Updated: Jun 27
Article written by Kate Neilson
Published in Australian HR Institute, 28 February 2019
While you may picture a man in a top hat swinging a fob watch in your eye line, hypnosis is much less mystical in real life. It’s gaining momentum in the workplace and some claim it might become “the next meditation”.
As the focus on workplace wellness continues to ramp up, leaders are looking to test various techniques to optimise their output and get the most out of their teams. One of the less conventional techniques is hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy divides people into believers and skeptics. There are plenty who attribute their sudden surge in confidence to hypnotherapy, and others who suggest it could be used as a tool to eliminate unconscious recruitment bias. On the other side of the fence are those who think it’s more stagecraft than science.
Then there are those who strongly believe the practice is dangerous. The famous case of the three students who died after their principal, an unlicensed hypnotherapist, taught them techniques and practiced on them, acts as a cautionary tale. I myself sit on the skeptical side of the fence. I don’t doubt that hypnosis works, but I wonder if it’s a bandaid on a bullet wound approach to treating complex psychological issues. But I am definitely no expert on the matter, so I decided to talk to a hypnotherapist.
THE NEW MEDITATION?
A man whose career as a banker was making him so unhappy that he decided to retrain as a landscaper; a 40 year-old employee who found himself bullied by the very people who poached him; and a mother who was scared to return to work – all of these people used hypnosis (paired with other forms of therapy) to overcome their professional barriers. According to the woman who helped them do it, it worked.
Dr Amanda Ferguson is an organisational psychologist and clinical hypnotherapist and has been using hypnotherapy as a tool for years. Her client are usually seeking a remedy to overcome something. They might be anxious or have a performance issue. They might have a phobia they need to tackle or an addiction they need to kick.
“I use what’s called ego state therapy to investigate what’s blocking them or causing the addiction or lack of confidence, and I disarm that part of them,” Ferguson told HRM.
Ferguson, like many others, says it’s parallel with meditation, which has been a pillar of workplace wellness policies and wellbeing workshops for some time.
“With meditation and hypnosis we go into alpha brainwave state. The only difference between the two is in hypnosis we’re focusing on something therapeutic, whereas when we’re meditating we’re focusing on nothing.
“Athletes and musicians have used [hypnotherapy] for many decades in Australia. So why wouldn’t corporates be taking to it? It’s killing two bird with one stone. You’ll see results therapeutically, in a performance management sense, and get your twenty minutes in alpha state, which has a general wellbeing benefit.”
For the cynics among us, Ferguson says even we are experiencing alpha state on a daily basis.
“You’re doing it each morning and night without realising. All I’m doing is inducing a naturally occurring state.”
She likens it to the feeling of nearing sleep and hearing your phone ring. While you’re aware of what’s going on, you’re not totally conscious of the decision you make to either get up and answer the phone or ignore it. One of her clients Joshua*, who has undergone hypnotherapy 10-12 times, backs up this explanation.
“It’s like the state where you’re half awake and half asleep. You’re just in your own mind. Nothing else is apparent around you. It’s almost like a meditative state. You’re guided by her, but you go off into your own little wonderland,” he told HRM.
“She helped me extract the qualities that I saw as most important to my leadership identity and to leave behind the ones that were holding me back.”
Clifford Lazarus psychologist and co-founder of The Lazarus Institute says a lot of the fear around hypnotism comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between stage hypnotism and clinical hypnotism. In an article on Psychology Today he says it would be like comparing the storyline of a Hollywood movie to your own life.
“The suggestions given to people under hypnosis appear to be an important part of the mechanism through which the procedure works. While many people won’t accept or respond to an up-front, direct suggestion, under hypnosis suggestions seem to get into the mind – perhaps through the ‘back door’ of consciousness where they often germinate and take root as important behavioural or psychological changes,” he says.
It’s not like the hypnosis you see on The Footy Show, Ferguson says, where people are made to cluck like a chicken.
