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 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.

Is there a positive takeaway message behind the cynical celebrity endorsement? David Beckham and Lego

In a seemingly quiet day in the news, David Beckham reveals that he likes to unwind and relax with expensive building brick construction kits (Lego). The story has made most of the British tabloids.Some have pointed out that this is rather an expensive ‘addiction’. I suspect it has nothing at all to do with addiction and everything to do with money and column inches in the press. The story screams of free advertising and celebrity endorsement. Imagine how much it would cost in advertising for Lego? Furthermore, if Mr Beckham has ever paid for these £200 (plus) construction kits of famous buildings and landmarks, it is unlikely that he will have to do so in the future!

The therapeutic importance of play

So is there a message for ordinary people? Yes. Despite the cynical nature of the story, it’s actually about the human capacity to play throughout our lives. Play is a significant method in learning about the world from an early. We get to try out scenarios and express ourselves in a low threat way. Why should we be surprised that David Beckham likes to play? After all he has made a career out of playing a game and dressing up. Other famous people like to play. Who can forget ‘Prince of Darkness’ Ozzy Osbourne’s fondness for ‘colouring in’ the reality programme, The Osbournes? We only have to think of grandparents playing with their grandchildren to see how easy it is to forget to act your age. Play is incredibly therapeutic. It is also used in the training setting, where role-play, loved by some and loathed by others, is a mainstay. Play is good for us, whatever our age or income bracket.

The importance of goals and the concept of ‘flow’

As a hobby, construction kits and jigsaw puzzles also offer us ready-made goals. The goal is simple: just make it look like the picture on the front of the box. When we are motivated to do a task that stretches us, it puts us in a state of flow. This is a state where we lose sense of our selves and lose all sense of time as we become totally absorbed by the task. Another phrase for this is ‘being in the zone’. According to positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-Zent-Me-Hi), ‘being in flow’ is a state of happiness. The more time spent in flow, the happier we are.

Takeaway value – play more – create flow

So yes, this celebrity endorsement story does have takeaway value. The answer does not lie in lashing out on expensive toys. You don’t have to ‘break the bank’ to get a similar beneficial effect. Instead, just get a hobby. Find something that absorbs you and uses your skills and helps to develop those skills. If you already have a hobby, spend a bit more time doing it. Spent more time in flow. That’s it.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one)

How to find a life coach? Maybe that should read ‘How to avoid falling over a life coach in the street’. There are numerous training schools, coaches offering services, coaching directories and so-called accrediting bodies. As it is rather a new discipline there is no one ‘governing body’ and no agreed standard for coaching training. In some instances coaching-training providers have set up their own ‘governing bodies’ and approved their own courses! However, I suppose we have to start somewhere and in most cases the real credentials for setting up a coaching training school or organization is that they thought of it first!

This post is not intended as a demolition of the coaching profession. Its aim is to help you make an informed choice and enter into the coaching process with confidence. To this end it includes quite a few questions that you should be asking when looking for a life coach who is experienced, qualified and right for you.

Yes, it’s a long post. There’s a lot to cover and it’s still not exhaustive.

So, before deciding to find a coach the first step is to be clear about the phrase ‘life coach’ means

What is a life coach?

Anyone can call themselves a life coach. It’s a catch-all label not a protected title. Ideally a life coach is a professionally trained practitioner who assists clients to identify and achieve personal (and professional) goals. It is a professional relationship, a partnership where the client brings the agenda and the coach brings the skills and tools to facilitate the process. The aim is for the coach to help you to bring out your strengths, aid insights and help you to meet your goals (in line with your values). It’s often said that if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching.

Coaching should always focus on what it is meaningful to the client.  Ideally, the coach should have a set of skills that bring out the your strengths and insights and help you to find your own solutions. The coach brings the agenda. Any tools and techniques should always be meaningful to the client.

How do you know you need to engage a life coach?

What are the issues that caused you to think about hiring a coach? How do you imagine a coach is going to help? What will you be doing with the help of a life coach that you’re not doing now/on your own?

