Psychological Flexibility in the Workplace: A Value-Driven Journey

The modern-day workplace is filled with discomfort and stress. This may take the form of fatigue, frustration, avoidance, and irritability, and arises when there are conflicts among our responsibilities in helping others (i.e., co-workers, family, and friends), completing our own obligations and responsibilities, and achieving personal and company goals. The management of these expectations in a goal-driven workplace may be overwhelming. According to the Mayo Clinic (2013), stress is associated with headaches, muscle tension/pain, chest pain, fatigues, stomach issues, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Within psychology, stress is correlated with anger, depression, anxiety, concentration issues, fatigue, and irritability (American Psychological Association, 2013). Stress is also related to the development of problematic behavior used to attenuate undesired feelings such as alcohol, tobacco, and other substance use. The reality is that discomfort shows up among all of us and is not limited to the workplace.

The emotional, behavioral, and physical correlates of stress and discomfort can leave us feeling stuck and powerless. Stress-reduction and inoculation programming seeks to remediate (i.e., change, minimize, eliminate) this feeling. However, stress and discomfort do not simply go away; rather they appear to be an essential part of life. Attempts to directly eliminate or reduce stress may increase the amount of stress in the long term. Goal-focused employers and employees may find that the struggle to eliminate these feelings is a hopeless endeavor. Rather than stress-reduction as the answer, a values-based approach to stress that incorporates psychological flexibility, mindfulness, willingness, and committed action plans, may serve to provide a different and more workable method.

Increasing psychological flexibility permits one to focus on the present moment (by being more mindful), be in a better position to notice what is important in the situation, and be willing to take steps in the direction toward that which one values. An important step toward becoming more psychologically flexible requires you to notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without trying to change them, avoid them, escape from them or control them. Experiencing these thoughts and feelings for what they are (thoughts and feelings), rather than allowing them to define who you are, is a critical step. For example, you can notice that you have the thought “I’m overwhelmed,” “Nobody listens to me,” “I can’t give a good speech,” or “I’m stupid,” instead of trying to get rid of, challenge or convince yourself otherwise. Next, you can take a deep breath and press your feet firmly to the floor, and think about what is meaningful to you (e.g., supporting your staff, showing kindness toward your customers, communicating clearly with others). Then, you can consider what specific actions you can implement consistent with these values even when the unwanted, undesirable thoughts and feelings show up for you. This “moving in a value-driven direction” involves emotional willingness and acceptance rather than emotional fighting. Moreover, even if you think you have “won” and defeated your negative thoughts, they are likely to show up again when you hit another bump on the road.

When taking these steps in a value-driving direction, you are moving toward what is important to you. A commonly-used metaphor is to think of values like a compass. Values are the cardinal directions (north, south, etc.) of our lives, and goals are the places we find when heading in one direction or another (Harris, 2009). A compass includes directions and keeps you on track when you are traveling. If you decide that traveling west is important to you, then you take committed steps moving in that direction. If you begin in New York and get to California, then you have been traveling west and your journey has not ended. Instead, you can continue to travel further and further west, experiencing the discomfort that may come along (rough waters, bad weather, roadblocks, and fatigue).

Our chosen values provide us with the same direction in life. These values commonly include family relations, intimate relations, parenting, friendships, career, educational growth, recreation/leisure, health, spirituality, and community life (Harris, 2009). After considering and choosing which values are important to us (which could include some or all of these), you can choose which goals you want to achieve along your journey (e.g., complete an MBA, start a company, develop a new product, spend more time with friends, exercise more).

In the workplace, for example, if it is important to effectively lead a group of salespersons, counselors, or teachers, consider what specific behavioral steps you could take consistent with the value of leading and teaching others. This may include demonstrating compassion, listening to what is important to them, providing them with specific resources, ensuring they have attainable short- and long-term goals identified, etc. When you notice the unwanted internal sensations (thoughts and feelings), it is important to understand and accept that these are part of the journey and keep moving forward.

As a hard-working individual, whether in a leadership role or employee, you may feel like you are running on the proverbial hamster wheel, noticing discomfort as described above. The approach is the same regardless of your position, role or responsibilities. Experiencing discomfort is part of being human. Being willing to experience this discomfort while taking steps in the direction we want to move is the difference between psychological flexibility versus inflexibility. The consequences of this are significant with regard to our well-being, success in the workplace, and relationships among colleagues.

It is also important to differentiate happiness from having a valued-driven life. One may have an advanced degree, lead a company, earn a lot of money, drive a luxury car, have many friends, participate in many activities, and have what appears to be the “white picket fence” life. Yet, they may be unhappy and experience significant discomfort. This occurs because accumulating “things” and doing “things” does not necessarily equate to happiness. Instead, one should strive to have a life that is meaningful, with committed actions toward what one values, and being willing to experience the discomfort that shows up.

When considering values and goals further in the workplace, we can think of being productive as a value, while getting work done as a goal that is in the service of your values. Values are about knowing what matters and doing what it takes (Curtin, 2014), not for the sake of attaining happiness, but of living with vitality. Often goal achievement is seen as the parent of happiness. However, happiness is short lived once the goal is attained. By shifting the paradigm to values, one may experience a fuller, richer, and more vital life.

Subsumed under a framework called Acceptance and Commitment Training/Therapy (ACT) a growing body of peer-referred empirical support is demonstrating this approach on human functioning. ACT targeting clinically relevant mental and physical health problems (such as anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and somatic health problems) is as effective as established psychological interventions and ACT is superior on life satisfaction / quality measures than treatment as usual (A-Tjack et al. 2015). Interventions to improve psychological flexibility have been associated with decreases in absenteeism (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008), and greater acceptance / willingness to have internal experiences is predictive of mental health and job performance (Bond & Bunce, 2003). Additionally, ACT has been found to reduce stress and burnout (Brinkborg, Michanek, Hesser, & Berglund, 2011), and reduce worksite stress to a clinically significant degree (Flaxman & Bond, 2010). Training using ACT can promote more flexible decision-making and reductions in perceived barriers (Varra, Hayes, Roget, & Fisher, 2008) and adoption of new strategies in a continuing education context (Luoma et al., 2007).

You may find that you need some guidance taking steps on this valued-driven journey. Fortunately, there are excellent online resources available, including the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, a worldwide online learning and research community (, and ACT Mindfully ( There are professionals who have expertise providing coaching, consultation or therapy to individuals and companies. These approaches commonly involve a cooperative, interactive and professional approach to address the issues of discomfort and stress discussed in this article, to help people move forward, identify problems and their own contribution to the problem, identify values and take committed actions toward specific goals consistent with these values. As George Eliot wrote, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Which path will you choose to take?

Glenn M. Sloman, PhD, BCBA-D, NCSP and Michael C. Selbst, PhD, BCBA-D are from Behavior Therapy Associates in Somerset, New Jersey and can be reached at or and at

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