Episode 11 – Season 2

Published: November 15, 2021

Gemma Perkins, Personal transformation facilitator | Positive Psychology, what is it and how can it help wellbeing in the workplace?

Gemma Perkins, Personal transformation facilitator | Positive Psychology, what is it and how can it help wellbeing in the workplace?

Ian is joined by Gemma Perkins who qualified as a teacher before starting her own business in 2014 to share her expertise. She is now on a mission to help individuals and teams unlock their potential and live more effective and well-rounded lives.

Gemma works with corporate managers, refugees, student activists and charity teams on developing their self-leadership, teamwork, wellbeing and a whole host of other soft skills that support a balanced and fulfilling life.

Ian and Gemma look at the emerging field of study that is Positive Psychology. This is a subject that comes up a lot with our guests and so in this episode, we try and put together a “Positive Psychology 101” so that we can all have a better understanding of the subject.

Ian and Gemma discuss:
The history of positive psychology
– Gemma gets Ian to try a positive psychology exercise
– How can it help improve wellbeing in the workplace
– Some psychology health habits.

What is Inspiring Gemma?
Brené Brown: The Call to Courage a Netflix special

How to get in touch with Gemma


Introduction 00:02
Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Podcast, the podcast for wellbeing professionals that looks at best practices in organisations that care about their people, and which keeps an eye on the growing number of suppliers in the wellbeing space.

The workplace wellbeing podcast is sponsored by fastPAYE a financial wellbeing solution that facilitates flexible salary advances. It also provides access to financial education, a benefits assessment calculator, and a host of other financial wellbeing tools. fastPAYE he is part of the work tech group that includes ShopWorks Workforce Solutions, and SolvedBy.Ai.

ShopWorks offers Scheduling and Time and Attendance tools that improve your workforce management processes. Whilst SolvedBy.Ai provides unique artificial intelligence products that deliver optimum staffing levels and improve employee retention.

Ian Hogg 00:58
Hi, and welcome to another edition of the workplace wellbeing Podcast. I’m Ian Hogg, Chairman of fastPAYE, and in this episode, I’m joined by Gemma Perkins, who qualified as a teacher before starting her own business in 2014. To share her expertise, she’s now on a mission to help individuals and teams unlock their potential and live more effective and well rounded lives. Gemma works with corporate managers, refugees, student activists and charity teams on developing their self leadership, teamwork, wellbeing, and a whole host of other soft skills that support a balanced and fulfilling life. Today, I want to discuss the emerging field of study that is positive psychology. This is a subject that comes up a lot with our guests on this podcast. And I wanted to try and do a positive psychology 101 If you like, so that we all have a better understanding of the subject. Hi, Gemma, thanks for joining us.

Gemma Perkins 01:46
Thank you very much for having me here.

Ian Hogg 01:50
Listen, why don’t we start with a bit of background and you take the listeners through your journey and how you ended up getting involved in positive psychology.

Gemma Perkins 02:00
Okay, so a little bit accidental, really from the youngest age, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. And I was aiming to work in primary schools. And then when I was studying at college, as part of that academic get something on the CV, I signed up to do a youth programme for leadership skills. And it was just so transformational. I learned a lot about who I was how to manage my time how to set well rounded goals rather than just the career goals that college had got me focused on. So, I’ve got this whole skill set that I guess people don’t normally get until they’re in the workplace, or they’ve signed up for a life coach or something. And so I ended up volunteering with this youth programme to come back over and over and work with other peers and young people. So meanwhile, I still did my teaching qualification I got into primary schools. And I was only in there for a year and a half before I realised that actually the training work that I was doing on conflict resolution on Wellbeing all those kinds of things about self leadership was more fulfilling than teaching. So I ended up packing in teaching and learning how to start a business. And that was seven years ago. And now I train people in all sorts of soft skills. And I’ve always had an interest in in I guess, a wellbeing and developing the whole person. And were were lockedown in the pandemic of got the rest of the world thinking about wellbeing, it’s been a real opportunity for me to kind of branch out more in that direction. So that’s kind of a whistle stop. Really it was benefiting personally, that inspired me to work with other people.

