Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?

Pic: Social Psychologist Dr Gary Wood on BBC's Inside-OutFor the BBC Inside-Out  (08/2/2016) programme I was asked this question: are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?  In this blog post I expand on the themes in the programme, offer some examples of pertinent psychological theories, suggestions as to what appropriate research might look like, and offer some links for further information on zero-hours contracts.

The Benefit of Flexibility?

Having worked in a zero-hours contract research job as a student, I valued the flexibility. It operated as a semi-formal arrangement where I had to phone in each week to see what hours I could get. It varied from week to week and often we were at the mercy of a capricious supervisor. For me, it wasn’t so bad. I just had to grin and bear it and grovel a little and in those days students had grants too. I wasn’t going to starve if I couldn’t get as many hours as I needed in one particular week. The work was repetitive and boring and the working conditions wouldn’t exactly meet today’s health and safety guidelines, but It was flexible and many of the people there were really good fun to be around. In many ways it was ideal for my circumstances at the time but for many people it was there many source of income.

The Benefits of Zero-Hours Contracts to Employers

Today’s zero-hours contracts are a very different arrangment. I got paid for the hours I worked and only had to be on-site for those hours. In the modern day versions, employees have had to be on-site and only paid for the hours they are required to work. This means they could spend all day at the work-place and may not earn a penny. Some ’employers’ even though they asserted no liability to provide work still demanded exclusivity clauses that prevented people from seeking gainful employment at other jobs. It’s easy to see how this arrangement benefits the ’employer’ but what are the likely impacts on the employee?

The Psychological Impact of Zero-Hours Contracts

When asked the question ‘are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?’, a number of psychological concepts and theories came to mind:

  • Reactions to stress
  • Martin Seligman and ‘learned helplessness’ (being able to exercise control)
  • Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs (survival and security needs)
  • Barbara Frederickson and the concept of ‘broaden and build’.

There’s a whole body of evidence that demonstrates the links between stress and ill health, including depression and a suppression of the immune system. This happens when stress becomes a chronic (i.e. long-term) condition. If we accept the argument that one of the reasons people go to work is to provide for basic survival needs and security, it’s not difficult to see the detrimental impact of not being able to predict income (and working hours) from one week to the next.  Not being able to effect changes in our circumstances can lead to ‘learned helplessness’, which in turn may lead to depression. To be able to thrive rather than merely survive, we need to be able to build on other emotions and feelings, other than fear. It’s difficult to think aspiration when you can’t even meet basic needs.

Evidence of the Mental Health Impacts of Zero-Hours Contracts

Exploring the Parliament.uk website someone proposed the question (No 19559, December 2015): To ask the Secretary of State for Health, if he will make an assessment of the effects of zero-hour and uncertain hour contracts on the mental health of people holding such contracts.

The reply, from Alistair Burt MP (Department of Health) was short and to the point:

The Department has no plans to make any such assessment. Research undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that, compared to the average employee, zero hours contract workers are just as satisfied with their job (65% versus 63%) and happier with their work-life balance (62% versus 58%).

The research was carried out in 2013. However, the imposition of zero-hours contracts is becoming a increasing trend. It is therefore important to continually monitor the situation. Research findings in 2013 are only  remain valid if the situation remains static. Alistair Burt’s answer focuses on the people who are happy with zero-hours contacts, mainly because they value the flexibility. But what of the people who do not chose to work in this way but are forced into it by necessity?

Research also conducted in 2013 by the Resolution Foundation reaches the opposite conclusion:

[I]t is clear that for the majority of those employed on zero-hours contracts this freedom and choice are more apparent than real. For those individuals who require a minimum number of working hours per week to ensure their family is financially secure or those who, confronting severe power imbalances in the workplace, fear that turning down hours as and when offered will result in future work being withdrawn, life on a zero-hours contract is one of almost permanent uncertainty. For those who have had their hours zeroed down on the basis of a perceived unwillingness to work the hours their employer requires or following the lodging of a workplace complaint, this uncertainty can be coupled with the anxiety that comes from exploitation.

