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Dialectical Behavior Therapy Strategies for Mental Health Balance at Work

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and if you’ve been scrolling through your social media feeds, you’ve likely seen the flurry of #mentalhealthawareness posts addressing mental health in the workplace. In light of the public health and social challenges of the past few years, there has been an increased focus and public dialogue in this realm. This comes in response to significant hurdles organizations are faced with directly linked to employee mental health. The Harvard Business Review cites increased attrition rates amongst Millennials and Gen Zers directly attributed to mental health needs, higher prevalence of mental health conditions reported by employees, an uptick in disclosure of mental health conditions in work and social spheres, and the impact of DEI factors in workplace mental health (Greenwood and Anas, 2021).

Increasingly, workers are looking to mental health professionals and thought leaders for guidance on how to gain better work-life balance and to manage stress at work. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, focuses on a solutions-based approach to emotional and behavioral self-management centered around four key areas: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Each area outlines a treasure trove of practical skills which can be practiced and applied under situations of stress.

The good news is that DBT skills are easy to learn, practice, and apply. Here are my five favorite DBT skills with examples of how to apply them in the workplace:

  • Observe, Describe, and Participate: This skill set incorporates Mindfulness practices to shift the mindset from emotional to balanced. This set of skills is particularly useful when you find yourself spinning your wheels on a task and struggling with focus. Take a moment to take a step back and watch what is occurring. Then describe to yourself, in non-judgmental terms, what you have observed (i.e., my phone is ringing, I feel worried about my upcoming deadline, my heart is racing). Finally, commit to fully participating in the activity at hand. Focus on the sensations and the experience. As extraneous thoughts come (and they will), observe them and let them pass and then bring your mind back to task.

  • Radical Acceptance: Sometimes bad things happen and there isn’t much that we can do about it. Radical Acceptance is the skill of embracing an “it is what it is” mindset in the moment. Recently, I found myself in a situation at work where I was powerless to do anything to change something that I was very unhappy about. Rather than focusing on changing the situation, I chose to invoke Radical Acceptance. This allowed me to push through the problem and focus on what needed to be done to get through it, rather than wasting precious time and mental resources trying to fix the unfixable.

  • TIPP: When you find yourself stuck ruminating on negative feelings or a situation that caused you to feel distressed, the TIPP skill can be a practical way to shift your focus. TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, and Paired Muscle Relaxation. You don’t have to do all of these for the skill to be effective- the point is to distract the mind by refocusing on the physical. You can hold an ice cube in your hand, spend 10 minutes going up and down flights of stairs at quick pace, or do a quick meditation through breathing (you can find short, guided meditations right on your phone through a number of popular self-care apps or YouTube).

  • Opposite Action: In the realm of Emotion Regulation, opposite action is a practical way to overcome negative emotions. The core concept of opposite action is to refocus your brain in a positive manner until the negative emotion dissipates. For example, if you are feeling angry at a co-worker, opposite action might look like sitting down and making a gratitude list of all the traits you appreciate about them.

  • GIVE: In the realm of Interpersonal Effectiveness, the GIVE skill supplies a framework for approaching conflict. GIVE is an acronym for Gentle, Interested, Validate, and Easy Manner. When approaching interpersonal conflict in the workplace, the GIVE skill promotes healthy dialogue and a focus on negotiating the substance of a disagreement rather than engaging in attacking or defensive behaviors. When you seek to understand and assume positive intent and communicate those efforts during conflict, it serves to both diffuse the situation and creates an environment of collaboration.

As a leader in your workplace, employing DBT skills has a whole host of benefits, from modeling positive self-management strategies to improving communication amongst individuals and teams. Next time you find yourself struggling at work, try implementing one of these skills to take action towards a positive outcome.


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