Blog post

Using NLP for work mental health

Work mental health is high on the national agenda in many countries. Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Psychotherapy at the University of Derby Online Learning, looks at how neuro-linguistic programming can be used to support employees’ mental health.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 12 April 2019

In 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care published the ‘Thriving at Work’ review of mental health and employers.

The review, co-authored by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, reported that 15% of the UK workforce have some kind of mental health problem, and 300,000 people lose their jobs every year because of long-term issues. The total cost of mental health problems at work to the UK economy was estimated at £74-99 billion per year.

The Japanese challenge

The challenge in work mental health is no different in Japan, which has particularly strong links to Derbyshire and is one of the UK’s major trading partners. Between 1999 and 2008, rates of depression rose 140%, and 60% of Japanese workers reported high levels of anxiety and stress.

Unpaid overtime working is common at Japanese companies: a quarter have employees working more than 80 hours unpaid overtime each month, and 12% have employees working more than 100 hours. The rate of Japanese employees working over 49 hours per week is higher than most of the Western developed countries (21% in Japan, compared to 17% in the US and 13% in the UK).

To overcome these challenges, the Japanese government has implemented several initiatives, including neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), but their impact still remains uncertain.

What is NLP?

NLP is a set of psychological and linguistic methodologies that aim to analyse and duplicate excellent results. ‘Neuro’ relates to our five senses (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic olfactory, and gustatory), and ‘linguistic’ refers to the words we use (externally and internally). Both of these systems affect how we feel. A depressed person may see things and talk to themselves in a depressing way, for example. They may label a neutral (or sometimes happy) event as ‘depressing’, using depressing words. On the other hand, someone who is grateful may see things in a grateful way, and use grateful words.

These psychological and linguistic systems help to create or change our programmes – the things you do without consciously thinking about them. We have numerous programmes in our behaviours (commuting, driving, playing an instrument, certain movements in sports) and emotions (jealousy, anxiety, excitement, gratefulness). NLP helps us understand and change our programmes using our five senses and words, so can be applied in many fields, including occupational settings.

Our research into NLP in the workplace

NLP is increasingly used in many Japanese workplaces to mitigate occupational stress and strengthen workers’ psychological capital. Workers use NLP for improving mental health, team-building, effective workplace communication and goal-setting.

Despite this, a close analysis of their experience using NLP had not been done before (much of NLP literature only suggests techniques), so we conducted an interview study to understand people’s first-hand experience of using NLP at work.

Eleven senior managers and presidents of Japanese companies attended the interview, considering how they use NLP at work, which skills or concepts were useful and which were not. On average, they had 16 years’ managerial experience, and nine worked at global companies, employing more than 5,000 workers.

Data from the interviews was analysed thematically. Four themes emerged:

Managers reported that NLP is especially useful to improve the positive psychological resources of the workforce, such as intrinsic motivation, trust and psychological safety, referring to NLP concepts such as sponsorship and positive intentions.

They noted that some of NLP skills were particularly useful, such as eight-frame outcomes, neuro-logical levels, the Disney strategy, and reframing:

These skills enable managers and their staff to focus on the goals and positive visions at the micro, meso, macro, and meta-levels, sponsoring workers’ intrinsic (autonomy-based) motivation. Further studies are needed to evaluate empirically how these skills improve work psychological outcomes.

The challenges of using NLP in the workplace

There are a number of challenges associated with the application of NLP in the workplace. Some skills took too long to be practiced in a fast-paced environment, while others asked imaginary questions such as the colour of people’s feelings, which some workers had difficulty responding to.

Additionally, some managers prefer the word ‘coaching’ instead of ‘NLP’, noting that ‘the word “coaching” has a citizenship in my office, but “NLP” doesn’t’. These challenges may highlight a need for empirically refining NLP skills that exclusively focus on workers, and potentially re-labelling those skills relating to their benefits for workplaces.

Translating these findings to the UK workforce

The economy of Derbyshire is closely linked to the Japanese economy, with many Japanese companies based in the region, such as Toyota, Kawasaki and more. These Japanese companies employ many UK workers and collaborate with many local UK companies, such as Rolls-Royce with Kawasaki, and East Midlands Trains with Hitachi.

UK workers within the NHS and in government-led teacher training, for example, are also familiar with and have benefited from NLP, so the useful skills reported by senior managers need to be evaluated in workplaces cross-culturally. We hope that the findings from our study will contribute to the improvement of work mental health in Japan, Derbyshire and the UK.

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About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.