Ian Hogg 03:47
Okay, can you just tell us a little bit more about the sort of the legions of self leadership course you went on? Just, I’m just intrigued, you know?

Gemma Perkins 03:54
Yeah, so it was, I guess it’s a whistlestop tour of all sorts of different soft skills in in the workplace. You know, we talk about the hard skills such as being able to write a report or being able to, you know, work a particular programme, but soft skills are all those slightly intangible ones that actually make a big difference, such as being able to label your emotions or understanding what your personal strengths and challenges are and how that affects who you are in a team. Things like how do you use the language of motivation or goal setting to help you actually achieve the things you want to do? So it wasn’t a particular you know, there wasn’t a full set of skills prescribed. It was more a whistle stop tour of what we needed as young people going through that process. And we had mentors working with us. And it was a residential weekend that I took part in and it stopped being residential after that. So when I volunteered with other people, we do a couple of weekends a year and have the same people keep coming back So as, as a young person going through my academic journey, navigating social relationships and my family life, I’d got a whole group of supportive peer mentors, who were helping me kind of learn these emotional intelligence skills. And rather than traditional leadership of, okay, how do I manage other people in a team? Self leadership is more how do you manage your own life? Well, and that way, if you are going to be a leader in a team, you’re going to be more effective, because you’ve got your own stuff together.

Ian Hogg 05:32
Yeah, no, listen, and you mentioned earlier that, you know, some people don’t get the formal training or informal training that you had, they learned in the workplace, but others, and I think this is a theme that comes up constantly on this podcast is, a lot of people have never been trained in these sort of these areas. And if they are trained, they’re trained by people that have never been training themselves, you know, just happens to be their manager. But okay, well, listen, one of the things we wanted to talk about today was, was positive psychology. Okay. And, you know, I think what we want to do is give the listeners a bit of an overview on it. You know, can you, you know, it’s a fairly sort of new field of study. Can you give us a bit of a history lesson, you know, when did you start, you know, who started that sort of thing?

Gemma Perkins 06:22
Yeah. So, I guess we’ll go to before it started, where psychology really was looking at, crudely what was wrong with people? So phobias, anxiety disorders, depression, and psychology was about identifying what’s wrong with somebody, and how do we fix that? And so positive psychology is a little bit different. One study that’s I don’t know if it quite started it off, but certainly was a turning point was, there’s a chap called Martin Seligman who’s a bit of a rockstar in this area. And he was actually studying learned helplessness. So in 1967, before, they had the same concerns around ethics with animals, they had an experiment where they got dogs in in kind of a box that was split into two halves. And on one half of the floor, there were electric shocks, and in the other there weren’t. And in one experiment, when when they shot the dogs, they kind of hopped over the fence to the side, without the electric shocks, they thought, you know, I’ve had enough of this, I’m getting out. In another experiment, they shocked the dogs, but they kind of held them in place, so they couldn’t get away. And then later on, when the dog had the option to move, it didn’t it just stay there and went, Oh, you know, this is useless, I’ll stay here, there’s no point going anywhere. And so what they they coined the term learned helplessness. And later studies have done things in humans without electric shocks. But other experiments where if you put people in a situation they can’t get out of, they kind of learn, there’s no point trying. And they develop symptoms of kind of depression. So lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment, not changing, not not getting out of whatever the negative environment is. So this kind of led to the idea that Hold on If we can learn to be helpless, or to emulate depressive symptoms, what can we then do about it? And they did follow up experiments where they got the dogs to unlearn that helplessness, they managed to show them that no, you can escape and then the dog started to go back to normal again. So there were in psychology, there’s always different schools of thought some people talk about biology that, okay, if you’ve got depression, anxiety, or whatever it is, it could be genetic. Some people talk about behavioural psychology, which is that I’ve seen somebody else do it, and I’ve learned it from them. Or I’ve learned it because of my circumstances. And this whole thing around learned helplessness tied into what’s called cognitive psychology, which is that your thought processes affect how you feel and how you behave. And so what they were really hypothesising here is that sometimes when you go through a circumstance that’s challenging, you may learn you to talk to yourself and say, This is pointless, it’s never going to change, I’m never going to get better. And that can lead to, you know, challenging mental health issues. And so what Seligman started to do after that is say, Okay, well, if we get groups of people who are a little bit pessimistic, have got this learned helplessness, and we teach them to think positively. What happens then? And so they started doing programmes of positive psychology of cognitive behavioural therapy. And they noticed that people who had got depressive symptoms, they reduced, but also individuals who had no depressive symptoms, but were kind of noted that in future, they were at risk of depression because of their, their social relationships, their environment, their family background, they were less likely to actually end up depressed because they’ve done the pre work of training their mind to think in a positive way. So positive psychology properly started in the 1990s. And Martin Seligman was part of the American Psychological Association, and he kind of coined the term. So it’s still quite young, really in in the history of science. But there’s been a lot of research done since about what kinds of exercises activities, thought patterns really help people to not experience a challenging mental health problem in the first place? What can we do to help people have a good life, find meaningful work, have fruitful social connections, and generally just be protected from the challenging mental health issues that are out there?