“I can’t make you do anything that your subconscious doesn’t buy into. The people they pick for those shows are already party animals, so they’re going to act out.”
Ferguson spends time screening her clients before they undergo hypnosis and if there’s any history of psychosis, Bipolar or epilepsy, she won’t proceed.
“Clinical hypnotherapists are rigorously trained to screen people. If there’s any potential of tipping someone into a psychotic episode, we don’t want to touch it,” she says.
CAN IT MAKE YOU BETTER AT YOUR JOB?
The short answer is ‘maybe’.
But various researchers suggest only 10-15 per cent of the population are easily lulled into a hypnotic state; the majority of us have a medium chance of entering a trance. Medical News Today suggests that the small percentage of people who are susceptible to hypnosis experience “high activity levels in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and parietal networks of the brain” during hypnosis.
“These are areas of the brain involved in a range of complex functions, including memory and perception, processing emotions, and task learning,” the article reads.
“I can’t make you do anything that your subconscious doesn’t buy into.”
Dush might be one of the people belonging to the 10-15 percentile. He went to Ferguson for her psychological services at first to manage some stress in his life and eventually started talking about her other therapy offerings. Prior to undergoing hypnotherapy, Dush said he was “incredibly cynical” about the process.
“I had read about it before and I didn’t believe in it. What changed my perspective was when I tried meditation, which has a similar approach and end goal. Meditation was effective for me and I read about how it was effective for other leaders in the workplace, therefore I was open to trying hypnotherapy.”
The aim for Dush was to improve his confidence and leadership expertise around managing difficult colleagues and stakeholders.
“She helped me extract the qualities that I saw as most important to my leadership identity and to leave behind the ones that were holding me back. One of my issues is that I’m an empath; I’m very affected by other people’s negative emotions and that can hold me back in the workplace.
“So it was about saying things like ‘that’s not me’, saying lot’s of statements that were positively affirming how I’d be a stronger individual who was resolute in my being. Some of the language was a little bit “airy-fairy”, so there was a healthy level of reflectivity when I entered the process.”
For the few days following his session, Dush says he felt clarity and that somewhere ingrained in his psyche was his end goal. He hasn’t gone back, and notes that this one-off session only provided a quick fix, but he says he’s curious to find out if the cumulative impact would be beneficial. He thinks it would best benefit someone who was already born with natural leadership qualities.
Joshua also had a positive experience. It wasn’t helpful every time, but often it worked. “It wasn’t an overnight transition for me. I queried it beforehand and I was a little apprehensive and cautious.
“I’ve always come out of it feeling better and more aware of what I was dealing with, or it’s had a small effect that I might have felt later in the following days. It’s benefited me in both work and my general life. There’s a sense of confidence in dealing with whatever problem you have. Not to say it was a miracle cure, but it gave me an awareness and the tools to understand and move forward.”
Returning to the example of the three high school children in Florida who died in 2011 after undergoing hypnosis. Two of the teenagers are thought to have taken their own lives and the third veered off the road when driving, apparently having sent himself into a hypnotic state.
The principal, George Kenny, was unlicensed and used hypnosis as a means to cure anxiety, concentration and lack of confidence in around 75 students of North Port High School. While there’s no definitive link between hypnotism and the deaths – and many suggest the students had pre-existing mental health struggles – it definitely played a role in exacerbating fears.
A psychologist who spoke with Slate on the issue says: “The issue in working with hypnosis is that there can be latent things that are triggered, like past experiences and memories, and the patient can have a bad reaction. Does hypnosis cause suicide in and of itself? That’s not really likely. Can it trigger some sort of mental health problem that was dormant? Yes.”
In response to this scenario, Ferguson says, “This is a clear cut example that only professionals should do therapy. It’s the same for psychotherapy. If you start asking people to tell you about [sensitive topics] and you’re not trained to deal with it, you’re playing with fire. The same goes for hypnosis.”
*Name was changed.