Sam Smith used to struggle to switch off from a long day at work.
“I thought I was fully present, but I’d be scrolling through emails on my phone, thinking of things I had to do at work and just being generally distracted,” says Smith of arriving home and his fiancé telling him about what was going on in her world.
That wasn’t all.
After a particularly stressful day, Smith tended to sleep poorly and would turn up to work feeling fatigued. And like most of us, he found it difficult to walk into back-to-back meetings positively after the first one hadn’t gone particularly well.
The stress that Smith, a senior project manager at Westpac’s Corporate Property Improvements team, carried from one activity to another – and ultimately into his home – has become an all too common scenario among Australian workers. According to a 2018 study by health tech company Medibio, almost one in three workers suffer from some form of mental illness. Of those, 36 per cent had depression, 33 per cent anxiety and 31 per cent high levels of workplace stress.
Enter Dr Adam Fraser, peak performance researcher and author of The Third Space, a bestselling book centred around the idea of creating a gap between activities to focus on the present and enjoy the small moments in life.
“It’s about using those tiny gaps in the day to get your head right for what's coming next,” Fraser tells Westpac Wire.
Fraser, who studied psychology, physiology and has a PhD in biomedical science, wrote The Third Space after interviewing people, and their families, from all walks of life – including members of the special forces, CEOs and elite athletes – who struggle to leave their work issues at the office.
“Their families told us that it’s not when mum or dad shows up, it’s how they show up. What families craved was to have their parents come home in a good mood and engage with them properly,” Fraser explains.
“If you come in like a hurricane, it damages relationships.”
For Smith, completing the Third Space program has paid dividends after being taught to adopt three basic components: reflect, rest and reset. Whether it’s an hour-long meeting or the entire day, key questions to ask include: What went well? How can I improve? What did I achieve?
Fraser used to urge participants to frame thoughts in a positive way – even after a dud day. However, breakthroughs in psychology since his book was published in 2012 have caused him to change his mind.
“It’s now about accepting negative thoughts and focusing on constructive behaviours. Accepting negative thoughts reduces their power over you," he says.
The rest phase involves bringing the mind into the present moment and asking yourself after a tough day “what kind of a parent do I want to be when I walk through that door?” Finally, the last phase involves resetting the mind to ready it for what's coming next.
Smith, who also started using the meditation app Calm during his commute, says it only takes about 10 seconds to go through the process.
“If I’ve had a meeting that didn’t go well, for example, I’ll take a couple of deep breaths and focus on letting things go as quickly as possible,” he says. “These changes have not only improved my home life, but also helped me to sleep better and have more energy.”
Elements of the Third Space are also being applied to a program for school principals in New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland, which teaches interventions codesigned by Deakin University and helps to improve wellbeing and performance.
Fraser says that like many professionals, the mental health of school principals is suffering due to the intense pressures of the role.
“We're seeing this happen in all sorts of occupations, including financial services. Burnout rates are climbing across all industries. And if it's not burnout, it manifests as anxiety,” he says.
“The Flourish program focuses on creating short bursts of recovery: we’re not talking about taking a big long holiday, but a short burst of it, such as going to have breakfast on your own on the weekend, or taking an art or yoga class.”
Since the program was launched in 2016, there has been a 91 per cent improvement reported in “boundary strengths”, which means not letting work affect family life. There was also a 41 per cent improvement in mood in the home, and a 47 per cent increase in school principals feeling that their time is their own.
As part of the Third Space wellbeing program at Westpac, Fraser worked with business leaders and their teams on improving three important criteria that contribute to high performance: whether an employee felt connected to and cared for by their team leader; whether their team listened to their ideas and was willing to support them if they made a mistake; and whether their skills were a good fit for the job itself.
“When we compared the groups with a leader who completed the program as opposed to those who did not, the teams that completed the program saw a 160 per cent increase in trust and a 76 per cent increase in how supportive they thought their team was. That’s a colossal shift,” he says.
More broadly, Fraser says he’s focused on rolling out the program further so more people can access it.
“It's the most successful thing we've ever done,” he says.