By Claire Genkai Breeze
I am sitting with a group of business leaders from a well respected global organisation and we have several hours to explore how they think about their own health and wellbeing. In the course of our session together we uncover some profound but common mistaken beliefs. If organisations are actually made up of people too, then it is likely that these beliefs are etched into the fabric of our working mindsets, presenting themselves as a truth and as such forming a central part of our strategies for improving health and well being at work.
The Gallery of Mistaken Beliefs
- “It will never happen to me”
Over 90% of the people I was with actually believed that issues associated with health and resilience were more likely to be a challenge for others than themselves. With their hands still in the air we pause and look around. Realisation dawns on most that adopting this belief, whilst understandable, is not really rational. Particularly, as nearly all but a few people have been engaged for the past thirty minutes in small group discussions on how the pressure of work is affecting them, their sleep, their relationships and their energy. So what we are dealing with here is denial. We manage to sustain this form of denial by an impressive array of mental and emotional disconnects or justifications. What we fail to notice we don’t have to deal with. What we do not accept we can keep at bay.
- “My body will do what I tell it to”
We persist, despite evidence to the contrary, in a view that our body and our mind are somehow separate. In an age where many of us earn our living through thinking rather than manual labour, we can mistake our minds, our determination and our aspirations as having a superior position over our physical or embodied selves. In other words our bodies are our servants, they are the vehicles that carry our aspirations and will continue to do so until our minds decide otherwise. We are bombarded by information about health, nutrition and exercise. All of this supposedly gives us choice. When I asked the group what they knew about how to take care of their physical selves, they collectively had most of the major insights covered. But when I ask the group how much of this knowledge they actually practice, we find a very different story. For most of them there is a large gap between their aspirational values about their own health and wellbeing and their practiced values. They are not unusual in this are they? When I ask the group to think about something that makes them angry at work and then to notice what happens to their body, some of them are visibly shocked that just thinking about something that is not even happening now, can impact the body and set off a stress reaction in seconds, as if it were actually happening in the present moment. The body is integral to our well being, but to understand that we have to pay attention to the signs and signals continuously. Insight about your wellbeing is not just a cognitive process – your body has a valuable part to play if you learn to accept that your mind is not the only priority.
- “I am very fit so I am not at risk”
Am I about to contradict my last mistaken belief? Many in the group exercise regularly and this is a fantastic contribution to their wellbeing. But as our time together unfolds we all begin to notice that despite this emphasis on physical exercise, many of them still feel stressed, on the edge of coping and mentally tired. In fact some go on to explain that their exercise regimes have increased over time, but they live with the awareness that the exercise is simply ‘keeping them afloat’, ‘standing still’ or ‘preventing things from getting worse’. As we explore this further it becomes apparent that compartmentalising the physical approach to wellbeing, without working on one’s mind is a suboptimal approach to feeling well and resilient.Your mind needs to be as flexible as your body and if that sounds too esoteric, it really isn’t. Understanding how you have developed fixed and rigid thinking patterns about perfectionism, doing everything yourself or to a certain standard, or even a belief that there is only one right way, all contribute to mental rigidity. Interestingly when we explore this in the group many people recognise themselves in this mistaken believe.
- “It will be better next month”
We call this believing in a conditional future where the conditions we are currently experiencing will miraculously disappear and be replaced by some other conditions that will be so much more conducive to your health and wellbeing. Therapists have a term for this: we call it magical thinking! Of course there are extreme and specific scenarios in life where the future can only be better than the present. But for most of us this mistaken belief allows us to keep doing what we are doing, without having to face the fact that we have to be the agents of change in an active way if we want to have more health, vitality and resilience. This is compounded by the fact that most organisations are themselves future focussed.We bargain with our health and our resilience now in order to play a game of endurance, believing we will never have to pay the price. Learning to live more in the present brings with it all kinds of stress reducing benefits, as the growth in mindfulness training supports. But it is so much more than that. Being in the present moment means actively paying attention to ourselves, and what we are doing. Once we do that, when we overcome our denial, we have to face the fact that we can choose to be well and healthy.
There are more mistaken beliefs associated with our wellbeing. In an age where information about health is not in short supply, our task is to realise that our bodies and minds are intimately connected. The good news about this is that as we become aware, we can all take steps to change our mistaken beliefs, which will liberate new options and strategies for healthy and resilient individuals and organisations.
You can hear more about how to help improve the wellbeing and resilience of your workforce at the Health @ Work conference on the 12th June. Further details about the conference can be found here.
Claire Genkai Breeze is co founder of Relume Ltd, co author of ‘The Challenger Spirit – organisations that disturb the Status Quo’ (2011) and was recently voted as one of the top ten Most Influential Thinkers in HR Most Influential Awards 2013 conducted by HR Magazine.