What do financial traders, surgeons, miners, bankers, pit crew, pilots, and air traffic controllers all have in common? Their decisions often have life-impacting implications for themselves and others. Their roles are complex, high-risk, and require rapid decision-making under extreme pressure. To avoid catastrophe, they must manage the unexpected as efficiently, effectively, and safely as possible. But how do they do this when the very nature of the unexpected is to be surprising, abnormal, and unpredictable? Not only that, but high-risk decision makers often have very limited influence over the systems they use to achieve their goals. While many industries avoid risk at all costs by adopting strict rules and procedures for safe practice, this approach is too rigid for dynamic and turbulent environments where risk is inevitable and inescapable. So, after attempting to address organisational and systemic issues affecting performance, what are some of the ways individuals can maintain safety and superior performance in high-risk and high-stakes work?
The practice of “mindfulness” (the non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, sensations, emotions, and external stimuli; Gautam & Mathur, 2018) has become a recent trend after making its way into modern western culture. Albeit, with good reason. Despite its cult-like popularity, its value is also evidence-based but inconsistently and infrequently applied in high-reliability and high-risk industries. There is now a growing body of research to show how mindfulness-based practice can increase well-being and improve performance in various environments.
While the core focus of mindfulness – to increase “psychological flexibility” – is often forgotten about, its value is also seen throughout research and practice. Psychological flexibility is understood as the ability to experience the present moment without judgment or avoidance, and to persist or change actions when it supports chosen goals or values (Hayes et al., 2006). While psychological flexibility may be a valuable skill in many aspects of life, it becomes an essential trait in high-risk and high-reliability work, and indeed, has long been applied by our sport psychology colleagues. Here’s why.
Mindful and psychologically flexible people do not waste limited attentional resources feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. They do not tirelessly try to control, change, or avoid internal thoughts and cues. Instead, they spend their valuable resources remaining focused, watching and noticing unexpected changes in themselves and their environment, which allows more effective, efficient, safe and informed responses under pressure and uncertainty (Bond, Flaxman, & Lloyd, 2016).
Application of high performance training
When it comes to Wall Street, mindfulness-based training is becoming a mainstream training tool. Stock traders who practice mindfulness have been found to display higher trading discipline and trading performance, with reduced frequency of panic selling and overreaction to news (Charoensukmongkol & Aumeboonsuke, 2018).
In military contexts, mindfulness-based training has been linked to improved decision-making, situational awareness, working memory capacity, leadership skills, resilience, emotional regulation, management of traumatic incidents that can reduce the risk of PTSD, and reintegration following return from deployment (Darwin & Melling, 2011; Ihme, 2017; Jha et al., 2010; Liles, 2018; Meyer et al., 2019; Owens et al., 2012). In a combat aviation population, mindfulness training has been reported to improve both attention regulation and arousal regulation after 12- and 24-month follow-ups (Meland et al., 2015).
In a surgical context, mindfulness-based training has been found to reduce stress, improve executive function and enhance laparoscopic skills in surgical trainees at a 12-month follow-up (Lebares et al., 2019). Additionally, mindfulness training has been shown to improve psychological flexibility in aircrews, leading to more strategic decision-making and ‘out of the box” thinking by avoiding information overload (Gautam & Mathur, 2018). Lastly, the value of mindfulness can also be found in sporting contexts. For example, mindfulness training has been linked to improved psychological flexibility in elite ice-hockey players and enhance skill development (Lundgren et al., 2020).
While the applications are endless, it is clear that a flexible mind can improve safe and effective performance in high-reliability industries. Coupled with a human factors approach to developing an organisation’s safety management system, psychological flexibility has been shown to have both bottom line and safety related benefits.
Cortexia have developed a reputation at successfully employing such approaches across industries (including banking, power distribution, defence, mining and aviation) both within Australia and overseas. Check out our performance workshop page here or feel free to contact us.
- Bond, F., Flaxman, P., & Lloyd, J. (2016). Mindfulness and meditation in the workplace: An acceptance and commitment therapy approach: Research and Practice. In The Psychology of Meditation, pp.241-258. Doi: 10.1093/med:psych/9780199688906.003.0011.
- Darwin, J., & Melling, A. (2011). Mindfulness and Situation Awareness. Retrieved from https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a546950.pdf
- Charoensukmongkol, P. & Aumeboonsuke, V. (2018). The Role of Mindfulness Meditation on Stock Trading Performance. Thammasat Review, 21, 111-130. Doi:10.14456/tureview.2018.6.
- Gautam, A., & Mathur, R. (2018). Influence of Mindfulness on Decision Making and Psychological Flexibility among Aircrew. Journal of Psychosocial Research, 13(1), 199-207.
- Goldberg, M. (2015). The Long Marriage of Mindfulness and Money. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-long-marriage-of-mindfulness-and-money
- Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 1-25.
- Ihme, K. R. (2017). The Mindful Shield: The Effects of Mindfulness Training on Resilience and Leadership in Military Leaders. The University of the Rockies.
- Jha, A., Stanley, E., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the Protective Effects of Mindfulness Training on Working Memory Capacity and Affective Experience. Emotion: Washington, D.C. doi. 10. 54-64. 10.1037/a0018438.
- Liles, L. A. (2018). Military Identity, Psychological Flexibility, and Reintegration Experiences of Post 9/11 Service Members and Veterans. UC: Santa Barbara. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/41s821w6
- Lebares, C. C., Guvva, E. V., Olaru, M., Sugrue, L. P., Staffaroni, A. M., Delucchi, K. L., . . . Harris, H. W. (2019). Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Training in Surgery: Additional Analysis of the Mindful Surgeon Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Network Open, 2(5), e194108-e194108. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4108
- Lundgren, T., Reinebo, G., Näslund, M., & Parling, T. (2020). Acceptance and Commitment Training to Promote Psychological Flexibility in Ice Hockey Performance: A Controlled Group Feasibility Study. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 14(2). 1. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2018-0081
- Meland, A., Fonne, V., Wagstaff, A., & Pensgaard, A. M. (2015). Mindfulness-Based Mental Training in a High-Performance Combat Aviation Population: A One-Year Intervention Study and Two-Year Follow-Up. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 25(1), 48-61, DOI: 10.1080/10508414.2015.995572
- Meyer, E., Szabo, Y., Frankfurt, S., Kimbrel, N., DeBeer, B., & Morissette, S. (2019). Predictors of recovery from post-deployment posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in war veterans: The contributions of psychological flexibility, mindfulness, and self-compassion. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 114, 7-14.
- Owens, G., Walter, K., Chard, K., & Davis, P. (2012). Changes in Mindfulness Skills and Treatment Response Among Veterans in Residential PTSD Treatment. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4(2), 221-228.
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