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Good mental health in the workplace: get the habit

4th September, 2018

Jonathan Gawthrop



Habits are hard to break, according to bestselling author Charles Duhigg and Positive Psychology (PP) guru Professor Martin Seligman and of course, rock band Chicago…

Whilst not traditionally considered a PP construct, a number of PP techniques actually rely upon habit formation for their success. For example, there is the habit of 3 good things, whereby we are encouraged to establish a routine of identifying then recording 3 positive activities or experiences each day for a period of time in order to improve our mental health and well- being (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

The success (or otherwise) of this particular idea of positive thinking, proposes that habit is a contributing factor as change is more likely if participants have visibility of and recognise the cue and reward elements of the habit loop (Duhigg, 2012).

In his excellent book, “The Power of Habit” Duhigg proposes that actions considered to be bad habits are difficult if not impossible to extinguish but can be overridden by the repetition and practice of positive habit creation as a sort of counter action.

Active thinking aids positive habits

Habitual routine and the reinforcement of positive experience through habitual practice are seen as being central to behavior change but have also been cited as being a frequent automatic response (Verplanken 2005).  That is to say, we are in the habit of being habitual and without being conscious of our behavior.

The suggestion that we are acting like unthinking robots when we are in habitual mode is potentially unhelpful in the context of positive workplace mental health and wellbeing as it appears to contradict the intrinsic, conscious properties considered necessary to achieve mindfulness and flow.

In short, experts tell us that we should be consciously considering change in order for us to positively benefit.  

Interestingly, in the example referred to earlier here, the creation of routine behavior is proposed as being intrinsic to 3 good things (Seligman, 2006). However, there is also a mindful thought process related to the cognitive search for those 3 things, which is arguably not an automatic action.  

This suggests that in this simple task, a combination of habit and extremely active, conscious thought is essential to achieve the desired outcome.  So, it appears then that the habit paradigm is open to challenge and that we should perhaps actively consider which good habits to keep and which positive ones to adopt in order to assist our positive mindset. Just routinely doing “stuff” may well not help us at all, conscious habit seems to be where it’s at!

Our surroundings matter

Our surroundings and relatedness to our environment also have a part to play. Researchers Neal, Wood, Wu & Kurlander (2011) found that habitual eating in a normal cinema environment resulted in participants eating stale popcorn without realizing it was stale just because they associated cinemas with popcorn eating. Similarly, Wansink and Cheney (2005) found through their Clean Plate Theory that people consumed 90% of the food on their plates as a result of their habitual consumption.

Both these examples show the potential hazards associated with mindless association and the effect bad habits can have on our health. We can simply get into the habit of making ourselves unwell, unfit and unhealthy because of how we learnt to associate things which are recognizable to us. Cinema = popcorn even if it is stale could potentially become workplace = stress even if it makes us feel low.

This supports the opening premise that to change existing habits could take some doing and that perhaps the best way to overcome bad habits is to mindfully create new ones in their place as opposed to trying to simply stop the bad ones.

One tried and tested formula for helping us on the journey is to make us more conscious of our habits, removing the mindless element through interruption and disruption. Essentially, waking us from our automatic behaviour.  

Subtle change for positive mental health

Researchers Rothman, Sheeran and Wood (2009) established that changing cues could interrupt habitual activity. In the earlier popcorn study Neal and the research team found that when the cinema lights were left on, less stale popcorn was consumed because films should be watched in the dark of course and as soon as we start thinking about that then we start consciously considering all sorts of things like, hold on, this popcorn is stale!

If simple disruptions like this can break down habituation then perhaps we could consider subtle workplace environmental changes and prompts to promote positive mental health and wellbeing at work?

Jonathan Gawthrop

Jonathan is an operational Director for leading FM Company EMCOR UK heading up a range of national UK customer portfolios. He acts in a senior advisory capacity to the Executive Board across the EMCOR UK Leadership Teams for Health & Safety and Wellbeing and is the chair of the organisations national Health & Safety Forum. Jonathan has an MSc in Behaviour Change for Health and Wellbeing where he has gained the knowledge and transferable skills required to critically evaluate and design interventions providing opportunities for people to change in a variety of practical workplace contexts. He is due to commence a PhD at the end of the year.

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