Ian Hogg 11:16
Okay, now, this and this is a really good overview. Thank you, Gemma, I think, yeah, Martin Seligman gets mentioned a lot on our podcasts. I think he’s definitely, you know, behind a lot of the progress has been made in the last 20 or 30 years in this area. Just going back onto the subject. So when we talk about the sort of, you know, learned helplessness, is that the face used? Yeah, yeah. So is it the sort of thing that actually if you, if you even explain to somebody that actually the reason they’re feeling bad is because they’ve learned this, you know, they’ve got this learned helplessness, and once they can recognise it, then there’s a potential cure, which is to be more, you know, to think more positively? Is it almost as simple as that?

Gemma Perkins 12:03
It’s a bit more difficult because, you know, anything that we learn knowing or doing very different things, I can learn to rephrase a piece of language and think in my head, okay, that’s something I want to do. But in the moment, we might speak to bad habits. And I guess with the learned helplessness, it depends why they’ve learned that if somebody has gone through a trauma, that can be difficult to overcome without a professional, you know, to walk you through that. If it’s to do with childhood experiences that might be quite ingrained. It. Anything can be learned or unlearned, with time with effort with persistence. But, you know, that length of time that amount of effort can differ depending on how people have learned it and why. Yeah, I know that’s, that’s a bit vague, but I’m very careful not to, you know, a lot. Our wellbeing is not a simplistic thing, although there are simple tools we can use. It’s very much about sustained practice, and a lot of self-discovery.

Ian Hogg 13:08
Yeah, no, I think the reason it because, you know, this is essentially a workplace wellbeing podcast, and some of the sort of things we end up discussing here are, you know, where the feeling of helplessness could be as simple as you know, the stresses of a job where actually, you know, the challenges you’ve just talked about from childhood? You know, issues, obviously, much more serious than, than just having a sort of a troublesome boss, it makes you feel as though you can’t control or influence your your outcome. So that that isn’t that was good, good explanation. Gemma. Thank you. So let’s moving on to, you know, the workplace is, you know, now you’ve explained what positive psychology is, how, how could it help with wellbeing? How can we take it and use it in the workplace to improve wellbeing?