What Further Research Do We Need?

The key factor is whether people choose zero-hours contracts or have these contracts forced upon them. When chosen it is most likely that the flexibility the contracts supports a chosen life style. This is in stark contrast to people who have no choice to accept the contracts in order to survive. Clearly the impacts n mental health are going to be different for each of these cohorts. This is what we should be comparing in research. It’s spurious if not down right dishonest to compare ALL people on zero-hours contracts with ALL people in secure employment.

Of course, not everyone in secure employment is happy with their job. Some people might like to be in a better job. Others might be unhappy because their job does offer the flexibility to support their lifestyle. Also, it wouldn’t be surprising to find people who’d prefer not to work.

So ideally, we’d to consider four groups on a range of mental-health measures:

(i) Zero-hours contacts – satisfied with terms and conditions (by choice);  (ii) zero-hours contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions (or not by choice) ; (iii) Secure contracts – satisfied with terms and conditions, and (iv) Secure contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions.

This would be the simplest model and would not just rely on comparing descriptive statistics, such as percentages. Part of my job involves research design and analysis. Often many people’s idea of research is just comparing percentages. Sadly, it’s what I’m most often asked to do. However this should be only the first phase. The stage that gives us answers is the inferential phase. This is where we can meaningfully talk about statistical significances between the different groups. The very basic research design above should be the absolute minimum. Merely comparing percentages barely qualifies as statistical foreplay.

Conclusion: Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?

We don’t currently have the research data to answer this question. We can only infer from anecdotal evidence and from what we already know about human psychology. Although we shouldn’t equate common sense with a scientific approach, what seems most likely is that conditions that restrict an individual’s ability to take control over basic survival and security needs is likely to have a detrimental psychological impact.

Considering the political impact, some have argued that zero-hours contracts take us backwards to the working practices in a bygone age. Here’s a summary by Professor Roger Seifert – University of Wolverhampton Business School (for full article see link below):

In the Victorian era there were sweatshops, child labour, few worker rights, and casual employment with no guaranteed income. We view this with horror as a sign of gross inequality, ruthless exploitation, and as bad times in which the rich and powerful were able to maintain their idle privilege through laws, customs, and a deeply religious conservatism where everyone was born into and knew their place.

Scratch the surface of our modern world and we can find signs that progress has not been as spectacular as we like to believe.

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If you enjoyed this post and/or found it useful then please use the ‘like’ and share ‘buttons’. Your comments are also welcome.  

If you are concerned  about or affected by the impact of zero-hours contracts, here are some useful links:

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About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

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Survive New Year’s Resolutions and Thrive with Goals – A Survival Kit.

The start of a new year is brimming with significance inspiring us to commit to life changes (new you) but often fizzles out after a few weeks, sometimes days. All too often the enthusiasm is short-lived. Life changing goals shouldn’t be a once a year thing, they should be something to which we are committed and work at all year round. If you really want to see an end result, a future desired outcome, then you are going to need more than good intention. Life doesn’t just happen once a year, so why should goals? As a personal development coach (life coach) I draw on my research in social psychology. A large part of coaching is about attitude change. So, here are some of my blog posts to help change your attitude to new year’s resolutions and put your focus on personal development goals, with well formed action plans:

  1. Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions & ‘Yes’ to Positive Lasting Change
  2. Is New Year’s Day the Best Time to Make Life Changing Resolutions?
  3. Ten Good Reasons to Make a Life Change. . . Apart From “It’s the 1st of January” 
  4. Look Before You Leap – They That Hesitate Are Lost! Be Bold but be Scientific
  5. Life, Fun, Gratitude and Regret… a call to action
  6. One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp

  7. End of the World or Second Chance?
  8. Kung Hei Fat Choi – Reviewing, Refining & Renewing Your New Year’s Resolutions

  9. Psychological Hardiness, the Confidence to Embrace Change and Coaching

  10. What Does “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it.” Mean?

Links

Coaching with Gary Wood

Life Coaching Directory: Dr Gary Wood

Avoiding Negative People or Changing Your Attitude?

