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Article based upon webinar delivered December 2023

Author Nicki Bass (Business Psychologist at Resilience at Work Ltd and Host of The Everyday Adventure Podcast)

What is an adventure?

 For most people, the image of someone scaling a rocky cliff face or trekking through a remote jungle comes to mind. Yet there is another concept of adventure which is far more accessible and ultimately helpful to most people. If you search for the term adventure on Googe, the first definition you’ll see is “an unusual and exciting or daring experience”; what constitutes this type of experience is chiefly about individual perception. If we consider how children view adventure, the range of activities and opportunities is much broader because their experience of the world is novel and filled with possibility.

As we get older and take on more responsibilities, it can feel as if opportunities for adventure diminish. We see the world through a narrower lens and craft an expertise in our careers, spending the majority of our time safely within our comfort zone. The risk is that in doing so, we begin to lose our confidence and capacity for exploration and the excitement of sitting in the unknown. This impacts our willingness to take risks in all areas of our lives and can erode our confidence and our sense of wellbeing.

Why does adventure matter?

Houge Mackenzie (2023) suggests that we step beyond the concept of adventure as risk and thrill to focusing on its importance to subjective psychological wellbeing. She proposes that not only does adventure support hedonic subjective wellbeing such as the joy and excitement that occurs when we take on an adventure, but also our eudemonic subjective wellbeing, such as what gives our life meaning, a sense of purpose, flow, autonomy and a wider perspective. These are all concepts that we would typically explore as business psychologists when supporting our clients’ wellbeing.

There has also been considerable research in recent years about the benefits of spending time in and within nature. These include health benefits from time in green spaces (Twohig-Bennett and Jones, 2018) and increases in generosity and sense of connection (Weinstein et al, 2009). Additional benefits of adventure include reduction of stress and increased resilience (Neill and Dias’, 2001); Ewert and Yoshino, 2009).

 Why does adventure matter to Business Psychologists?

Organisations are often attracted to the traditional adventure narrative focused on risk taking and overcoming barriers. However, this approach can be ego driven and individually centric, whereas successful adventures usually require a team effort, consistency, patience and a willingness to adapt to a changing environment. It is also true that without protecting the wellbeing of the individuals participating, adventures rarely succeed – or if they do, they cannot be sustained.

By shifting the approach to thinking about adventures – big and small – as tools to build resilience, we can support organisations grappling with a host of wellbeing challenges including staff wellbeing, absence and mental health. We know resilience is a key focus for organisations when thinking about employees; in the CIPD Health and Wellbeing at work survey (2022), 79%of respondents reported stress related absence in the last year. Furthermore, according to the HSE, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for the majority of days lost to ill health in 2021/ 22.

If we consider Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2013) definition of resilience as “the role of mental processes and behaviour in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors” we can see that there is potential to develop this capacity in employees. It is the dynamic nature of resilience that separates it from other similar concepts such as ‘hardiness’ or ‘mental toughness’ (Howe et al, 2012) and it is related to Luthans (2004) definition of Psycap which encompasses hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism.

 How does adventure support resilience?

 In 1987, Rutter found that controlled exposure to stressors, in situations where that stress can be adapted to or managed, can help build immunity to similar situations in the future. Seery, Holman and Silver (2010) suggested that some experience of adversity is required to develop the mental resilience to deal with future adverse events. However, this is caveated with by the fact that if that if the exposure to stress is too great, it can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope.

One area where the link between stress exposure and increased performance has been investigated in some depth, is in the field of elite sports performance.

Fletcher and Sarkar (2012) interviewed Olympic athletes and found that there are several psychological factors that protect elite athletes from the potential negative effect of stressors. An interesting aspects of their study is the “stress–resilience–performance relationship” where participants stated that it was their experience of high-level stressors at a particular point in time, that enabled them to achieve success.

Specifically related to adventure, studies have shown that outdoor adventure interventions can build resilience in participants. Adventures help participants manage uncertainty, increase adaptability and creativity, build connections, persist in adversity and manage failure; all skills that are highly prized in the modern work environment.

 How can Business Psychologists use adventure in their work?

 The overriding principle is to help clients develop an adventurous mindset that sees novelty and uncertainty as an opportunity to be explored. If coaching, this may involve encouraging clients to step outside their comfort zones by trying new activities or do something that they have been putting off. If working with teams and organisations, the focus might be on building their tolerance of operating in uncertainty or with limited information. Finally, as business psychologists, we can also benefit from everyday adventures, both to develop our own wellbeing and build our confidence in stepping outside of our comfort zones too.

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