Think at London Business School
Alison Cox, SEP alumna and Executive Director of Engineering & Technical Services at Sir Robert McAlpine, on leadership in challenging times
By Sophie Haydock
Covid-19 has changed our day-to-day life as well as the outlook for people and businesses. It’s not just our physical health that is at risk. Our mental health has also taken a hit, with the economic uncertainty, sporadic lockdowns and shift to remote working. As a result, employees around the world are feeling unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, according to bodies such as the World Health Organization and the Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health.
If the rising cost of living, career demands and the constant striving for work-life balance meant a high level of stress for many of us pre-Covid, the challenges are greater now. No wonder that businesses and organisations are doubling down on efforts to prioritise employee wellbeing. Things like routine “check-ins,” mentoring programmes and company-sponsored mindfulness training are increasingly becoming the norm.
But are there actions we can take at an individual level to protect our wellbeing? What can we personally do to boast our own resilience, manage stress, safeguard our feelings of purpose and positivity, and bring our “best selves” to work in spite of the uncertainty?
Plenty, say London Business School faculty. And a good place to start is learning the skill of happiness.
Research tells us that when people feel happier, they are more resilient, more productive at work, and nicer to be around. We are simply more successful when we are happy.
Feeling happy might seem like a tall order, especially when we are under pressure, but there are in fact a number of concrete measures – shifts in attitude – that we can enact to become happier, says Selin Kesebir, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour.
“Happiness is a skill that can be learned like speaking Spanish or playing guitar. It is a skill of the mind; a capacity to shape the way that we see, process and interpret our reality and the things around us. It can be developed like any other competence.”
The quality of our happiness, says Kesebir, is contingent on the health of our relationship to reality, ourselves and other people. And understanding that happiness comes from within.
“Too often we make the mistake of equating happiness with external factors: the fulfilment of certain desires like wealth, love, certain rules; hedonistic pleasure; or other people’s approbation” she says.
“The problem with seeking validation from those around you is that you move away from your inner compass and you start measuring your own value in how other people see you – how smart, or attractive or successful they think you are. And that can lead to an inner sense of worthlessness, as well as resentment or even jealousy of others you perceive to be better than you.”
Similarly, looking for happiness through pleasure or the fulfilment of desires can automatically set us up for failure in our pursuit of happiness.
“Life is full of change, of ups and downs, surprises and things that we can’t control. Equating happiness with pleasure is erroneous because pleasure is fleeting – once you get used to a certain “high,” you will simply be on the lookout for the next one, constantly on the move – but never arriving – on the so-called “hedonic treadmill.”
And the same is true for accomplishing or acquiring the things you desire – the job, the marriage, the dream home. These are things we want for ourselves that might not even be good for us, or at least not good for us forever,” says Kesebir. “There are often more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered.”
A better approach is to think about happiness as something that emerges when we become comfortable with reality, whatever it looks like. The happiness skill, she says, is about achieving a certain acceptance of yourself, of other people and of the reality you inhabit. So how is it done?
Kesebir suggests five guidelines to feeling comfortable with reality.
1. Know that life is difficult and suffering is to be expected
Technological progress and improving conditions of life have encouraged us to think that life is easy and we are entitled to a comfortable life. In fact, as the pandemic has shown us, life is inherently uncertain while loss and suffering are certain. Suffering is often concealed – we don’t always know about others’ suffering or share ours with others– but it is always there, big or little. Letting go of expectations about an easy and perfect life and accepting the inevitability of change and loss can mitigate frustration when things go wrong.
2. Expect to have negative experiences and emotions and accept them.
If suffering is to be expected, we need to expect to sometimes feel negative emotions. Being happy doesn’t mean feeling good all the time. Happy people have their own share of negative emotions. Getting comfortable with sometimes being uncomfortable is key to happiness.
3. Stop arguing with reality
If something is a fact, fighting or resisting is simply a waste our time and energy. As the pandemic has shown us, railing against things over which we have no control won’t change anything — it’s futile. Far better to accept facts and move on.