I saw a postcard circulating on the internet that read:

‘Avoid negative people for they are the great destroyers of self-confidence and self esteem. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you’.

I have no issue with the second statement but do take exception to the first.

Firstly, what exactly are negative people? Is this negativity a fixed state? If so, what a depressing view of humanity. It’s more accurate to refer to use the phrase ‘people holding negative attitudes’. It also offers the possibility that attitudes may change. However we can take this further. Using this absolutist mindset is not psychologically healthy in which we posit black and white categories of ‘positive people’ and ‘negative people’. In fact, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT),  the ‘black and white mindset’ is seen as something the needs to change. Many of the CBT techniques are aimed at ‘logically disputing’ the results of black and white thinking.

As a coach, many of my clients hold negative attitudes which are usually directed towards themselves. So, as a coach, should I avoid such people? Instead should I surround myself with ‘positive people’? Working with people with negative attitudes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a coach and as a teacher. Such clients bring out the best in me and I can clearly see that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

Going back to the idea of all-pervading negativity, are there really people who are absolutely negative about absolutely everything, all of the time? Of course not. Admittedly, people can get into a negative cycle but I have yet to encounter people for whom this is all encompassing. My coaching practice is heavily influenced by solution-focused therapy skills. As with CBT, I work with clients to explore the exceptions. I will ‘look for what sparkles’ in someone’s life rather than consign them to the scrap heap. Admittedly this is not the easiest route but it is infinitely more rewarding. My coaching practice is also significantly informed by my psychological training. My PhD was in attitudes and ‘black and white thinking’. I very much view coaching as process to facilitate attitude change.

The assumption in the self-help quote above is that ‘negative people’ destroy self confidence and self esteem.  However, there is another saying offering a different perspective: ‘Difficult people are our teachers’. Many people tell stories of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles. Sometimes ‘difficult people’ test us. It’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them. Obstacles can strengthen our resolve. There is also the question of perception. Sometimes ‘negative people’ and ‘difficult people’ are those who don’t agree with us. Of course, it’s different when faced with bullies and those who seek to put us down. However is total avoidance necessarily the right strategy? Will avoidance preserve confidence and esteem? Surely habitually using avoidance over assertiveness could actually lead to lower confidence and esteem. Is it really a strategy to run off to people who always tell you what you want to hear? I can think of countless times in my life when ‘difficult people’ brought out the best in me. I’m not alone in that. There isn’t a success story ever written that does not contain an element of triumphing over adversity. Yours will be no different.

The problem with much that is written in self-help circles is that it is simply not thought-through. It bears little relationship to real life or evidence based psychology or models teaching and learning. Much of it is written in an over-generalized style (says he over-generalizing). Often self-help stuff reads like newspaper horoscopes. it’s easy to pick and choose and distort the message to get out of it what you want. Explanations of psychological types can often be used to prevent people from moving on, such as the myth of the addictive personality, the myth of significant gender differences or in this case the myth of toxic people. Surrounding ourselves by supportive people is one thing but what happens when one of those people starts telling you what you want to hear? Do they get labelled ‘toxic’ and are then avoided?

Often it’s not what happens in our lives that counts but how we perceive it and deal with it. The same applies to difficult people. These people may offer you an opportunity to let your positive attitudes shine. The call to avoid people with negative attitudes taps into an emotional-focused coping strategy in life. It’s easier to deal with the emotions than it is to get to the heart of the issues. To avoid ‘negative attitudes’ is a short-term fix. Managing our attitudes towards people with negative attitudes is a longer term solution. Otherwise, you may as well go and live on a desert island.

Often people displaying negative attitudes just want to be seen and heard. It’s better to be a people manager than operate a people-waste disposal system. Managing your perceptions, actions and reactions will help to build your own self-esteem. Avoiding opportunities never will. There are always going to be people that push us to the limit and we feel that if we don’t get away that they will drag us down. I admit that I have met a few people like that in my life. On the odd occasion I did opt for self-preservation but that process took years not at the first hint of ‘trouble’. Giving up on people should be the last resort not our default ‘speed-dial’. Inevitably you will give up on people but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try first. So before you reach for the ‘self-help short cut’, ask yourself if there is not a better lesson in there somewhere than that offered by the ‘inspirational’ self-help postcard approach.