Gemma Perkins 13:59
I think the starting point really is to recognise that there’s a wealth of research out there on how to help people feel good. And you don’t actually have to reinvent the wheel. I’m sure there’s managers and leaders out there who think, oh, what on earth can I do? I’m going to have to invent or work something out, actually, the research is there ready to go. So that that’s a definite positive. And that if you know, the research, you don’t get sucked into whatever one might be selling on the street. So I have seen lots of examples of you know, you want to deal with workplace wellbeing here, do this perkbox or sign up to our reward scheme, or maybe just put on one yoga session? And don’t get me wrong yoga and exercise is an excellent part of wellbeing, but it’s not a single answer. So being aware of the research can help a manager to come up with a well-rounded kind of programme and culture. I think you can you can hire people based on positive psychology, so Seligman talks about looking for people with optimistic traits. That can be really helpful if you know your industry is challenging. So he works a lot with, you know, insurance sales, people who face a lot of rejection and require resilience. If you hire somebody who’s already a bit tendency towards being pessimistic or a little bit depressed, that rejection is going to take them under. So if you know what your team is going to do, you can hire for the psychological traits that are going to work with it. But regardless of who you’ve got on your team, now you can you can spend time developing a culture of positivity. So you can put on workshops that help people understand, I guess, the vocabulary of how to talk about feelings, emotions, strategies, you can teach people wellbeing tools, you can embed them in the workday, things like starting or ending a meeting with a very short exercise or ending emails with a little bit of gratitude. Just just very simple things done regularly, can build a positive culture, and leaders who are willing to I guess, be vulnerable, and talk to their staff about their needs, which may not seem like a vulnerability, but for some, you know, for some people that I discussed with, they’re very worried about inviting feedback in case it’s not what they want to hear, or in case it gives them a pile of work, the vulnerability to say what, okay, everybody on my team, how are you doing? Do we need to have any difficult conversations? What would help you to be more satisfied in your work? How do we change your, your role, your workflow, and things like that, so that you get the most enjoyment? Those conversations make a massive difference if if leaders feel confident having them?

Ian Hogg 16:59
Yeah, I mean, obviously know, that we had a team meeting in our office last week for one of our teams of developers, and the product owner asked me to join it for 10 minutes, because they were going to celebrate all of the things they’d achieved in the last year. Okay, then had a team meeting face to face for a year as you’d expect or longer. So that, you know, 10 minutes, they went to all the things like done well and the successes and celebrated them and said well done, so is that like a good example, then?

Gemma Perkins 17:32
Absolutely, that ties very much into the work that Seligman was doing on gratitude. Gratitude is one of the biggest indicators of positive mental health. And you can build gratitude into your personal day into your workday. You know, celebration and achievement, not only boost individual mood, but they can strengthen relationships. So, one of one of the studies that Seligman did in 2005 Is he was kind of trying to work out what different activities would increase happiness and reduce depressive symptoms. So, people did self-reporting questionnaires. One thing that they did was, every day for a week, recorded three positive things about the day. straightaway, at the end of the week, people were 2% happier, which doesn’t sound like much, but six months later, they were 9% happier. So, you get this sustained increase in mood, and their depressive symptoms went down by 29%, which is a massive amounts. So that’s more of the what’s been good about today. So, the idea of what we achieved over the last year is an excellent example. But another thing that he did was he invited people to write a letter to somebody who they wanted to express gratitude to. So, it could well be a friend relative, it might be a neighbour, but it could easily be a colleague, manager, you know, thank you for helping me finish this report or thanks for mentoring me on that. They had to write the letter and then give it to the person. Now, again, they did this question questionnaire about how happy they were and about their depressive symptoms immediately on giving that letter 10% boost in happiness, and 36% Drop in depressive symptoms that wore off very quickly. But in a workplace culture, if you can get people once a week to kind of wrap everybody send each other a thank you email for something, or let’s really appreciate each other. You can create this buzz of wow, I’ve, I’m proud of what I’ve done. I care about you and what you do for me, you strengthen relationships, and generally just create positive feelings in the company. So yeah, things like celebrating our achievements for the week for the month, isn’t it? excellent way to improve well being and the research backs it up.

Ian Hogg 20:04
I listen these these some excellent tips. You know, I, you know, I think this is really valuable. I’d love to hear more what other sort of exercises? Could you recommend to the, you know, to the listeners?

Gemma Perkins 20:17
Yeah. Well, did you want to try one out? Yeah, well, yeah, no. Yeah. So have you have you got a drink with you?

Ian Hogg 20:29
Yeah, I’ve got a cup of tea in my keep calm and carry on mug.

Gemma Perkins 20:32
Fabulous. So, with a lot of my training, although I do explain the research, I often don’t start with that. Because I think sometimes people want to experience things first, to get a feel for it. And then they’re more open to hearing the how and why it works. So, this is an activity that I use all the time to just introduce the positive benefits of gratitude. So, you’ve got your cup of tea, what I’d like you to have a think about is who has been involved in any way whatsoever of you being able to drink that cup of tea. And by the way, don’t drink any of it yet, but just start, you know, thinking and maybe listening out loud. who’s been involved in that process.

