Positive Mental Health at Work (March 2016)

Eleven years ago I was nearing the end of participating in a 22-week virtual Authentic Happiness Coaching Program (AHC). From March 2003 to May 2005 Dr Martin Seligman and a host of other leading positive psychologists trained 1,000 professionals from 19 nations in the theory, assessments, interventions, and exercises of Positive Psychology. It was soon after AHC finished that the first Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program was created, and as many readers know, Positive Psychology News (PPND) was brought to life by MAPP graduates.

toxic-emotions-at-work-and-what-you-can-do-about-them_121354I discovered AHC in early 2004 after attending a “Toxic Emotions at Work” workshop run by Professor Peter Frost (who sadly passed away in late 2004). We were introduced to Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Organizational Scholarship. Exploring these fields led me Positive Psychology, and then AHC. Having worked for a large international organisation for 20 years I was excited about the potential for all three fields to be applied in the workplace.

Positive Psychology’s aim is to build strength, well-being, and optimal functioning. This focus gained momentum in the late 1990s and resulted from a reaction to psychology’s then predominant attention to what is wrong, how to fix it, and how to remove damage and weaknesses. A number of psychologists noticed that removing weakness did not build flourishing.

“Psychology has, since World War II, become a science largely about healing. It concentrates on repairing damage within a disease model of human functioning. This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the fulfilled individual and the thriving community. The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities.” (Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

This expanded attention to building strength and well-being has important implications for organizations.


Well-being at Work Strategies

Here in Australia, happiness and well-being strategies in the workplace were almost unheard of 11 years ago. The predominant focus back then included cultural imperatives such as employee engagement.

Mental illness and mental health are now at the forefront of attention. Organisations are implementing strategies to reduce mental illness at work and to support employees who suffer from mental illness. Do you notice the focus here on weakness correction? However, some organisations are also promoting positive mental health at work and are implementing strategies to strengthen well-being and flourishing (not just minimising ill-health).


Examples of Workplace Well-being Strategies

What resources are available to design an organisational well-being strategy? To become informed you could read countless articles and books that are available on this subject and you could find the threads that you could weave into your strategy.

Or you could kick start your work by referring to the strategies that others have designed. To get the ball rolling, here are some Australian examples of reusable strategies.


Example 1: SuperFriend

In 2015 SuperFriend published guidelines for organisations, Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace. (I participated in one of their reference groups)

“Positive mental health refers to positive emotional, psychological and social wellbeing that can enhance functioning in life.”SuperFriend-Workplace-Programs-Delphi-Final_Page_01

“An approach that focuses solely on the dysfunctional elements of work in order to prevent illness does not adequately capture the elements of the workplace that engage employees; nor does it explain why some organisations develop environments where employees can flourish and reach their optimal potential”.

“Keeping in mind the distinction between positive mental health and mental illness, organisations should develop an integrated and holistic approach to mental health. An integrated approach will: protect employees from mental illness to the extent feasible …. promote positive mental health …. and address mental illness regardless of cause.”

The guidelines are laid out in a clear and readable format, making it easy for organisations to kick-start the process of developing their own strategies.


Example 2: Heads Up

Heads Up is an organisation developed by beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, which was established by the National Mental Health Commission. The website has a wealth of tools, templates, resources, information, tips, and advice to help individuals and businesses to create more mentally healthy workplaces.

“Taking a proactive approach to mental health helps to build your reputation as an employer of choice, helping you recruit and retain the best and brightest people.”


Example 3: Australian Public Service Commission (APSC)

In 2013 the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), in conjunction with Comcare, an Australian Government Agency, published a 128-page document Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work.

“This guide recognises the World Health Organisation’s approach that good mental health is much more than the absence of a diagnosed condition.”

The guide provides good practices, practical information, advice, information sheets, and resources. It is organised around four principles:

  1. Effective people management and leadership
  2. Fostering workplaces and cultures that promote health and well-being and minimise the development of mental ill health.
  3. Early recognition and support
  4. Rehabilitation and return to work


Example 4. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

CSIRO “is a place where all our people are healthy, flourish and want to work. Our strategy is explicitly focused on the effect of our culture and operating conditions on the psychological wellbeing of our people, and its interplay with their physical wellbeing.”

One of the inputs into its 32-page Wellbeing At Work Strategy 2014-2018 was report from the APSC (see above). CSIRO was guided by the APSC’s emphasis on the influence that organisational culture has on well-being.

“The APSC recommends that organisations: take more responsibility for employee wellbeing at work; don’t assume it’s an employee’s responsibility alone; and place more focus on optimising conditions to enhance employee wellbeing and reducing factors that cause stress. This is the approach that CSIRO is taking with this Strategy.”


Example 5. Ernst & Young (EY)

“Putting Our Minds To It” is a guide published by international professional services firm EY (happy memories, I worked with EY for 20 years). Six actions are suggested which organisations can take to improve mental health and well-being:

  1. Address mental health as an economic and business improvement driver.
  2. Redesign work to establish a mentally healthy environment.
  3. Set a longer term strategy: there is no magic bullet or short term fix.
  4. Have courage to remove barriers to change.
  5. Act on unique organisational demographics and mental health risk profiles.
  6. Introduce meaningful measures for mental health risk.