Links:

Psychological Hardiness, the Confidence to Embrace Change, and Coaching

When faced with change, how we cope depends on our psychological hardiness (similar to resilience). Rather than a personality characteristic it’s more of a personality style or way of viewing the world. Whereas personality characteristics appear fixed, views can be changed. A core part of the life coaching process (and a key theme in my book Unlock Your Confidence) is to consider alternative viewpoints and change attitudes.

Poster: Building psychological resilence

Building confidence and building psychological hardiness go ‘hand-in-hand’

The concept psychological hardiness was proposed by psychologists Suzanne Kobasa and Salvatore Maddi. It comprises three attitudes – the three Cs: commitment, control, and challenge. Individuals ‘high in hardiness’ are more likely to put stressful life events into perspective and tend to perceive them less of a threat and more of a challenge and as opportunities for personal development. As a consequence stressful events are less likely to impact negatively on a person’s health. The buffering effect of psychological hardiness on health and well-being has been well researched and has been demonstrated for a variety of occupational groups, from business executives to students including people working in highly stressful conditions such as fire-fighters and people in the military. Let’s consider the three Cs in turn:

  • Commitment is the attitude of taking a genuine interest in other people and having curiosity about the world and getting involved with people and activities. The opposite of commitment is alienation, which involves cutting yourself off and distancing yourself from other people.
  • Control is the tendency to hold the attitude that control is something that comes from the inside and act as if you can influence the events taking place around you by your own efforts. It is The opposite of control is powerlessness which includes the perception that your life is controlled by external forces (fate, government) and that you do not have the means or capabilities to achieve your goals. Our sense of control is often based on perception rather than objective facts.
  • Challenge is the attitude that change is the norm, as opposed to stability and that change offers opportunities for personal development rather than threats. The opposite of challenge is security, and the need for everything to stay the familiar and predictable, allowing you to remain in your comfort zone

Taken together the three components of psychological hardiness provide the motivation and confidence to look to the future to find meaning in life rather repeating the past. Often in coaching we find that small changes can have a big impact. This is one of the basic tenets of the type of solution-focused coaching that I practise.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodBuilding psychological hardiness need not be a mammoth task. It may involve simple ways in which we can reconnect with people or what some people call ‘getting yourself out of the house’. A few minutes engaged in a chat at the bus stop is a lot better than hours at home spent going over our problems. A small change can cause a dramatic shift in perspective.  Just by focusing on the small areas that we have control and exercising that control may lead to fresh insights. Just choosing to break a routine and do something slightly different or in another order can cause a shift. We can build on the smallest of shifts in coaching. The same applies to challenge. We all crave predictability in live but at the same time we appreciate the difference a bit of novelty brings. Again, a small ‘shake-up’ may be all that it takes to open up a new perspective.

Ask about coaching with Dr Gary WoodAdopting the three attitudes of hardiness (commitment, control, challenge) has been shown in research to enhance performance and health even in the face of stressful life changes. To choose the unfamiliar future over the familiar past also requires courage. Coaching provides the necessary support and strategy to help you to do just that.

What will you do today that demonstrates the attitudes of commitment, control and challenge?

Links:

Kung Hei Fat Choi – Reviewing, Refining & Renewing Your New Year’s Resolutions

Has your resolve has already weakened and have resolutions already been abandoned, or  are about to be? Well, take the opportunity of the new lunar year (Chinese New Year) to renew your vows.

The first day of January is always brimming with significance but the euphoria soon evaporates when the reality of a poorly thought-out goal strikes. What is it a realistic and achievable goal or do you need to review, refine and re-target?