Decide what you need from a coach. If it’s just someone to talk to then it would be cheaper to go out with friends for a coffee.

Is it coaching or counselling that you need?

If the issues have a strong emotional component and are causing you distress so that you wouldn’t feel you could tackle goals, then some form of counselling might be a better first step. Many of the information here is useful in finding a counsellor too. If you are suffering from severe emotional upset then your GP (local doctor) is often a good place to start.

If you feel stuck, or have a sense that you want more out of life or of you have goals you want to achieve then coaching is probably the way forward. Yes, a by-product is that coaching may have a beneficial effect on emotions and on confidence and esteem. However, that should be as the result of working on your goals.

Why bother hiring a life coach at all? What are the benefits?

The coaching process works on the principle that two heads are better than one, mainly because the two heads have different roles in this professional relationship. You provide the agenda and the coach provides the tools and know-how to manage the process. A good coach should ask the right questions to get the best out of you and enable you to reach insights that it may have taken a lot longer on your own. Part of the role of a coach is to hold a mirror up to you. Sometimes a coach will challenge you (in a supportive way). In my practice I help people find solutions that work for them according to their strengths and values. It can be a very life affirming process. My aim is that when you leave the process, you do so feeling empowered and have alternative way of viewing yourself and the world. Clients are often surprised at just how quickly positive changes take place and I never cease to be inspired at what my clients achieve. That’s why it’s so important to get the right coach-client match, and the main reason for this article.

Questions to ask a before engaging a life coach

  • What coaching qualifications do you have?
  • Where did you study for your coaching qualifications?
  • How long did you study?
  • What other qualifications do you have?
  • What did you do before coaching?
  • What is your coaching philosophy and is it grounded in evidence?
  • What do you do to maintain your own professional development?
  • What is the evidence that this coaching approach works? (ask the coach).
  • What ethical framework do you subscribe to?
  • What professional bodies do you belong to?
  • Can I see myself working with this coach?

Beware of new-age and ‘esoteric knowledge’ re-branded as coaching

Some people calling themselves coaches will work in tarot and crystal readings. They may purport to use esoteric tools and techniques. So let’s begin with the most important thing. If it seems glamorous or mysterious or good old-fashioned ‘gobbledygook’ then it more likely serves the interests of the practitioner than it does the needs of client. This does not mean that they appeal to arcane ‘knowledge’ to which you do not have access. If it sounds like a load of old mumbo-jumbo, it’s not coaching. It’s more likely that someone is ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and use the buzzword of coaching to tap into the growth in coaching and to lend their own practice more credibility. Be clear ‘Tarot coaching’ is not coaching. Coaching is about helping the client tap into their own strengths and abilities. There should be no glamour and mystery! When additional paraphernalia is included this introduces a whole new system of thought that may distort or usurp your own agenda. It’s up to you to work out what the ‘real’ issues are, not the turn of a card!

Coaching training and qualifications

Anyone can call themselves a coach. Being schooled in ‘the university of life’ does not qualify someone to be a life coach. So  as well as asking about qualifications, ask where they trained and then investigate.

The standard of tuition and the quality of the content on coaching training courses may vary enormously. Some are based on sound evidence-based principles others follow a more ‘inspirational approach’ sometimes called the ‘make-it-up-as-they-go-along-approach’. So, find out a little about the coaching ‘academies’. Just because they say they are the best and appear in the little shaded area in Google rankings means nothing. You pay to get in that shaded spot.  Check out the coaching academy websites.

‘Proper’ academic educational establishments give you a clue in their web addresses. A web address academic institution is the UK ends in ” .ac.uk “. In the USA, the web addresses end in ” .edu”. If the coaching academy doesn’t have such a web address, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they offer poorer training. See if they are accredited or affiliated to an academic institution. I recommend that you think very carefully before engaging a life coach whose training does not meet these standards. There are many business-oriented training providers without the assurance that the training provided meets an approved standard. If it’s affiliated to an academic institution, it’s more likely that its quality is assured.

