In honor of World Mental Health Day’s theme for this year, the workplace, here is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen that talks about how to deal with anxiety in the workplace.
One of the most powerful theories on how to motivate people on the work-floor is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which stems from research into job satisfaction and is therefore all about motivation. The term Observational Listening was coined to propose a way of listening that focuses on emotions people are currently experiencing. The common factor between these two is emotion, how these affect the communication process and by extension how emotions are key when wanting to motivate others. In this post I will briefly touch on these ideas and then focus on a specific emotion: Anxiety.
Self-Determination Theory and the basic psychological need for safety
Self-Determination Theory states that the fulfilment of three psychological needs influences job satisfaction: Mastery, connection and autonomy. The need for mastery is in a nutshell the feeling that you are good at what you do. The need for connection means you don’t only go to work to earn a living, but also because of the good feelings you get from positive interactions with your colleagues. And the need for autonomy is the respect you receive for yourself as person: You are allowed to be who you are and also may choose how and when you do the things you do at work. So the good feelings you get when these three needs are adequately fulfilled in your job makes you feel good about yourself and therefore happy about your job.
If we extend these needs into the social arena, the need for autonomy and connection seem to be essential for wellbeing and need no further explanation. Social mastery needs some elaboration: It has to do with competency in terms of being able to anticipate others’ behavior, reacting appropriately to this behavior and the ability to influence others. In short, it has to do with a feeling of being in control, or the basic psychological need for safety.
It isn’t difficult to see how these basic psychological needs tie in with someone’s current emotional experience. When people feel safe, connected and autonomous they generally experience a sense of wellbeing. Bear in mind, though, that everyone differs in their needs and to what degree they require these to be fulfilled. Also note these are psychological needs, not material needs. Many people who find themselves in objectively dangerous conditions still feel safe as they feel they (to some extent) are able to react appropriately or even exert influence on their situation.
Anxiety is a very basic emotion and has a positive intention: It prevents you from doing silly things, things which could endanger your existence. The survival instinct is so strong, that almost all sensory perception is first filtered by an organ in the midbrain: The amygdala. This organ is responsible for our so-called negativity bias: We first need to scan the environment for potentially dangerous situations, as these have priority. So anxiety really is an adaptive emotion, it ensures we survive. It only becomes a problem when its intensity isn’t appropriate for the actual situation at hand.
On a very basic level, human beings are social because we need each other. Exclusion from the group that surrounds us is a potentially dangerous situation, something borne out by research: When a person ventilates a view which is different from the majority of the group, their amygdala react. They react irrespective whether the person actually experiences fear when standing up for their view. Also when they feel excluded for what or whom they are, this will lead to anxiety.
Anxiety and communication
In the same way anxiety has its role to play in communication. In first instance it prevents us from saying silly things, things which will obviously lead to our exclusion from that group we would like to belong to. On the other hand it may also inhibit us, prevent us from saying the things that should be said (when others cross our boundaries, for example), prevent us from making contact with others (think of shyness, for example) or simply cause us to provide politically correct responses so as not to stand out too much from the group.
So what can you do when dealing with an anxious other? Firstly you will need to be able to recognize an anxious response: eyes wide (or wider than normal: both eyebrows lift), the tightening of the lip, the rapid breaking of eye-contact and moving uncomfortably are tell-tales. As people seldom feel competent in an atmosphere which doesn’t feel safe, your task is to ensure you provide a space in which you and those around you may speak freely. Giving well-meant compliments from time to time may also be beneficial, although those with (extremely) low self-esteem won’t really believe the compliment anyway and see your compliment as manipulation.
A safe space
So what can you do precisely to create that safe space where even anxious people are stimulated to speak more freely? Practicing Observational Listening is a good start: By concentrating on what the other understood by your message (rather than what you meant), you see their current emotions more clearly and can respond to their emotions more sensitively. Also by being a role model, showing for all to see that you are an empathic person of integrity who acts accordingly. And by displaying some of your own vulnerability in the appropriate use of self-disclosure. Thereby you are the safe space where even anxious people feel safe enough to speak about what’s on their mind.
Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.
About Markus van Alphen
Already after completing his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Cape Town, Markus realized the impact individual characteristics and interpersonal interactions have on people’s work and lives. This led him to complete a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
As Thought Leader he proposes how the art of Observational Listening can lead to improved communication and interaction between people in a variety of contexts, whether professionally or personally.
He currently works as a worldwide therapist for individuals, couples and families using webcam technology. He is a trainer, lecturer and curriculum developer in undergraduate and postgraduate psychology, counselling students at various colleges and universities across the Netherlands. He writes books in the field of psychology and is also a contributing author for various professional literature. As a restorative practitioner he works hands-on, being called in to resolve incidents and initiate the process of conflict resolution, as well as train others to implement the restorative approach.