Try this:

(i) Apply the SMARTER formula to be sure that the goal is well formulated (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound, Enthusiastically Worded, Reviewed)

(ii) Was the goal realistic and achievable or just too ambitious. Do you need to revise your expectations? This isn’t admitting failure, it’s all about responding to the feedback.

(iii) Review your motivations. Write down ten good reasons for achieving this goal. Think of internal rewards that tap into values rather than external rewards such as money or possessions.

(iv) Take action and start again. You may have to review and renew your goals again. It’s all part of the goal setting process.

Wishing you every success with your goals for the coming year, and following  are some previous posts to review, refine and renew your goals.

Kung Hei Fat Choi

Links:

A Letter to New Students – How to Study (for Success)

Dear New Student,

You are about to embark on an exciting journey so I thought I’d offer a few pointers that have served me very well in my learning journey so far. Returning to education as a mature student, I took an evening class in psychology. I quickly realised that psychology had to have insights about the most effective ways that humans learned. So the first thing I did was to scour the psychology books. I figured I would get psychology working for me right from the start. Working with our human abilities and capacities is a way of working smarter but not necessarily harder. Recently, I overheard two new students discussing future plans on the bus recently including how they intended to approach studying, particularly lectures. Both were very keen on getting digital recorders with voice recognition software. Both confessed to be “not very good at taking notes”. So, that is their first mistake.

How to Approach Lectures
It’s a common misconception that the purpose of lectures is to communicate lots of information that you “capture” in someway and regurgitate in essays and exams. Not so. The lecture is not supposed to replace your independent study, it is supposed to set the scene for it. Lectures are merely springboards to learning not an end in themselves. Until our heads have USB sockets, somethings are best done the old-fashioned, but psychologically informed way.

Learning is not just about recognition and recall, it is about understanding and application. Once you understand something and can apply it you won’t struggle to remember it. We process information at different levels. Some information stays at the surface and is quickly forgotten. The stuff that we encode and process at a deeper level is more permanent. So if you make an effort to learn how to make notes more effectively in lectures, you become more actively engaged in the lecture. If you switch on your digital recorder, then you can sit back and daydream and let the machine do the work. The problem is that when you come to listen back to it, most of the visual cues are gone. There’s also a tendency not to bother to transcribe the recording because you “can do that at anytime”. There’s also an ethical point. You do not have the right to record other people without their express permission. So what is the most effective way to get the information into your head?

Make notes in lectures. Don’t aim to take down every word. The aim of the lecture is just to get a feel for the topic and to become familiar with concepts and terminology. The purpose of the lecture is to set the scene for your own reading. Once you realise this, the pressure is off to capture every word. If the lecture raises a question in your mind, jot the question down too. If you get chance, ask the lecturer the question at the end of the class. Get used to asking lectures in front of the whole class. Someone else probably wants to ask the same question too. People may even approach you afterwards and you may start your own study groups. Never underestimate the importance of explaining stuff to other people. It’s not giving your knowledge away. As you find different ways to explain things, it deepens and implants the knowledge even more deeply for you. I used this approach at University and did much better than people who tried to keep all their knowledge to themselves. So be a sociable learner.

Aim to review your lecture notes as soon after the class as possible, and always within 48 hours. Add everything else you can remember and any thoughts or questions that occur to you. Underline things you don’t fully understand. Then go to the library and find the relevant books, find a space to sit down and add to your basic notes. Clarify things you don’t understand and answer any questions you have written. Rushing to be the first to get the books and having them gather dust for weeks is not learning! 

Now this sounds like a lot of work. And, yes it probably is more work that switching on a digital recorder. However, which method will give you the best foundation. The active approach I have outlined is like learning how to swim. The passive, lazy-ass, technological approach may only just prevent you from drowning. Don’t rely on the life-jacket when you can learn how to swim. Yes the active approach to learning is more time consuming, but as you begin making more connections in the information, you develop more memory hooks to hang new material on. Once you’ve learned one stroke in swimming, different strokes don’t require the same degree of effort. Sometimes it seems as if facts, figures and dates seem to remember themselves because you have provided a foundation.