And just because a coach has written a book doesn’t override all the above. It’s relatively easy to publish your own e-book these days without the additional input, editorial control, assistance (or hindrance) from anyone else. Of course, the self-published e-book may be an excellent resource, so if you are intrigued check it out first and decide whether there is substance to the approach and whether you think it might work for you.

If the book has published the ‘old-fashioned’ way, there are lots of stages of development with a conventional publisher and a number of editors are involved to produce the finished book. Obviously, a conventional publisher wants to sell books and this affects what they accept. In tough economic times, publishers become a little more conservative in what they commission. It just might be that an author just hit a brick wall and decided to self-publish.

Either way, a book doesn’t override credentials and qualifications.

Different approaches and types of life coaching

There are many different approaches of coaching. I first trained in a cognitive-behavioural approach based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and so has a strong evidence-base to support it. After training in some more ‘inspirational’ based approaches, I studied solution-focused therapy which is easily adapted to the coaching setting and again has a wealth of evidence to support it. Things like NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) based courses have become very popular as the training only takes a few weeks. Although the NLP approach borrows heavily from psychology and psychotherapy there is little evidence to support it as a coaching approach. There is no evidence to support its claims of instant transformations. Yes, things can change very quickly especially with a coach who asks the right questions. However, it should be more about tapping into your strengths, abilities and insights rather than ‘re-programming’ you. People are not robots and shouldn’t be treated as such. The glamour of the ‘instant’ approach often has more to do with the coaches reputation that the client’s aspirations.

Go for a coaching approach with a track-record supported by evidence-based research, not one on the say-so of the practitioner.

Modes of coaching

There are a variety of means to deliver coaching so you need to decide what will best suit you. Coaching can be face-to-face at the coach’s practice or private rooms, it can be at your workplace, it can be over the telephone, via Skype of just by email. Of course, it can be any combination of the above.

Decide what would work best for you. If you want face-to-face coaching then it makes sense to look for a coach in your local area to avoid excessive travelling. If you think you might prefer telephone coaching then you can look further afield. The wonders of technology mean that if you have found a coach who you think is right for you  Skype means that geography isn’t important. In my practice, even the clients who prefer telephone or Skype coaching often have a face-to-face session first.

Costs: How much should you expect to pay for life coaching?

There is no recognised agreed ‘average’ amount. The only observation is that coaching tends to be more expensive than counselling. Partly, this is because coaching is more time-limited. As I practice solution-focused brief coaching, I offer coaching for one to ten sessions, with the average being four to six. If the life coaching is more interested in ‘exploring issues’ than working towards your goals, it’s not coaching. It should be relatively brief, and it shouldn’t take weeks to build up to tackling your goals. If you engage me as a coach, expect me to begin working with your goals from the first session.

The cost of coaching also depends on the experience and qualifications of the coach. So newly qualified, less experienced coaches tend to charge less than the highly qualified, experiences, in demand coaches. However, this is not always the case. Just because someone is charging £200 per hour (or more) doesn’t make them ‘one of the best coaches’. Price does not override qualifications, so always check them out using all the above questions.

The average fee for a 50 to 60 minute coaching session is about £50 to £75 ( $75 to $100). Some coaches offer services for £25-£30, others for £150 or more. It’s an idea to fix a budget and approach coaching as a tailor-made, personal or professional development programme. I wouldn’t advise signing up to indefinite monthly payment plans. We all know what happens with the gym membership. If the coach does offer monthly payments, it should be for a fixed total sum. Then you choose if you want to renew.

Life Coaching: What you’re paying for

When engaging a coach, apart from the cost of their training, it is important to consider what is involved in terms of time-cost for the coach. Coaches prepare before handing by re-acquainting themselves with the clients’ notes. Then there’s the actual session of 50-60 minutes. After that, the coach will write-up the client’s notes which may take as long as the coaching session itself. So for each single session the coach may spend at least two hours. Coaching fees reflect this time-cost.

