Mind work: while some individuals warm to mindfulness, others use relaxation techniques focused on breathing

Like many working parents, Samantha Vanags has days when she feels swamped by her to-do list. A tax partner at Grant Thornton, the professional services firm, she combines a heavy workload with a full-on home life bringing up her three teenagers on her own.

Yet juggling her many responsibilities has recently become less of a struggle. For this she thanks a habit of taking “control of [her] subconscious”, which she learnt from psychologists brought in to help Grant Thornton’s partners stay positive and healthy under pressure.

The programme, which was devised by London-based performance psychologists The Positive Group, helped Ms Vanags realise her approach to dealing with challenges was unhelpful. When overworked junior colleagues consult her, her response is to help them reprioritise and delegate some tasks. With her own priority pile-ups, however, it is a different story − or rather it was. As a working mother, she says, “if something on my to-do list doesn’t get done, it’s very easy to tell myself that I’m failing. One of the most helpful things [the programme taught] me was to learn to talk to myself in the same objective way that I talk to other people.”

Grant Thornton is one of a number of employers investigating the potential for techniques borrowed from psychology to help businesspeople bounce back from failures rather than be crushed by them, and perform at their best in stressful situations – in short, to become more resilient. Other experimenters include General Electric, the US army and the UK division of Deloitte, which recently appointed John Binns, a former partner, as a mental health and personal resilience adviser.

One approach making its way from the clinic into business is cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps people tackle problems by learning to recognise and change patterns of thought and behaviour that are holding them back. At Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group, employees with mild anxiety can access cognitive behavioural therapists through the company’s occupational health service. The next step, says Tim Munden, vice-president of HR for the UK and Ireland, is to offer CBT “preventively” by creating an online programme that everyone can use.

By practising CBT-style techniques, such as reframing failures as opportunities to learn and visualising the good things that could result from taking on a difficult challenge, rather than dwelling on the possible pitfalls, the idea is that executives will learn to handle stress better and protect themselves against stress-related mental illnesses − estimated by the UK’s Office for National Statistics to affect one in six workers. A visualisation technique that could be useful in the workplace, for example, is to picture yourself doing something that you fear, calmly and confidently − and succeeding.

For Ms Vanags, keeping a log of her ratio of negative to positive thoughts helped her to overcome her tendency to write herself down. Other approaches used in resilience programmes include mindfulness and what Mr Munden calls “maintaining a healthy mind in a healthy body” through diet, sleep and exercise.

Teaching businesspeople self-help techniques pioneered by therapists poses a number of challenges, however. For a start, although neuroscience on the brain’s ability to reorganise itself supports the idea that it is possible to unlearn negative mental habits, actually doing so is hard work. “All the data shows that you need to [practise a habit] for about three months before it becomes part of a new default pattern,” says Dr Brian Marien, founder of The Positive Group. Anything less and the brain tends to revert to its old accustomed ways of thinking, because habits self-perpetuate.

Coaching resilience will achieve little if the broader culture of the organisation is out of kilter. As much as resilience is an individual characteristic, it is “a property of the support systems that surround us,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School. Building strong teams so that “nobody really works alone” is crucial, she says.

Finding the right way to talk about the psychology of resilience is also important. If a course is called “stress management”, says Dr Marien, research suggests that some people will start to feel stressed, while those already feeling stressed will feel more stressed – the so-called “nocebo” effect. If, on the other hand, the focus is solely on wellness, people may miss warning signs in themselves or colleagues, so there has to be a discussion of what to watch out for.

The way these techniques are presented is also important when it comes to dealing with some peoples’ scepticism. Dr Marien highlights a programme being conducted for a team of City of London traders: “If you go in and talk to a group of alpha males about mindfulness I don’t think that is going to land too well, so I think you have to tailor your product to the audience that you are working with. And what we would do with them is talk about how do you develop ‘attentional focus’ – how you can become aware of whether your emotions or your rational mind are governing your behaviour.”

At Deloitte, all new managers participate in a programme called Fit for Success, which suggests practical steps that people can take to build their mental and physical reserves and, through their management style, avoid creating stress for their team.

The company also has a scheme whereby staff can consult Mr Binns or a partner confidentially and be put in touch with peers who have suffered anxiety or depression and recovered.

Personal experience led Mr Binns to start the initiative. In 2007, in the middle of a successful consulting career, he became clinically depressed when home and work pressures peaked. Cognitive therapy helped him regain perspective and, after a three-month break, resume his job as a high-performing partner. Had he recognised the warning signs – sleeplessness, indecision and imagining catastrophic consequences from everyday setbacks − and known that there were remedies, he would have sought help. “At the time, there wasn’t really a culture of talking about resilience and mental health as issues that affect people in our business,” he says.

Two years on, Ms Vanags says that knowing she can control how she responds to pressures has given her the confidence to take on troubleshooting roles that she once might have avoided. “Understanding that by changing how I think, I can change how I feel and how I respond to [a challenge], has made me more ambitious to try new things for myself and for the business.”

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