Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 261
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Increased Attention for Work

Researcher finds a therapeutic exercise that frees attention, promotes mental health, and improves performance.

Do you ever try to stamp out distressing thoughts?

Do you ever try to forget troubling memories?

Do you ever try to block unpleasant emotions?

They may be thoughts that worry you, memories that reopen old wounds, or emotions that grasp your attention and won't let go, like a fear of heights that freezes you along a steep mountain path.

Thoughts, memories, and emotions are internal, psychological events that occur without warning. But a curious thing happens when we react to these events by trying to control them, by putting them out of our minds or distracting ourselves with new activities. They become stronger, and then they trouble us more frequently and more deeply.

That's the surprising conclusion drawn from a new theory of psychotherapy first outlined in 1987 by Steven Hayes, from the University of Nevada at Reno. It's a theory put into practice by a growing legion of psychotherapists whose enthusiasm for it comes from the benefits they observe in their clients. These clients report fewer troubling thoughts that diminish in strength over time and more attention that they can focus on constructive activities.

The theory is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and its most important innovation involves accepting internal psychological events (thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensations). Hayes calls it "psychological acceptance," and it is comprised of two elements: 1) a willingness to experience negative psychological events fully and freely without labeling them as bad, and 2) a habit of acting that does not seek to influence one's feelings. Instead, actions reflect a person's values, interests, and/or goals. They are not carried out to help a person feel better.

When people implement this acceptance in their lives, they find troubling psychological events occurring less frequently. They find their day-to-day activities more rewarding. Their mental health improves, and their daily activities meet with greater success. With positive results like these to report, the growing popularity of ACT is not surprising.

Frank Bond is a researcher at the University of London who studies applied psychology, and he wondered if the positive effects of psychological acceptance could impact a work setting with people who don't feel a need for psychotherapy.

In 2000, he developed a stress management program for a large media firm. In the program, he taught people psychological acceptance. Then he measured its effect using a general mental health questionnaire. People who completed the training scored higher on the survey than those who did not. The training improved their mental health.

In 2003, Bond completed another study. This latest research used an ACT survey to identify employees who already used psychological acceptance in their day-to-day lives. A year later, employees completed another survey on general mental health, and those who had scored the highest on the ACT survey a year earlier also scored highest in general mental health.

Bond also examined an objective measure of job performance in this study, and he found a similar pattern. Those who used psychological acceptance in their day-to-day lives made the fewest errors in posting accounts (a critical part of their jobs). Finally, Bond investigated the combined impact of psychological acceptance and relaxed job control.

When employers relax their control of jobs somewhat, employees find that they can make decisions about job activities that used to be dictated to them. This freedom usually improves employees' work performance, satisfaction, and general mental health. Bond found that employees who practiced psychological acceptance also benefited most from relaxed job control. The combined effect was the strongest.

Bond believes performance improves because people have more attention they can devote to activities that reflect their goals and their interests. Being freed from managing their thoughts and feelings, they apply this new attention in constructive ways that benefits both their employers and themselves.

Reference: Bond, Frank W. and David Bunce (2003) The Role of Acceptance and Job Control in Mental Health, Job Satisfaction, and Work performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (6), 1057-1067.

Hayes, Steven, Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change, New York: The Guilford Press.

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