Warning signs: Avoiding the pitfalls when looking for a life coach

  • If a coach tells you that they don’t subscribe to any ethical framework, they just do what works: walk away!
  • If a coach dismisses evidence-based knowledge as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘stuffy’ or claim that their approach is ‘above scientific understanding’: walk away!
  • If a coach has a variety of coaching plans more confusing that energy company tariffs: walk away!
  • If a coach tries to get you to sign up for an indefinite period on direct debit or standing order: walk away!
  • If the coach seems to be evasive, doesn’t seem to want to answer your questions or tells you that you aren’t asking the right questions: walk away!

Approaching the Life Coaching Directories

Many coaches advertise their services on coaching directories and although a listing on these directories is not necessarily an endorsement of the quality of their work, some directories ( but not all) require proof of qualifications. So still be cautious. Still ask all off of the above questions.

Use the coaching directories to see what’s in your area. Read the coaches’ profiles and decide which ones seem to connect with you. Can you imagine working with them? Then irrespective of what they have written on their profiles, do you homework and ask all the above questions.

Don’t just look at the coaches who appear at the top of the listings. Some of the directories charged extra so coaches appear in prime position! So have a good look through all the listings in your area.

Ask about life coaching with Dr Gary WoodHere are some directories to get you started:

(I have taken the liberty of linking to my profile entries. Just hit ‘home’ on the websites to search for other coaches)

What if you need more information on finding a life coach?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodSo there you have a sound basis on which to engage a life coach, I hope it hasn’t been too bewildering and I hope you are now better informed of some of the pitfalls. If you have any questions:

Check out books by Dr Gary Wood and his recommendations on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Changing ‘Yes but’ to ‘Yes and’ – Lessons in Life and Problem Solving from Improv and Brainstorming

One of the great lessons from theatre improvization (improv or impro) games is the rule of ‘Yes and’. All too often in life we ‘yes but’ everything. This is especially true of people who solicit advice for their problems only to block any suggestion. Sometimes people don’t want solutions, they just want to justify their position of not doing anything about their problems. Be clear,  ‘Yes but’  always means ‘NO’.

In improv, the basic principle is ‘yes and’. That is, we accept what’s being offered and add something to it. Offers can be anything from words, expressions, body language, descriptions and so on. The idea is to endow your fellow players with qualities and for them to do the same in return. It’s a collaborative, cooperative process. Together you spontaneously create a scenarios and characters. The humour arises from the surprises and not contriving clever lines. It’s not about making yourself look good it’s about making other people in the scene look good.

When first creating scenes in improv it’s common for beginners to block offers. So for instance, a fellow player may say ‘Would you like this balloon?’ Following the ‘yes and’ rule, you accept the balloon and expand upon it. So it may lead to a scene at the fair or a birthday party. However, if you say ‘No I hate balloons’, then you have blocked the offer and halted the scene. It may be mild panic and ‘no’ was the first thing that came into your head. It may be that you had your own idea of how things should turn out. Either way, it’s easy to see that if everyone blocked offers then no scenes can ever develop. It’s the same with solutions to problems in everyday life.

There are parallels between this basic improv principle and brainstorming for problem solving. It’s a standard practice that there should be no premature censoring of ideas.The first stage is to collect ideas however preposterous they may seem. The second stage is to sift through them. Sometimes an idea that at first seemed unfeasible, or downright silly, may inspire another idea that may lead to a solution. If we dismiss ideas prematurely we may unwittingly be dismissing solutions that spring from these ideas.

The idea of playing a ‘yes and’ game has great applications in real-life especially in times of ‘stuckness’. The crucial question to ask yourself is whether you are being a ‘yes butter’ or a ‘yes ander’? The ‘yes and’ approach will undoubtedly create options you may not have thought of,  especially in times of stress. When stressed we tend to see things in black and white and our responses become focused on survive rather than thrive. It’s amazing how our perceptions change when we relax. In fact it’s  the optimal state for learning and is why I begin my confidence building workshops with relaxation exercises, a few improv games and occasionally balloons! It gets everyone in a receptive ‘solution-focused’ mindset.