Just the Tip of the Iceberg

These examples are a drop in the ocean of resources that organisations can use to develop their well-being strategies. Do you know of resources and examples that you can share? I’d love to hear from you.



Cameron, K. & Spreitzer, G. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Frost, P. J. (2003). Toxic emotions at work: How compassionate managers handle pain and conflict. Boston: Harvard Business School Press


This article was originally posted on Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND) in February 2016.


Motivational Focus (April 2015)

What is your motivational focus? What is the motivational focus of the people around you?

Take, for example, an executive manager who is responsible for developing a growth strategy for her division. She is inspired by the possibilities and opportunities which could result from implementing the strategy. Refining the strategy through creative brainstorming with others fuels her energy and enthusiasm. She has what is known as “promotion-focused motivation”.

Promotion-focused people

  • Want to fill their life with advancement and growth and gains
  • Are more likely to take chances, seize opportunities, seek many alternatives
  • Are interested in satisfying their needs for nurturance: receiving positive things
  • Are more likely to excel at creativity and innovation
  • Display high energy when they succeed
  • Respond to optimism and praise
  • Make decisions by considering what could go right. They will do what it takes to make things go right even if some things go wrong along the way
  • Think more about the pros than the cons
  • Are discouraged by setbacks because these indicate that they are not gaining, not winning. Lack of success leads to low energy. Failures indicate an absence of a positive

How might our executive manager gain the support of the key stakeholders who are involved in contributing to and approving the strategy? She could use her promotion-focus to describe the benefits, possibilities, and growth opportunities for the organisation. However, there will be a number of prevention-focused people who bring with them the ability to protect the company’s gains by avoiding risk.

Prevention-focused people

  • Practice vigilance and caution which requires thinking about all that has to be done in order for something to not go wrong
  • Prefer stability (non-loss) over change (potential loss)
  • Focus on stopping losses and obstacles that derail goals and growth
  • Are conservative, thorough, accurate, reliable, steadfast and plan carefully
  • Display a quiet energy when they succeed and achieve their goals. Then they feel peaceful and calm.
  • Wish to avoid loss and want to feel secure, to stay safe. This is where they achieve well-being and satisfaction in life
  • Do not risk taking chances which might be a threat to their security and safety
  • See goals as opportunities to meet their responsibilities
  • Are driven by criticism and the possibility of failure to work even harder to succeed
  • Stick to realistic plans
  • Do not want to risk making mistakes
  • Think more about the cons than the pros
  • Are not averse to growth, it’s how they attain it

Prevention or Promotion – which is better?

Neither focus is better.

Heidi Grant Halvorson and Tory Higgins are authors of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Their work draws from 20 years of research by the Motivation Science Center at University of Columbia. People can be predominantly prevention-focused or promotion-focused but people can also use either focus depending on the context. For example, a promotion-focused person would be in prevention-focused mode when getting a flu shot to prevent future ill-health.

Every organisation needs the strength of both kinds of focus.

In our executive’s case she could craft her communication to adapt to both kinds of focus. Promotion-focused people think “Why will implementing this strategy be a good idea and what will we miss out if we don’t implement it?” They are seeking opportunity and gain. Prevention-focused people think “Why would implementing this strategy reduce organisational risk and what kind of trouble could we avoid if we don’t implement it?” Both groups might reach the same conclusion to implement the strategy, but will have achieved this with a different focus.

Motivational Fit

Our executive should pay attention to two things:

  1. What each person wants e.g. achieve growth; maintain steady state; reduce risk; avoid losses
  2. The motivational focus each uses in making decisions; the kinds of information they need; their strategy for achieving the goal

“Motivational fit happens when you create a match not only between what people want and what they get, but also between what they want and how they go about getting it – the way they reach their goals.” (p152)

Respect and gratitude

“We need to respect the perspectives and contributions of both our promotion colleagues and our prevention colleagues, and to be grateful that the strength of those with one focus can complement so effectively the strengths of those with the other focus” (p47).


Halvorson, H., & Higgins, T. (2013). Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Hudson Street Press.

Sansom, L. (2014). Prevention or Promotion? (Book Review). Positive Psychology News Daily

Horne, A. (2015). Motivational Focus. Positive Psychology News Daily

What’s My Motivation? A Q&A with E. Tory Higgins (12 August 2013). Article in Strategy + Business

MentorCoach Interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson, June 21, 2013


Adaptive Leadership


“There is a desperate hope that people in authority know what they’re doing” (Marty Linsky)

In my September blog, Bloated with Information, I commented that executives can feel ineffective when their organisation values having a ‘big brain’ (being the expert holder of information, facts and knowledge) more highly than it values other skills such as relationship management, influencing, visioning, innovation and teamwork.