4. Adopt a positive outlook
Our attention is like a spotlight – its beam illuminates whatever we focus on and that becomes our reality. This means that we can choose not to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. The point is not being delusional or rejecting uncomfortable facts — we need to be fully in touch with reality for sustainable happiness. It’s rather realising that reality is larger than what our attention is presenting us, and under uncertainty, the same event can be interpreted through different lenses, some more positive than others.
5. Don’t buy into everything that pops into your head.
All too often our inner voice will tell us that we’re not good enough, smart enough or successful enough. But fusing with thoughts and feelings that pop up – taking them for facts – is the opposite of true awareness.
Happier people are those who can look at their own thoughts from a distance; who can hear and observe their emotions and inner voice without being carried away by what is going on their heads. They instead question the validity of those voices and aim at a more truthful and constructive inner voice.
But it’s not easy. And that’s because most of us are hardwired to focus on our weaknesses and limitations.
So says Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour. He argues that fixating on our deficiencies can come at the cost of our performance, our progress and our wellbeing. A way around this is to emulate the habits and techniques of successful athletes.
“World-class athletes create their own highlight reels that capture their finest moments on the field and track. Then they study them to see how they can reproduce them and improve their performance. It works for them and it can work for us too.
“Just imagine that instead of focusing on weaknesses, we spend time reflecting on strengths – be it in strategising, team-building, communication or research – and inviting friends, family and colleagues to share the times they’ve seen us shine. How much more conducive would that be to your growth, positivity, performance and wellbeing than self-doubt?”
In his book Exceptional: Build Your Personal Highlight Reel and Unlock Your Potential, Professor Cable offers a raft of insights and practical techniques to help identify our strengths and leverage them in order to boost performance, resilience and wellbeing. He calls this “work crafting” to bring our best selves to the job – wherever and whatever it is.
Among his foremost ideas is the suggestion of connecting your strengths with opportunities to bring fun and creativity into the workplace; to find moments of playfulness or inventiveness where you can showcase your strengths while building enjoyment, engagement and enthusiasm – in yourself and others.
He also suggests bringing your outside life into work. “Don’t underestimate those strengths you’ve been leaving at home. They could include those park runs that energise you three times a week or being a party-planner extraordinaire. You can be creative with how you weave these qualities into your work life – just invest some time into working out how.”
At a time where the division between home and working lives are more blurred than they have ever been before – where meetings are Zoomed into employees’ living rooms – there has never been a better opportunity to “lighten up” your interactions with colleagues, to feel and spread enthusiasm and to lessen the pressures, stresses and anxieties of work, he says.
“Focusing on and giving voice to your strengths make you stand out; it will brighten up your day and energise you to give more of your best self. And that’s good for everyone.”
Most of us know about the physical benefits of fitness. But what about the mental health perks? According to Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance at LBS, exercise can increase your focus and leave you feeling more empowered, with enhanced self-mastery and a mindset that gives you better control over your life.
But like anything, getting fit takes commitment. Who hasn’t joined a gym, paid monthly membership and then failed to turn up? Here are Professor Edmans’ top tips for incorporating fitness into your life – and keeping it there.
Whatever fitness activity you choose, make sure it’s convenient. Find a gym, say, that’s close to home or to the workplace, and build it into your weekly schedule. Remove as many obvious obstacles as possible. And remember: consistency outranks intensity every time.
Choose something that you find fun and make it part of your workout. One academic study looked at the impact of keeping audiobooks in the gym and only allowing subjects access to their audiobooks when they worked out. The result? A significant increase in gym attendance. Whatever you find fun, build it into your fitness schedule – even if it’s keeping your favourite snack in your locker for afterwards.
Find a way to involve other people. Being around others boosts your serotonin levels, which make you feel more positive and dynamic. There’s also a “peer” dynamic at play whereby just seeing other people working out makes you want to exert more effort yourself. Then there’s the commitment effect: find a friend who will commit to a class or a match or a session and stick to it together.
However you choose to incorporate fitness into your wellbeing schedule, you will soon see the real mental health benefits in your working and home life.