So the upshot is that it’s difficult to find solutions for life’s problems from a position of stress where you vision of the possible paths and outcomes may be limited. Solutions will emerge if you relax, adopt a ‘yes and’ approach and don’t prematurely censor possible solutions.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood

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The Bare Necessities of Life (and Research) – What Can’t You Live Without?

I was asked (by a local radio station) to comment on the media ‘research’ story of the week: What are the things in life we can’t do with out?

(Obviously a slow week in research).

The results were:

Top 20 Bare Necessities of Life

  1. Internet connection
  2. Television
  3. A cuddle
  4. A trustworthy best friend
  5. Daily shower
  6. Central heating
  7. Cup of tea
  8. An “I love you” every now and then
  9. A solid marriage
  10. Car
  11. Spectacles
  12. Coffee
  13. Chocolate
  14. Night in on the sofa
  15. Glass of wine
  16. A good cry every now and then
  17. A full English breakfast
  18. A foreign holiday once a year
  19. iPhone
  20. A pint

Looking down the list I noticed two glaring omissions. I’d put oxygen and water pretty high on my own personal list followed closely by food. So it’s clear that questions were asked in a particular way to elicit more than just the bare necessities of life!

Gender Differences and People Studying People

A lot of press coverage has made a lot of the gender differences in responses rather than gender similarities. It’s clear for items to have appeared in the top places in the list then both men and women need to be in agreement. It’s not possible to determine if there was any interview bias in how questions were asked. Were the prompts or examples the same or was there a subtle nudge in the desired direction. This happens more than we think in any research involving human attitudes. Whole books have been written about the effects of people studying people. Prior expectation on part of the researcher influences results. Notice that ‘a solid marriage’ figures highly in the results despite traditional marriage being on the decline. It suggests that the sample is weighted towards married people or else the marriage equality (gay marriage) debate has influenced the results. Would people really mention central heating if we were having a glorious summer?

So we really need to take this ‘research’ with a pinch of salt. The warning signs should be an over emphasis on gender differences. It’s standard in most universities for undergraduates to factor in a bit of gender mainly because it’s the first thing that springs to mind and it’s easy to collect the data. Careful analysis of most of the gender differences in psychological research reveals that the crossover, that is what we have in common is greater than that on which we differ. It’s clear from the present survey that relationships and human contact figure highly for both men and women. Many items listed are about the simple pleasures in life such as a cup of tea. Yes I know that cynics might argue that people only listed cuddles (at 3) when the internet (1) and the TV (2) broke down!

An Opportunity to Reflect on Your Life and Values

So rather than considering this as ground-breaking research illuminating the modern-day human psyche, just think of it as than just a bit of fun to launch a DVD (which it is). Use it as a moment for reflection.  What is really important to you? Are there some bare necessities in your life that are getting crowded out by other pressures and pleasures. I’m always amazed when holidaying that around 8pm every evening almost everyone stops to view the sunset. It’s something we rarely seem to do when back home. It’s easy to take things for granted in our lives so that we only miss them when they are gone. Back to oxygen and water again!

So grab a nice cup of tea (or a beverage of choice) and make your own list of the top 20 things that you can easily do to improve the quality of your life. What distractions do you need to switch off to enjoy these moments of pleasure?

(In conversation with Trish Adudu, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 15/6/13)

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Καλό μήνα! – Have a Good Month – Review and Renew Your Goals

Kalo Mina – Have a Good Month

Being an ardent Grecophile, I have adopted the Greek traditional wish of Καλό μήνα! (Kalo mina) which means ‘Good Month’. Good months don’t just happen of their own accord. It prompts me to consider what would need to happen over the coming month to rate it as a ‘good month’ and what can I do to plan for it and make it happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be any massively significant event or achievement. Good months are made of more good days than bad days. Good days are made of more daily uplifts than daily hassles. A series of small positive outcomes can make your day.

Goal setting with the PAR approach

The (goal-setting) process for having a good month has three parts: P.A.R. that’s:

  • Plan – create an action plan for your goals for the month ahead.
  • Action – Do something each day to achieve your goals
  • Review – Towards the end of the month, review your action plan and consider what adjustments you need to make the following month a good one.