Your Own Imaginary Lectures
So what to do with your expensive digital recorder? Well, use that in your own private study time to record your own voice. Now this seems crazy, but practice giving imaginary lectures on key topics. Imagine you have an audience and talk to them on your chosen topic for 20 minutes. Try to do this without notes or just glance at your notes but do not read from them. The aim is to keep going for 20 minutes. If you can’t do it, then take this as a sign that you need to add to your notes and read around the subject a little more. Repeat this process until you can deliver the 20 minute lecture. You could then try it out in your study groups. What this technique does is create a little stress. This increased arousal helps improve performance. It also forces to use your own words and make connections. After you’ve recorded the lecture, play it back and make notes of the new thoughts, insights and words you used. 

Finally, a note on notes. When you revise for your exams, do not just read from your notes over and over gain. This just aids recognition not recall. Yes, you could probably recognise your notes if some on read them out to you, but you would be able to spontaneously tell anyone their contents. Always take an active approach to learning, such as drawing diagrams and mind maps, coming up with memory hooks, progressively condensing notes and saying them out loud at the same time, as well as giving the imaginary lectures. All of these require more than one cognitive process an so the information is encoded more deeply. Besides that, just reading through your notes, passively, is very, very boring. If you find studying a bore then it’s up to you to get creative and make it interesting.

I hope this advice helps you as much as it helped me. I’ve included a few links below with more study skills tips that I use with students in academic coaching. I’ve also included a link to my book which contains lots of techniques for elite performance, including a section on learning styles. 

I wish you well in your academic career. 

Yours lifelong learnedly,

Gary Wood

PS. More links for study skills below, and if none of these answer your question, please submit suggestions for future study skills posts in the comments box.

Links:

What Does “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it.” Mean?

“What does “don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it” mean?” has been appearing in the list of searched terms on my blog quite a lot, recently. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain it more fully, without you having to buy the book to find out. You may have uttered the phrases ‘someday my numbers will come up’ or “some day my ship will come in’. These words are based on the idea that a stroke of luck with change our fortunes. Now wishful thinking is fine but it should be just the start. What often eludes us is knowing exactly where to start to turn things around in our lives. We need a plan and we need to take action and that’s where the ‘swimming out to meet your ship’ comes in. You can trust your life to the fickle hand of fate or rise to the challenge of taking matters into your own hands. So the phrase ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In” means “Don’t wait around for fate or luck” and “Swim Out to Meet It” means “Decide what you want and set about taking steps to achieve it”. After wishful thinking there needs to be purposeful, decisive action.

Book: Don't Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!

In the book (with this title), I break the phrase down into three stages of goal-achievement:

  1. Don’t Wait. . . represents INSIGHT. . . and the recognition that something needs to change.
  2. Your Ship. . . which acknowledges OWNER-SHIP. . . It’s your ship, your dream, so it’s up to you to do something about it.
  3. Swim Out To Meet It. . . represents ACTION.
The book recognizes that it’s not easy and offers a series of tools and techniques for positive lasting change, based on the underlying principle “It’s your life so take it personally”. So the formula for change is:
Positive Lasting Change = Insight + Ownership + Action

I use this basic principle in my coaching practice where I work with clients through this process, using a strengths-based, solution-focused approach.Recognizing that action takes courage, I’ll begin with the green shoots and nurture them in line with your goals. That’s how we build motivation and confidence.

Ask about life coaching with Dr Gary WoodSo that’s it. ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It‘ is basically a challenge, a call to action. You can still believe in destiny, fate or the cosmic order, but there’s nothing to say that you can’t give fate a helping hand. In fact, it’s a must.

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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Five: Managing Time & the Spice in Your Life

This is the fifth of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World.

