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Improv can be an effective tool to understand workplace mental health

Angela Gismondi
Improv can be an effective tool to understand workplace mental health

Using the “yes, and” philosophy in our lives will help to build better mental health.

That was the message from Nancy Watt, president of Nancy Watt Communications, a Second City Conservatory Alumna, speaker, writer and improviser who talked about how improv can be used as an unconventional and effective way to manage mental health in the workplace at a recent Ontario Road Builders’ Association webinar.

“It intrigued me from the get go that there was something very powerful, something steeped in humanity and healing, that was going on in the co-creation of improvisational theatre,” explained Watt.

“Some of you might know the principle, foundation, rule of improv is something called ‘yes, and.’ This philosophy is an interesting combination in what builds resiliency. ‘Yes’ elicits a feeling in a human of some vulnerability in order to accept that which is difficult to accept. The, ‘and’ is empowering. That’s where I add my voice to the scene. I can observe my thoughts that are damaging to my mental health and I can change course and pivot accordingly. This interesting dynamic of ‘yes,’ and ‘and,’ which is vulnerability and empowerment…is the very road of recovery.”

To illustrate the “yes, and,” philosophy she used an example of two people, John and Abby, creating a scene on stage.

“Abby says ‘look at the dark clouds, it’s definitely going to storm’ and John does not block that, he doesn’t negate the reality that she has created and that is all it is, that we accept the reality of what is,” explained Watt. “That might sound overly simplistic and I guarantee you that it is not. Very often we hear in mental health the pain is in the resistance or the lack of acceptance of what is or not being able to acknowledge and identify some of the warning signs of anxiety, depression, and stress. We deny it and we negate it and the very first thing we need to do is accept it.

“What we find when we have a ‘yes, and’ conversation is that we accept the reality and build on it.”

Many forms of mental illness are a result of profound disconnection, Watt noted.

“Improv and co-creation, creativity and communication are all about connection,” she said. “Where we stumble, where we have a speed bump in our connection and conversations and our own mental health is when we say not ‘yes, and,’ but ‘yes, but.’ ‘But’ stops us in our tracks.”

Watt has hosted many mental health workshops for many companies including construction and engineering firms. One thing she has learned over the years is while mental health is a serious issue, improv and comedy are powerful tools with many benefits and laughter often is the best medicine.

“Why on Earth would we be talking about something that is seemingly fun and comedic and light?” asked Watt. “Let me tell you that I do not take mental health issues lightly at all.

“When we can appreciate what humour does and why we have comedy in society it allows us an on-ramp. It allows us a bridge to be able to talk about what needs to be talked about.”

This year has been hard for many and Watt offered tools for ORBA’s Mental Health Toolbox, using the ORBA acronym: observation, resiliency, bravery and adaptability to deal with mental health issues including depression, anxiety and workplace stress.

“A lot of this research is not only steeped in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy…but it also comes from the emerging science of positive psychology, the study of optimal human functioning,” said Watt.

“What positive psychology interventions do is allow us not to be happy or positive all the time, what it does is allow us to suffer well.

“Adversity is a reality. Our organizations will suffer, we will suffer, our children will hurt, and it is how we overcome that that defines our character, defines our ability and our management of mental health.”

There is a stigma around mental health and tradesmen and women don’t get the same opportunities as others to talk about it openly and be vulnerable, said Watt.

“Another tool in your toolbox is the morning huddle,” Watt said. “It is really powerful that we come together and we are a cohesive group, that your colleagues around the construction site are able to huddle up and with a few solidifying connecting exercises and are able to build that trust and unity in the team.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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Harold A Maio Image Harold A Maio

—There is a stigma around mental health

More aptly and accurately there are people taught and teaching that prejudice.

Harold A Maio


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