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Work-Focused CBT for Uncertain Times

mental health Sep 02, 2022


Employees who experience worry or anxiety may benefit from work-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help them return to optimum health and productivity. When bombarded with concerning news, constant change, and inevitable pressures at work and home to meet deadlines and balance life responsibilities, it is natural to experience feelings of worry and anxiety. Employees with disabilities may have increased concerns about their health, finances, workplace support, and job conditions.

However, when these feelings start to affect an employee’s work, it may be time to start implementing strategies to help change negative thinking patterns. CBT can be an effective tool to help individuals manage change and uncertainty and alter their thinking and behaviour.


The Impact of Anxiety on Focus and Work Productivity

What happens when we are stressed/worried? These feelings can have significant impacts on our focus and productivity as they affect us physically, cognitively, and behaviorally.

Physical – Our nervous system engages the “fight/flight” response, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, and can create other responses such as digestive issues and sweating.

Cognitive – We experience racing thoughts, catastrophizing, overthinking or inability to make decisions, and the inability to focus.

Behavioural – Productivity and quality of work decreases. We are unable to focus on the task at hand and exhibit behaviours such as pacing, avoidance, lashing out/reacting to stress, making more mistakes, clumsiness, etc. These behaviours can also strain relationships.


What is Work-focused CBT?

Occupational Therapists (OTs) have additional training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT treatment might include the following strategies:

  • Learning to recognize one’s distortions in thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in light of reality.
  • Gaining a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others.
  • Using problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations.
  • Learning to develop a greater sense of confidence in one’s own abilities.
  • Facing one’s fears instead of avoiding them.
  • Using role playing to prepare for potentially problematic interactions with others.
  • Learning to calm one’s mind and relax one’s body.

(American Psychological Association, 2017)


Why Use CBT at Work?

Employees, especially those with mental health diagnoses or those experiencing increased stress or burnout, often have difficulty focusing on work tasks, achieving deadlines, interacting with colleagues, problem solving, and making important work decisions. To a manager, there may appear to be a performance decline and behavioural changes. The root cause of these changes can be unhelpful behaviours or thoughts. OTs can work with employees to identify unhelpful thought patterns, restructure thinking, and also adjust behaviours that are unhelpful in the workplace.


CBT Strategies for Employees

Strategies that an Occupational Therapist might help employees implement include the following:

  • Recognize any unhelpful thinking patterns.
  • Reflect on what tasks or activities might trigger these thoughts or this reaction.
  • Don’t expect yourself to be perfect – try framing mistakes as learning opportunities and not a reflection of your worth.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments, positive feedback, and contributions. Try to refer to this list often to combat your negative thoughts.
  • Take time for self-care, setting boundaries with working hours, and taking time to disconnect.
  • Practice mindfulness to increase your ability to be non-judgmental and compassionate towards automatic thoughts. Try to see your thoughts as “mental events” rather than facts.
  • Ask for evidence – if you are doubting yourself and your abilities, ask your manager, friends, or coworkers for feedback.
  • Behavioural changes:
    • Avoidance of tasks can increase anxiety in the long run. OTs can work with employees to develop time management skills, breaking down tasks into reasonable chunks so employees can feel able to focus and work through one thing at a time
    • Learn grounding strategies to calm the nervous system when stress and worry activate the fight or flight response, such as focusing the attention to the present moment, taking a breath or a step away from work, and other calming activities.


What Can Employers Do?

  • Create a psychologically safe workplace where employees feel comfortable to take risks and make mistakes.
  • Make recognition of employee contribution and accomplishment a regular practice so there is less room for doubt.
  • Encourage employees to take breaks and limit interaction with work outside of work hours.
  • Encourage your teams to praise and thank each other for the positive things they do in their day-to-day.


How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

Occupational Therapists are the ideal mental health professionals for supporting your employees. Their knowledge of the workplace allows them to help modify jobs and environments and give employees to tools to develop personal strategies. They are not just talk therapists—they are activity and strategy-based and they empower employees to take ownership of their function and productivity. They practice work-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is an evidence-based approach to ensuring that employees can have better self-care and resiliency.

Gowan Consulting is a national organization with more than 150 Occupational Therapists across Canada. We provide Occupational Therapy coaching virtually and onsite. Ease of access and proactive onsite or virtual support ensures that employees can stay at or return to work.

We want to help your organization – make a referral here or contact us at [email protected] to learn more.



Work Cited

“What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” American Psychological Association, 2017,