Ian Hogg 21:19
Okay, so my son who works with us, he was he actually bought the kettle and made it for me whilst I was getting ready to do this podcast. And Lee, who’s one of the fellow founders, he always goes to macro, which is like a big cash and carry and buys tea bags, and biscuits and coffee and other stuff in bulk and brings into the office. The we have a cleaner come in who’s, you know, empties the dishwasher will encourage to load it ourselves. But somebody might put this mug in mighty clean. There’s a guy who delivers the water oh, no, no, this is bottled water. So no, he doesn’t. He doesn’t get credit. But if I’d had a glass of water, there’s a guy that logs these huge, great water bottles up the stairs to the office. So, few people, and somebody must have gone and got the milk. And I’m not sure that’s a team effort as well, somebody, you know, there’s somebody take some money out of petty cash, when whoever is last in the fridge when the milk runs out, you know, takes the petty cash and goes and tops the milk up. So yeah, a few people, just so I can have a cup of tea.

Gemma Perkins 22:35
Lovely. So just to end if we had a bit longer what I would get people to keep thinking and thinking. So normally, there’s things like who’s picked the tea leaves? How did they get transported here, who invented tea, and there’s also the mug, you know, who designed the mug, who created that product who invented porcelain or whatever it’s made of. And if you take that chain of events further and further back, you suddenly realise that hundreds or even 1000s of people have been involved at different parts of the process of something so simple that we take for granted. So now what I’d like you to do, if you feel comfortable is just take a sip of your tea bought really think about all those people you’ve mentioned your son, the cleaner, the delivery person, the team has been petty cash the farmer and just really try and take a moment to feel gratitude as you take that set.

Ian Hogg 23:34
I will do that. Very nice. I think Listen, gym exercise. Yeah, no, I, I don’t good exercise, I think I can see there’s a lot of these aren’t even difficult exercises to do, are they you know, just it’s about allocating the time having to presumably just not keep repeating the same ones over and over again.

Gemma Perkins 24:01
But then they do work repeated I do this often every time when I do it with my own drink. It still tastes different to when I’m being I guess, mindless and taking for granted. But you could also swap it for a different drink, have a biscuit instead do it about the chair you’re sat in, in a workplace, we might say okay, you know what, what’s the product that you sell or the service you provide? Who’s involved in that or who’s involved in making this building suitable for us. So, you can pick so many different angles and go through the same process just to have that grounding moment and to experience that sense of gratefulness and connection to other people, which is quite a lift in mood for many people.

Ian Hogg 24:46
Okay, and I suppose one question that, that comes up a lot is, you know, we have quite a few consultants come on, or you know, or coaches or other people that are trying to help businesses Improve their wellbeing. And one of the big challenges I think a lot of businesses find is that, you know, that they do the workshop, they do the exercises, the coaches on site helping, yeah. And then it’s making it stick, isn’t it? You know, so it’s like, so it doesn’t become a, we’ve had a two-week burst of, of, you know, you’re reflecting on successes and doing the same exercises, and then it disappears? How your What are your tips? And how do you work with your clients to make sure that the benefits stick basically,