In August 2017, the Western Peninsula of Freetown, Sierra Leone experienced torrential rain, a series of flooding events and a large landslide. Over 500 people passed away, over 800 people have been reported missing and many more families were rendered homeless. Entire houses were swept away by the flood waters.
Many individuals and organization sprang into action, helping to provide emergency food and water. As one of the organizations active in Sierra Leone, Develop Africa is helping to provide psychosocial counseling, emergency supplies and activities for the kids. This is helping to meet the immediate needs of the victims.
Changing Future Outcomes
Beyond the initial response, in Freetown and globally, there is active discussion on how we can possibly prevent a reoccurrence or at the minimum reduce the impact of future disasters. The same is being done with regard to hurricane Harvey and its impact on Houston, Texas. Changing outcomes demands understanding, strategic analysis, and action.
Worldwide, cities, including Freetown, are under the threat of urbanization. 54 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This proportion is expected to increase to 66 % by 2050 (UN, 2014). In the developing world, rapid and unplanned urbanization has resulted in dire and fatal consequences.
Due to inadequate city planning and housing, youths and migrants from the provinces are squatting in shanty towns in Freetown. They have built fragile shacks on the hillsides and in undesirable locations – often directly in river beds. Sadly, many locations have poor sanitation, no running water, limited or no hospital facilities, schooling etc. With thousands of people living in close proximity and squalor, diseases such as typhoid, Ebola, and cholera spread rapidly. These low-lying areas were the hardest hit by August flooding.
In Sierra Leone, deforestation has compounded the urbanization crisis. In the hills surrounding Freetown, trees and the vegetation have been indiscriminately cut down for firewood and unplanned housing. Deforestation is not only threatening biodiversity and ecosystem balance in the country but is also contributing to global climate change. In Freetown, the run-off water from the surrounding hills accentuates flooding and results in loss of property each year.
Fortunately, these challenges are not insurmountable. Here are a few thoughts on what we can do as global citizens that are committed to and looking for ways to make the world a better place.
1. Social Media For Good
Social media is a powerful and growing force that can help us tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. The Arab Spring is an excellent example of how social media can help change the world.
“Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all. It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community,” says Shannon Dosemagen.
In late August 2017, social media played an important communication role during Hurricane Harvey in Texas. FaceBook and Twitter posts alerted authorities and volunteers on where help was desperately needed, acting as an alternative to 911 calls.
Rightly applied, social media can be a powerful force in highlighting the problems associated with urbanization. WhatsApp messages, Facebook videos/posts, billboards etc. can help to inform and educate the public on the dangers of dwelling in perilous and risk-prone areas. Online petitions, videos, and environmental studies can help to raise awareness of the perils and apply pressure on the government to take corrective action. An empowered public needs to realize that united, with the right tools, it can compel the government to take the necessary action.
As global citizens, we can promote awareness of the dangers of living in protected and risk-prone areas. We could help create educational content that will be shared on social media. We could also help organize online/offline accountability groups or set up agencies that will apply pressure on governments to provide alternative housing opportunities.
2. Reverse Urbanization:
One of the driving forces behind urbanization is the attraction of opportunities in urban areas. With that in mind, a key response would be the development of opportunities in new and strategic rural areas. Governments, NGO’s and individuals can help redirect migration by creating attractive mini-cities outside of the urban areas. When jobs, housing, hospitals, and schools are available outside the large cities, youths will be attracted to these locations.
As global citizens, we can help for instance by teaming together to launch or support new businesses, offering employment in rural areas. This could be for example helping to support a farm or setting up a processing plant that will preserve perishable harvests. One of the most sustainable methods of aid is investing in microfinance or micro credit opportunities. This cash injection helps small businesses to start or expand. It creates jobs and enables people to become self-sufficient. \
We could also volunteer our time helping to build new houses through organizations offering a Habitat for Humanity type of service. Volunteer service in rural schools, hospitals etc. will help to strengthen rural communities and make them more attractive to youths. In this regard, the Peace Corps should be highly commended for their efforts in supporting rural institutions. Furthermore, we could consider working full-time for a nonprofit organization/charity that addresses the challenges of urbanization.
3. Every One, Plant One Tree a Year
Throughout the planet, there is a growing need for reforestation and more green-friendly neighborhoods. Degradation and deforestation of the world’s tropical forests are cumulatively responsible for about 10% of net global carbon emissions (REDD+). According to the watchdog group Global Forest Watch, Sierra Leone has lost nearly 800,000 hectares of forest cover in the past decade, with loss accelerating in 2015.