This approach fits with the coaching principle of ‘feedback not failure‘. The prevalent model of goal-setting – the New Year’s resolution – fails because we adopt an all-or-nothing approach. The first stumble is seen as a failure. It is not! It is feedback that our goals action plan needs an adjustment. The first day of the month offers an opportunity to review and renew your goals. It’s always a work in progress.

So consider what progress you will make towards your goals and how this helps to make up a better month, a good month.

 Καλό μήνα!

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Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

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Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.

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How to Guide Your Decision Making With Your Value System

Faced with innumerable decisions we need a system to filter out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. What’s most important to you and what can you let go? Fortunately, you already have such a system. It’s called your value system. Each of us live by a set of principles shaped by our society and culture but with our own particular spin. Our values help us to focus on the essentials. Life is a bit like a supermarket. There are the budget supermarkets that have just one of everything on the shelves and there are the major supermarkets that have ten of everything on the shelf? Do we really need to choose between ten brands of ketchup when the contents are pretty much the same? The Pareto Principle states that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of the results. If we focus on the core 20% we get more time to relax, provided of course you don’t agonize over the choices for a relaxing activity.

When I work with (life) coaching clients we focus on core values and how goals support these. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows me that curiosity and learning are amongst my top values. Equality and ethics are also important to me. That’s how I got to slim down my list of shopping brands. There are just some that I refuse to buy because of what I consider to be their company’s unethical practices. So take a while to consider what  are your top ten values, the guiding principles in your life. When you have made a list of ten, cross out the bottom five and concentrate on the top five. When faced with decisions and goals, ask yourself: ‘Will doing this support my values?’ Obviously there will be exceptions. Any system needs to be flexible. However it will give you a focus if you stick to these core values 80% of the time.

Another tool I use is the ‘Absolutely Yes or No Rule’. This will help to maintain your focus. If when faced with a choice if the answer is not ‘absolutely yes’ then it is automatically ‘no’. This is particularly useful if you find it hard to say ‘no’ to people. However make sure you don’t say ‘no’ just because you find the task a little daunting. Instead ask: ‘Is this a new experience?’ ‘Will I learn anything new from it?’ Again be flexible and stick to the rule a least 80% of the time.

If you sit quietly for a moment and bring your attention fully back into the room you will begin to notice sights, sounds and sensations that you routinely blank out. This is because we cannot possibly pay attention to every tiny bit of information that comes our way. Therefore our attention is selective. We focus on the important stuff and blank out the noise. Using our value system can help us to do that when faced with too many decisions and a limited amount of time. So what are your values in life and how will you let them lead your decision making?

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 4/1/13)

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Use Your Diary as a Reminder of Strengths and Opportunities Throughout the Year

Although I use my ‘phone and computer diaries for basic reminders, I still use a paper-based desk diary. Maybe it’s because there are more mechanical and cognitive processes involved in writing in a diary that I find it helps to make information more memorable. I still use good old-fashioned handwriting to help me to remember lectures and talks too.

So if you were ‘lucky’ enough to get a paper-based diary as a gift make use of it by making it your strengths and gratitude diary. Whenever you get an opportunity to use your skills and strengths, write it in your diary. When something positive happens, write it in your diary. When you get the chance for a random act of kindness, write it in your diary. Do this throughout the year so that at the end of the year you get to really take stock of the good things in your life.

It’s easy to remember the ‘bad stuff’ and culturally we often say that ‘bad news comes in threes’. This sets up the expectation to look for the negative. There is no standard multi-pack for good news, so using your diary can help to balance the negative filters. This also helps to increase optimism. Also, taking stock of your strengths and skills can help to boost self confidence and esteem. 

Use the diary technique in conjunction with my gratitude and anticipation experiment (with a free PDF). It’s a standard exercise I use in coaching and training to acknowledge the ‘good stuff’ and help retune our filters to positive opportunities.

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