Gemma Perkins 25:32
I always recommend that in managers, leaders, whoever’s booking the workshops and programme, they have to be in the room to see and experience themselves as well. Because if you don’t get buy in from the top, you can’t do the culture change. And a lot of this is, you know, as you said, with that, that drinks task, it’s it’s not difficult, it just needs somebody to build the time in on a regular basis, a lot of the positive psychology actions are a kind of straightforward, they just require that slowing down. And so you, a workplace needs to dedicate time, you know, five minutes at the start of a meeting or 15 minutes at the end of the week, or what you know, whatever activities you’re doing, they need to be planned in with the understanding that the practice is more important than the knowledge. So when I’m doing programmes I quite often, I recommend rather than one offs having, you know, let’s do once a week or once a month, and we’ll start with a review of okay, how have you been getting on implementing whatever we learned between last time and now, what challenges have come up? What successes have you had, so we’re kind of reinforcing what we’ve learned. So far, we do a lot of practice, because knowing about something and experiencing it are very different if you just a lot of people are doing webinars now, which is great for getting the information out there. But just being told how to do something is not the same as doing it and feeling the benefit and understanding the why. So whatever your people are learning, it’s really important that they know why it works, how it works, so that they, they’re more committed to keep on doing it. And that people are encouraged to kind of set small habits for themselves. So, gratitude is one of the biggest things that I I do in my own personal life. And I have a nightly gratitude journal. And in order to make the habit stick. Well, I mean, it’s, it’s definitely stuck. Now, I’ve been doing it for years. But I would have a reminder on my phone, I tie the habit to a particular time of day. So, I do it just before bed, I’d have my journal on the bedside table. And I’d kind of commit that every day, I’m at least going to write three good things. For a lot of habits, whatever it is, whether it’s a moment of meditation, or taking a walk, if you tie it to something that you already do, such as, when I first put the computer on, I’ll do this for two minutes, or every time I go to make a cup of tea, I’ll have a moment of quiet because you associate you’re more likely to carry on with that behaviour. So again, you could in a workplace, it might be every time we start the team meeting or every time we’re about to take a break in the middle, this is what we do. And that way you don’t have to put in the effort of remembering it just kind of becomes part of the norm.

Ian Hogg 28:35
So, you’re sort of describing sort of psychology health habits here. I think it’s a great, a great way of making things stick. And like you say some of them you can time you presumably if you write the positive things before you go to sleep, there’s a good chance you’re not tossing and turning with negative thoughts till too late.

Gemma Perkins 28:54
Absolutely. There were a few people have looked into that. I think Amiens if I’ve remembered correctly, but possibly not. And they said that people who do their gratitude journals before bed, on average, they get about an extra hour of sleep, and they feel better rested. Because as you say you’re not letting that little voice that worries, take your attention, you’re choosing to focus on good stuff. So, you wind down and you get a better quality of sleep. You can do it first thing in the morning instead. But for me, I prefer the night time you know for that reason of settling down.

Ian Hogg 29:33
That is a good tip and I get that I’m sure a lot of other people as well. Listen, you know as we’re, we’re coming towards the the end of this. I mean, it’s been really good 101 on positive psychology there, Gemma how to employers that want to work with you get in touch.

Gemma Perkins 29:51
So you can find me on LinkedIn. You can search for Gemma Perkins, and I have a website for my company, the self Leadership Initiative and the web So is the sli.co.uk. And people can book a consultation, you know, booking a chat, and let’s get started talking about what it is they want.

Ian Hogg 30:10
Okay, fine, we will I’ll definitely make sure those notes are in, you know, those links in the podcast notes. And there’s a question that, you know, I asked everyone, and it’s about what what book or media is giving you inspiration at the moment, and why

Gemma Perkins 30:27
I think that’s sort of vaguely mentioned earlier about Brene Brown and vulnerability. So she’s got a fantastic Netflix special called call to courage. And it’s just a really beautiful blend of her personal experiences of what it means to be courageous and kind of changing the narrative around being vulnerable to being a positive thing. And I think anybody who’s interested in emotional intelligence in leadership and in the workplace should should have a look at that. Because it really humanises the importance of being in touch with your feelings and communicating with other people effectively. And that’s on Netflix. It is yeah. And if you’ve not got Netflix, that she’s also got loads of cool YouTube videos and TED talks that are fantastic.

Ian Hogg 31:12
We will pick some out and put them in the links as well. We’ve had a lot of recommendation for Brene Brown books. But that’s the first Netflix we’ve had a recommendation for so thank you for that Gemma.

Gemma Perkins 31:26

Ian Hogg 31:27
Okay, listen, you know, I like I said before, great, great subjects, really well summarised, and I think lots of good positive tips in there that people can be been used to for both their own well being and probably for the well being of their team. So thank you very much, Gemma.

Gemma Perkins 31:43
thank you very much for having me.

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