Café World (CW) is a café-themed, goals-based computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. As discussed in Part Four (Self-Service Motivation & Strategy), playing any game requires a strategy and that includes how to make the best use of time.
My strategy was to make the best use of my time. I allocated one hour per day. This was half hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. I admit that I was not always disciplined in sticking to this. Goals In CW overlap like soap-opera story lines stringing the player along to the next goal and the next and the next. It’s easy to lose track of time and spend more than one intends to. Now, after a month or so, I had honed my strategy to cook dishes with the highest points on the maximum number of stoves. So, in the final weeks, I was advancing one level per day on one hour’s playing time per day, aside from occasional lapses in discipline. I found myself advancing rapidly through the levels. However, I noticed that some players were able to advance two or three levels per day. To achieve this, one must treat CW like a job and play several hours per day, seven days per week. Now this is a double edged sword, for I can see how playing CW can be considered an achievement. It does require strategy, cooperation and a time investment. However, the amount of time it requires to become a star player means there is no time left to pursue real world goals.

Intrigued, I looked at the Facebook pages for the people in my neighbourhood. Players making modest to high advancement in CW had a mixture of posts for other applications, groups and friends. For those making very rapid progress, their Facebook profiles were virtually filled with CW posts, throughout the day. Now, the concept of Work-Life balance has become a popular concept in personal and professional development. The concept of Café World-Life balance is lesser known. As the old saying goes ‘Variety is the spice of life’. This means that we have to spice our lives with more than the virtual reality of Café World.

We all want to be good at something, make a contribution and enjoy recognition for our achievements. Being great at playing CW is indeed an achievement but it should not be an end in itself. Part of the reason for writing this post is to make point that a sense of fulfilment in life can be attained by making the most of our transferable skills. Playing CW requires focus, motivation and determination and action. It also presents us with a moment for reflection.As I have revealed in this series of posts, I certainly learned something about myself and playing CW served to remind me of my life skills, at the time I was facing unfamiliar tasks in the real world. It certainly helped me reconnect with my playfulness, something as adults we often forget.

Spending hours playing CW is not necessarily a bad thing, but if it becomes the focus of our day, it robs us of the opportunity to apply these skills to real world goals. If ‘significance’ is an important value in your life, then consider what other ways this value may be supported. If you are aiming to reduce boredom, then consider other ways to make life more interesting, particularly those which support your goals. Bordeom relief is a form of emotion-focused coping. Playing CW can help to block out negative emotions, temporarily. However, emotion-focused coping should only really be a short-term solution. It’s a quick fix but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, that is, boredom. Instead, it just deals with the symptoms. Negative emotions can effectively put us on a sort of remote control. We are controlled by the negative emotions and act in habitual, quick-fix ways to relieve the symptoms. (See my post Dicing with Boredom. . . and Coping Styles). So is playing CW, for hours each day, a way of coping for you?

Control-focused coping is about addressing the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms. Café World, hopefully, will have help remind you of your transferable skills. In this series of posts we have considered values (Just Being Sociable), goal-setting (Goal-Setting On the Table), cognitive flexibility (Non-Stick, Non-Stuck, Cognitive Flexibility), motivational strategy (Self-Service Motivation & Strategy) and in this post, the use of time and emotion-focused coping. The question is, how do you apply these insights and your skills to get more of what you want out of the real world?

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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Four: Self-Service Motivation & Strategy

This is the fourth of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World.

Café World (CW) is a café-themed, goals-based computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood.
CW has three points systems running concurrently, each representing a different aspect of the game and influencing strategies for play. There are coins which you earn by selling your food for a profit. There are also points that reflect your experience as a Chef. New levels unlock new recipes. There are also buzz points. These indicate the popularity of your café and how many visitors you are getting. The appearance of you café has only minimum effect on your rating. As long as you have easy access to chairs and food on the tables, then it’s easy to maintain the maximum buzz points.

