The term “flexibility” keeps cropping up in conversations about a diverse collection of topics, for example, what have star athletes, high performance in the workplace, coronary artery disease (CAD) and the construction industry in common?
Flexibility – an elusive term
Flexibility is a term with multiple applications. The most obvious is it’s associated with physical fitness and being flexible enough not to strain muscles. There are, however, quite a few other instances where this term crops up. For example, in business studies and psychology there are multiple references to emotional flexibility and resilience, and in medical circles the terms vitality, emotional and coping flexibility often crop up. Even the construction industry bandies the term about!
So what is it all about?
Flexibility in the workplace
Business experts report that high performance in the workplace is influenced by the psychological capacity of a worker to:
- Focus on the task at hand and not be easily distracted
- Clearly understand the goal that has to be achieved
- Be motivated because he/she understands why a specific goal has to be achieved
- Be emotionally flexible and able to recognise when to adapt their behaviour to attain success.
Psychological flexibility assists workers in achieving the above.
Emotional flexibility – which is the ability to respond in a flexible way to changing circumstances – is an important part of psychological flexibility and a characteristic of resilient people. Resilience makes it possible for people to adapt successfully to changing circumstances.
Flexibility and health
Medical research conducted to find out if positive, psychological factors might help protect against coronary artery disease (CAD), yielded some interesting findings.
Three factors were identified that contributed positively to health and wellbeing, namely:
- Vitality: an emotional state characterised by enthusiasm, energy, vigour and a zest for life
- Emotional flexibility: the ability to flexibly control both negative and positive emotions and impulses
- Coping flexibility: the ability to cope with stressful situations and be able to determine those situations that can be controlled and those that are uncontrollable.
The above-mentioned were shown to help lessen the negative effects of chronic hyper arousal and stress as well as fear and anxiety – factors that have long been identified as culprits in many illnesses and conditions both physical and psychological. The researchers concluded that recent evidence obtained showed that depression and chronic stress seemed to hasten and promote the development of adverse cardiac events, while vitality, emotional and coping flexibility seemed to work as resilient buffers against these negative elements.
Flexibility and the construction industry
During September 2009 a new method of construction that would help buildings survive powerful earthquakes, was successfully tested. The headlines said it all: “New flexible building survives powerful earthquake”.
Being able to bend, but not break, is an important characteristic of an entity – whether a human being, system or a construction. In designing for resilience and the ability to withstand unanticipated shocks or changes, these entities need to be flexible enough to adapt and recover without breaking.
The way in which these entities respond when things are not running smoothly will show how flexible and resilient they really are and not vice versa. Fortunately, we know enough about resilience and flexibility today to be able to actively pursue these goals and prepare, to a certain extent, for the shocks and changes of an inherently uncertain and unpredictable future – personally, locally and globally.
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Rozanski, A & Kubzansky, LD. Psychologic functioning and physical health: a paradigm of flexibility. Psychosomatic Medicine 1, 2005 vol.67 no. Supplement 1 547-553.
The role of psychological flexibility. Retrieved from: http://workingwithact.com/psychological-flexibility-at-work/the-role-of-psychological-flexibility-in building-performance- and-wellbeing.
Wang CE, Thompson RJ, Gotlib IH. Flexible emotional responsiveness in trait resilience. Emotion, 2011 Oct; 11(5): 1059-67.doi: 10.1037/a0021786.