re a bit unwieldy to try and talk about, but hopefully this makes it more accessible and clear.
We’ve got these three pillars, which are the skills we develop in this type of training.
That central pillar is called Noticing:
Noticing our behaviour
How we’re showing up to the external world
What we observe we could be doing to move towards what’s important and moving away from what’s not
Noticing what our minds are doing, that inner world.
Noticing what that content is and how it might be influencing us and our behaviour.
Then we have that right-hand pillar called Active:
Getting in touch with our personal boundaries
What’s important to us in life?
We might have different values in different areas in life, but it’s really accessing those and using those as a driver or a motivator for our behaviour. How can we express those in small ways in our behaviour?
Then we have that left-hand pillar, Open.
Skilfully relating to the inner world.
What’s going on between our ears?
Our minds are producing
They can all hijack our behaviour and sometimes they’re not helpful. They can stop us doing things that are important to us.
Christopher: How is it different to mindfulness?
Ross: ACT is a mindful-based approach.
That Noticing pillar is essentially developing that skill of present moment awareness and for me, the way we develop that present moment awareness in ACT is we’re using it for a purpose. We’re using it to notice what’s going on here and around us and noticing we’re moving towards what’s important and moving away.
So, we’ve got a specific purpose to help us develop that value and that action.
Christopher: You mentioned values there, which are part of the Active column. Moving towards who and what matters for you.
Can you give me an example of what a value could be and how we could move towards this value?
Ross: When I signed up to do this a few months ago, I thought:
What values do I want to bring to this interaction?
What values do I want to bring to the audience?
I’d love to reach a wider audience with this science
I’d like to be clear
I’d like to be confident in the way in which I present this
I’d like to make it accessible
So, they’re my values. That’s me moving towards what matters. If I can try and bring those to life in what I’m doing, then that’s like a beacon for my behaviour.
Christopher: Coming back to the noticing one, if I may ask you, what did you notice?
Ross: As I was walking along Fleet Street, coming to meet you, I was noticing that sort of anxiety showing up in my body:
Tension in my chest
Disturbance, turbulence in my stomach
That’s about that Noticing, but also that left-hand pillar started showing up.
For me, the excitement and the beauty of ACT is, I’m using my values as a guide and moving towards what’s important, even though all of that stuff is showing up.
It’s subsided a bit now but it’s still there. I think it’s because you’re such a great host Christopher, but because I’m moving towards what’s important, I’m willing to experience that.
Christopher: You could say mindfulness is part of ACT in the way that it really represents the Noticing pillar and it also involves the Open pillar in being curious and being open and being non-judgemental. It kind of supercharges mindfulness to use this moment to moment awareness, to move towards values that matter.
Ross: Just go moment to moment, because our values may fluctuate.
We may have some values that are consistent for us through our whole life
We might have other values that rise in prominence during different life stages
We might have particular events where we think:
“What might show up that might get in the way and hijack my behaviour?”
Christopher: I love these three pillars because they very closely relate to the Five Ways of Wellbeing.
I’d like to mention Lidia Borisova, who we had in one of our webinars, from a charity, SportInspired. It’s a sports-based charity teaching children sport skills, using sports to increase wellbeing.
I’d also like to mention Vanessa King from Action for Happiness, who we also had in one of our webinars.
So, if you’re interested in these webinars, go to our website, check them out.
Christopher: Awareness of the breath or the body as a whole is a typical example of a mindfulness exercise or activity. What would you say is a good example of an ACT exercise?
Ross: We also use those mindfulness meditation exercises, but we’re also looking for other ways to support people in practicing it. They think sometimes mindfulness has almost become a bit too popular and maybe damaged by its own popularity.
We also can think about times in our lives where we might be on autopilot; our bodies are somewhere but our minds are elsewhere.
For instance, I was getting ready this morning in the shower, but my mind was already here, thinking about the day ahead.
So, if I can bring present moment awareness to that experience of my morning ablutions, I can notice the water on my skin, the sounds, the temperature, all of those things, the smell of the soap. That’s really great for practicing this skill of noticing.
Christopher: How can we practice some of these other skills?
Ross: We know the Open pillar really impacts people in our training. We use this metaphor called ‘passengers on the bus’. It kind of brings some of the themes together.
The idea is that I’m the driver of my bus of life. The moment I turn on the ignition, start moving, lots of chatter starts up behind me and that chatter is my thoughts. My thoughts are chattering away and some of those passengers are saying, “Hey Ross, we love being on your bus. We think you’re a really great driver, well done mate.” And they know what I’m thinking, they’re clever, these passengers. They can see me thinking of turning right down this new avenue and they’re like, “Go for it. I think it’s going to be really successful and you’ve got all of the skills you need, so don’t hesitate. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre man.”