Imagine what would happen if we could mobilize everyone over the age of 15 (for example) to plant one tree every year! As a global citizen, we can help to keep forefront in everyone’s minds the need for us all to take better care of the earth. We can promote online and offline the need to plant trees, to recycle and to make decisions that protect the earth.
In Freetown, there is the dire need to restore vegetation by planting trees in the surrounding hills. As a volunteer group, we could raise funds for a trip to plant 200 trees over 2 weeks. Alternatively, we could donate funds to cover the cost of purchasing seedlings and other tree-planting expenses.
In Freetown, by restoring vegetation and the forest, we will be helping to combat global warming. These efforts will help to reduce runoff water from the hills. The trees will help to reduce landslides and rock slides that have resulted in the loss of life. Reforestation is essential for the overall health and quality of life of the community.
In summary, the challenges of urbanization are real. With creative solutions, strategic planning and bold action, we can all do our part to mitigate the consequences of urbanization … and make the world a greener, safer and better place – for us all.
We invite you to join Develop Africa in providing hope to flood-affected victims by making an individual or business donation today.
The What If? Foundation allows your compassion to cross borders, so you can make a direct and immediate impact on the lives of Haitian children and families.
Poverty is nothing short of an epidemic in Haiti – it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest in the world. Two out of three Haitians live on less than US $2 per day. 100,000 children under five years of age suffer from acute malnutrition. And at least 50% of Haitians age 15 and over are illiterate.
The situation is extreme. But it is not hopeless. Together with their Haitian partner, Na Rive, the What If? Foundation strives to assist Haitians with the resources they need to build change for themselves: food, education, and hope.
The What If? Foundation was created in 2000 by an American woman and a celebrated Haitian civil rights activist, Father Gerard Jean-Juste. Father Jeri, as he is known in the community, had a vision for creating a better future for Haiti: “First we feed the children, we keep them alive. Then we educate them.” They have been working with the Ti Plas Kazo community to fulfill Father Jeri’s vision ever since.
Thanks to the generosity of What If donors, Na Rive’s longstanding community food program addresses the persistent issue of food scarcity in Port-au-Prince. Every Monday through Friday, the local cooking team nourishes the community’s minds and bodies, providing as many as 3,000 hot, nutritious meal for children, parents, students, and teachers.
After many years of dreaming, planning, and persisting, construction on the Father Jeri School was completed in 2016. The school is designed to foster the next generation of Haitian leaders: children who are empowered, thoughtful, resilient, resourceful, proud of their heritage, and ready to work together for positive change. Every school day, children aged 3-19, who might otherwise have no path to an education, are engaged in a rigorous academic curriculum with teachings of respect, empathy, and civic duty. The school also houses a popular after-school program and six-week summer camp, providing children with a safe, supportive learning environment all day and all year long.
The programs What If supports have always been Haitian-led and Haitian-run: this is why they are so effective. They have witnessed the incredible resourcefulness and
enduring spirit of the Ti Plas Kazo community as they create their own change, becoming a source of hope and pride for the entire country. They see a future where all Haitians can grow out of the cycle of poverty and hold the tools to create their own path. And they believe people from all backgrounds and places can come together in solidarity with Haiti, to create change one small step at a time.
In Nepal, massive flooding and landslides have devastated the country and displaced thousands of families. The number of deaths and casualties are mounting, as rescue efforts continue. Southwestern Nepal, the hardest hit region, is home to thousands of freed Kamlari women and girls.
These women have had the life-transforming opportunity to build businesses, homes, and freedom with the Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF). NYF was founded by Olga Murray, a lawyer at the California Supreme Court, in 1990 after she visited Nepal and was profoundly affected by the natural beauty and extreme poverty of children.
NYF strives to bring healthcare, education and a safe environment to Nepal’s most impoverished children. The interventions they provide are personalized, work to develop personal and social responsibility and are adherent to Nepalese customs and traditions.
Now, the Kamlari women and children that NYF has worked so hard to help are at risk of losing everything. At least 150 girls have lost their homes and 250 are badly affected. They were running thriving businesses (food carts, cafes, grocery shops, seamstress, goat and pig farming) with training from NYF. With their communities devastated and their businesses wiped out, their futures look bleak without our help.
Despite severe disruptions to the local electricity, transportation, and communication systems, the NYF team in Nepal is assessing the extent of damage and planning their response. Eleven of NYF’s Nutritional Rehabilitation Homes are located in the region and are ready to help the thousands that have gone days without food and fallen sick due to polluted water.