Executives can also feel ineffective when they believe that being in a leadership role means they need to know how to do everything. This sense of ineffectiveness is heightened when the work is complex, when there is no clear, discernible path. This is when executives are faced with ‘adaptive challenges’.

In adaptive challenges there is “no known solution – the skills and answers are outside your repertoire. Adaptive challenges are those you have to grow into solving and require mobilizing people’s hearts and minds to operate differently.” (Cambridge Leadership Associates).

This contrasts with the comfort of being skilled in solving technical problems i.e. problems which have a known solution and can be solved by an authority or expert.

“The most common leadership mistake is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.” (Cambridge Leadership Associates)

Adaptive Challenges

Marty Linsky is a leading expert in Adaptive Leadership. He is an adjunct lecturer in public policy for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School.

Earlier this month the team at the Australian Public Service Commission’s Strategic Centre for Leadership, Learning and Development brought Marty Linsky to Canberra to speak at a number of meetings and seminar sessions.

The session I attended on 15th November came at a perfect time. Two years ago I attended a 6-day “Leading Learning” program run by Social Leadership Australia. The program was based on Adaptive Leadership. Some of what I learnt has faded, so Marty Linsky’s session was an energising refresher.

The timing of the session was also perfect because the Australian Public Sector is facing a range of adaptive challenges around uncertainty, fiscal restraint, change, new government, loss, staffing reductions and so on. It’s an uncomfortable place for executives, many of whom are trying to navigate these adaptive challenges as if they are technical problems. Marty’s session reminded me to be more conscious of the issues clients raise when we work together. Which are the technical problems; which are the adaptive challenges? Are we too quick to fix the surface issues? Is there much more to this? Do we need to approach this differently?

Marty’s Thoughts

Here are just some of Marty’s thoughts from the session. They caused me to reflect, and I hope you too enjoy reflecting on them. Some are direct quotes, some are a distillation of Marty’s comments.

On risk

  • “Leadership is about taking risks on behalf of something you care about”
  • “What risks will you take on behalf of increasing the quality of leadership in Australia?”
  • “It’s about taking smart risks in the pursuit of a committed cause”
  • “To do our work well we have to be prepared to blow things up every now and then…it’s excruciatingly painful when this happens”

On leadership

  • “There is a desperate hope that people in authority know what they’re doing”
  • Leadership is not about having the big job, it is about behaviour.
  • “The work you do is an act of leadership.”
  • Is there a dependence on people who are in authority positions? Do we pass responsibility over to them; is the issue subordinated to them? When do we need to show personal leadership and take responsibility instead of transferring the problem to the authority figure?
  • When there is a diagnosis it’s the community and system that needs to work together to do the hard work.
  • How can we help people to face up to their most difficult problems?
  • You should not pretend to know what you’re doing.

On loss

  • People are looking for comfort, they want to conserve the status quo.
  • “Adaptation is a process of loss”, it will not be easy.
  • There will be pain and conflict: leadership is not about taking this away but helping people to work through it.

On shared values

  • Don’t expect people to share your values. Your job is to get everyone to work on the job despite differences in values. “Don’t be precious [about shared values] when mobilising people to get there”.

On optimism

  • “Leadership requires us to be relentlessly optimistic and at the same time brutally realistic about what it will take to achieve purpose. Optimism helps the realism from becoming cynical; realism helps the optimism from becoming naïve”
  • Don’t lose your heart and optimism because you’re beaten down.
  • Will you survive by keeping your head down? This means you’ve lost your heart.

Leaders Set the Tone

Finally, I’d like to end this last blog for 2013 with a repeat of part of my May 2011 blog. This is from the work of researcher Malcolm Higgs, and meshes nicely with the thoughts above.

“In successful change programs Higgs and his colleagues found that change leaders set the tone and overall direction, yet they allowed people to become responsible for the change and to adjust the plan as the implementation unfolded. That is, leaders were doing change with people, not to people. Analysis revealed that these leaders had four change leadership behaviours:

  1. Attractor behaviours: connecting, tuning in, building the story, seeing patterns, serving the higher purpose, self awareness, sense-making.
  2. Edge and tension behaviours: establishing reality, constancy, and persistence, challenging assumptions, creating discomfort, setting a high bar.
  3. Container behaviours: setting boundaries, expectations, and values, expressing confidence, affirming, encouraging, showing empathy, creating trust and ownership, making it safe to have hard conversations and to take risks, creating alignment at the top.
  4. Movement behaviours: creating systems of possibility, learning, and difference, supporting creativity, freedom to be open and vulnerable, freedom to break established patterns, and powerful inquiry.
    Higgs points out that these four change leadership behaviours are supported by the use of Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry, for example, by collaborative, appreciative inquiry into what is working well, by an understanding of the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, by a focus on strengths together with a balancing use of rules, by creating challenging goals, and by having hard conversations.”

All the best for the rest of 2013. Enjoy your Christmas, Holiday and New Year break.