Then some other passengers who are less nice, they’re saying to me, “Ross, these chats are a bit uncomfortable. I don’t really like being on your bus when we can see you’re thinking of turning right down this new avenue, when actually, we really love going around and around the city and we feel really safe and comfortable with that and we know you really do too.
Then there’s some other passengers, they’re just damn right awful and rude and they’re saying to me, “Ross, I think you’re a really shit driver. Have you even got a license for this vehicle, because all of the other drivers are better than you? We too can see you’re thinking of turning right down this new avenue, well, really? Because do you know all of the disastrous things that will happen if you turn right, ending in the gutter after a catastrophe.”
That’s the metaphor of passengers on the bus. I just find it so impactful. They’re speaking to me as a human being, this is a human condition we’re all experiencing.
Christopher: I love this image of passengers on the bus, but what can I do about these passengers?
Ross: Our ACT position is, we can’t chuck these passengers off, this is what it’s like being a human. We’ve descended from very cautious people, so our minds are highlighting the risks all the time.
What we can do is to write them down. Draw some speech bubbles and write down some of your typical everyday unhelpful thoughts that show up.
Some of mine are:
I’m not clever enough
I’m going to be discovered for the fraud and charlatan that I am
It won’t work
I’ll do it tomorrow
Getting them out there on the page and looking at them out there on the page, can already begin to give us a bit of distance and change our relationship.
Or, you could give your mind a playful nickname. I call my passengers, ‘the head of drama’ because they will take an everyday occurrence or a thought and then they’ll extrapolate it or escalate it up to catastrophe within moments and that can really influence my behaviour.
Christopher: It reminds me of what we have in our app. We have a goal called happiness and positivity. We use the analogy of, your mind is like a theatre and it has a spotlight, but it likes to put the spotlight on negative thoughts. They are the ones who get the spotlight
Ross: You might come up with your own names for your mind. There are many you can choose from. Make it personal to yourself and hopefully you can notice maybe, in motion, when it’s showing up and you go, “Oh, there you are again. Head of drama. Thank you. I’m actually going to just remind myself what my values are in this context and try and just take a small action towards them.”
Christopher: The ACT goal is to throw these passengers out of the bus?
Ross: No Christopher. The goal is to learn ways to relate to these passengers differently. We can get rid of them for a short period of time, but then they tend to bounce back with renewed vigour.
What is really attractive to me and many people I work with, you can learn to relate to them differently and reduce the dominance they have on our behaviour.
Three Quick Fire Questions
Christopher: A recurring theme in our webinars are three questions that I like to ask my guests. Number one, what do outsiders that are not familiar with ACT, what do they tend to get wrong about ACT?
Ross: Don’t get too absorbed in the underlying processes and get some practical experience of using ACT in your life. Don’t just immerse yourself in all the papers. That’s the best way to learn.
Christopher: If you had a billboard for a day, what would you put on that billboard?
Ross: I would use a quote from a guy called Russ Harris, who’s made ACT very accessible:
“All too often we react to our unhelpful thoughts as if they’re the absolute truth and demand our full attention.”
I just love that because it really sums up how our thoughts can capture us and take us off course.
Christopher: A classic Soma question, what are your secret stress busters?
Ross: It’s using ACT on myself. Being open, kind of living my life a bit out there to say, “Coming here, I was a bit nervous man,” because they’re these values of sharing, being open, being clear and making it accessible. I turned up, which I’m very pleased about because it’s been great fun.
Christopher: To sum up what we discussed today. It was all about ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
We started with the benefits on an organisational level, that are related to higher levels of wellbeing, which then result in increased performance, less staff turnover, reduced presenteeism, reduced absenteeism.
We also talked on an individual level that ACT is an intervention to help you really navigate the human condition, especially when life throws a bit of rubbish at you at times.
We then talked about what ACT actually is and how it works. You mentioned the three pillars:
Being active – moving towards what’s important to you.
A supercharged mindfulness practice.
We talked about one specific example, you call it ‘passengers on the bus’, being aware of the passengers we are driving around in our everyday life and you mentioned two things we can do:
Name your mind
Write down your thoughts
Really important, the goal is not to throw them out, but the goal is to relate to them differently and get to accept them.
If you’d like to hear more about ACT, and Ross’ work, you can explore:
Last but not least, the work that we are doing here at Soma has been awarded a European Union grant in order to deliver the largest ever randomised controlled trial using a smartphone-based intervention to reduce workplace stress. If you’re interested in our research, or you think your organisation might benefit from taking part, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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