So, apart from taken a total random approach, basically there are three main strategies in CW. Either you cook dishes for profit (coins) or you cook for reputation (Chef points), you cook based on your tastes in the real world.. All dishes in CW have separate points and profit ratings. Now in the early stages it is a good strategy to focus on money. This allows players to buy more tables and chairs and buy the more expensive dishes that also yield higher profits. In later stages once you have enough money, to ascend the levels it best to select dishes that yield more points, but are not necessarily the best money spinners. With the third strategy, people cook the type of food they like. So people who don’t like cheese won’t cook virtual pizza. This decision robs them of access to the dishes that would help them ascend through the levels in the game. So either, these people have not grasped that different rules apply. After all, they should be cooking for their customers and not for themselves. Maybe they are playing the game in their way and are not bothered about succeeding, just having fun.

Playing a computer game requires a degree of focus, motivation, determination, the ability to manage time and the ability to take action. It also causes us to pause and reflect about our values in life. I don’t see myself as a competitive person, but clearly I am. I did get a certain amount of pleasure from ascending the ranks and passing veteran players whose achievements seemed unattainable when I first started playing. However, playing CW also affirmed my value of cooperation. It also helped to remind my strategic skills at a time when I had unfamiliar real-world tasks to complete. It was also enormous fun, except when there were software conflicts and the program kept crashing. However, as frustrating as this was, it caused me to experiment with different browsers. I learned that the Flash application on which CW is based can conflict with other software, especially if the Flash code is not well-written. Yes, it is only a game but the principle applies to real world obstacles and problem solving. All too often people give up on their goals when life’s obstacles get in the way. Sometimes we need to find a way around the obstacle and sometimes we need to be patient. Either way, giving up is not going to get us closer to the desired result. Being resourceful or even asking for help may indeed get us over hurdles.

Focusing on values is the cornerstone of motivation for achieving goals in the real-world. What is important to you in life? What values do you stand for? Are your goals linked to your values? In the first part of this series of posts in Just Being SociableI considered the importance of co-operation as a source of motivation in my life, and the quality that motivated me to continue playing CW. Other values dear to me include fairness, curiosity and the love of learning. All of these have an impact on my motivation.

Values and motivations are not always as simplistic as in CW. However spending time to work out what is really important will help pull you along when your goals get tough. It can also serve as a challenge. If you know what is really important to you in life, then what actions are you taking that directly support these values? It’s no point valuing ‘adventerousness’ if you never embark on an adventure!

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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part Three: Non-Stick, Non-Stuck, Cognitive Flexibility

This is the third of my posts offering psychological insights into the computer game Cafe World. 

Café World (CW) is a café-themed, goals-based computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. Computer games can sometimes shine a light on the way we view the world, in particular cognitive flexibility – that is, our ability to flexibly in different situations.

Sometimes we can become fixed in our approach to goals as we adopt a one-approach fits all situations. One aspect of playing CW illustrated how personal values can affect game strategy. In CW there is a distinction between cooking dishes and serving dishes. Some tasks require players to serve a dish which means cooking for the prescribed duration and serve it. Other tasks require a player just to cook a dish, where it is enough to just get it on to the stove. It doesn’t have to be completed or served. So, the moment the beginning of the cooking duration is acknowledged, the player can click on the dish and throw it away. This process of cooking and throwing away can be repeated until the task is completed. However, some players refuse to adopt this strategy and insist on cooking all dishes to completion and serving them, because they “don’t like to waste food”. Now this value is one a whole-heartedly uphold in the real world. In fact, I actually refuse to go out for a meal with people again once I know they are ‘push it around the plate’ food wasters. However, in CW, this value and approach just doesn’t apply. I’m happy to “waste” virtual food. The dishes are nothing but pixels on a computer-screen. There is no waste.  No one goes hungry as a consequence of my actions, virtually or otherwise.

Sometimes it is vital in life not to drag values or approaches from one setting to another where they have no validity. Different situations sometimes require different approaches. This applies to goal-setting, problem solving and solution finding in the real world. It is important to take stock of the situation and context to develop an appropriate strategy and response to particular circumstances. As babies we have maximum cognitive flexibility and continue to adapt to new situations. As children we learn as we play. As we age, sometimes we forget the value of play in our lives and also fall back on a limited number of strategies. Anyway, this is my defense of spending time playing on a computer game when I could be doing more grown up stuff (and I’m sticking to it).

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