Emotional resilience: 1

Tom Barton

This first of a two-part series investigates the negative health and work effects of pessimism, and how fostering emotional resilience improves wellness and business outcomes.

“As a rule of thumb,” says Peter Sullivan of Australian Business Training, “about two thirds of all people in any group or any community fall into the pessimistic category.”

Shocked? Aside from the ironic disappointment that may accompany this realisation, there is a real case for considering the health implications of pessimistic thinking.

Research has found that pessimists are more than twice as likely to suffer from infectious diseases or illnesses, as well as die 19 per cent younger on average. In the workplace, this negative thinking has a considerable impact on health and productivity.

Peter Sullivan’s work involves profiling workers’ “explanatory styles” for businesses, helping employers minimise the health and productivity impact of pessimistic thinking in the workplace.

An individual’s explanatory style is their way of interpreting their world, reflected in a tendency towards either viewing life’s circumstances as inside, or outside of, their own control. In short: whether they are a pessimist or an optimist.

Employers and CEOs are increasingly recognising the influence of employees’ explanatory styles on their likelihood of developing secondary problems following a workplace injury or illness.

These problems, such as increased absenteeism, increased risk of further injury, poor morale, lack of motivation, extreme emotions and impaired decision-making, protract the return to work process and can snowball rehabilitation costs and timelines.

Understanding emotions

Peter argues that the value of emotional awareness must be better recognised by workplaces if they intend to deal effectively with the problems caused by employees’ pessimistic explanatory styles.

“People don’t understand how their emotions work,” Peter observes. “Recently, I asked a group of CEOs, ‘What makes your emotions work?’ I got a lot of dumbfounded looks.

“I said to them, ‘Imagine if you put your foot down on a snake. What would the emotion be?’ A few of the CEO’s said ‘fear’. OK, so it looks like snakes make us scared.

“But if a snake crawls up to toddler that’s 8 or 10 months of age, what does the child do? It’s likely they’ll play with the snake without fear. So, why are we scared, while the kid’s not?"

The CEOs hazard a guess that the fear’s learned. This is true, but doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Again Peter asks, “What have we really learned about snakes?”

Eventually, someone suggests, “It’s because the snake’s a bitey - it’s dangerous.”

“Ah-ha!” says Peter. “And that’s what you’ve learned. A belief; an attitude; a cognition; a perception that happens in about half a second. And, because it happens so quickly, you attribute your emotion to the snake. But it’s actually your belief causing the fear - because if you put your foot on a black stick and thought it was a snake, you’d still jump.”

Peter helps us understand how these often automatic emotional thinking patterns affect workers who have been injured and are attempting, or perhaps not attempting, to return to work. Peter says that it is people’s preconceptions of their injury, their pain and the way they are being treated by management that most influences their likelihood of recovering and regaining control of their life.

Exploring this link - between peoples’ emotional responses and their underlying beliefs and perhaps misconceptions – is what Peter believes is of most benefit to improving return to work outcomes, workplace wellness and productivity.

Shifting cause and effect

“I get people to shift what I call cause and effect,” explains Peter.

If people begin to become aware of their own emotional reactions to certain situations, they can become capable of understanding how these behaviours influence their thinking and approach to life.

“Getting people to do this starts to empower them; they can not only have responsibility for their own reactions, but control of their own reactions,” Peter said.

The most obvious case of this is the employee who is distressed and barely coping with their injury or illness, struggling to return to work.

“These people often tend to catastrophise their situation. It is a serious situation, but some people would see it as a hassle and some people would see it as a horror. Some people find positivity in adversity and others crumble.”

Peter explains how peoples' explanatory styles can start to centre around a sense of “learned helplessness.” This term was first coined by Professor Martin Seligman - the founder of "positive psychology."

“Most pessimists think the world does it to them. They tend to see their problems as being the company, the injury, the weather, the government, their neighbours, their colleagues,” said Peter.

“One of the critical things is awareness, to see if people are aware of their own explanatory style. You can gauge this by looking at what Seligman calls the ‘three P’s’ – the personal, permanent, pervasive dimension.

“One person will have an injury and take it really personally, and see that the world is picking on them. They see it as permanent and unchangeable and they can’t do anything about it, and so pervasive that it’s wrecked their entire life. That’s one view. Some people are predisposed to that view, through a learned perception or attitude.

“Other people may have the same injury and say, ‘well, if you’re out there working sometimes things happen – it’s not personal, it’s just circumstance. Anyway, it’s only temporary: what do I need to do to get myself going again? And it’s only this one area of my life that’s interfered with at the moment; it doesn’t have to wreck everything.’

“One’s about empowerment; one’s about helplessness and hopelessness.”

The better we appreciate the benefit of challenging peoples’ emotional reactions and styles of thinking, the more successfully we can improve return to work outcomes for injured workers and business outcomes for employers.

In part two...

In part two of this series we look at how profiling employees’ explanatory styles reveals their predisposition towards optimism or pessimism, and how to use this information to build a culture of resilience in the workplace.

Published 16 November, 2010 | Updated 22 July, 2014