Practical Applications of RFT: ACT In the Workplace, Part Two

In our previous research round-up about the applications of relational frame theory in the workplace, we’ve presented just a portion of the data that has shown the effectiveness of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) interventions in the workplace.

Therapeutic interventions based on ACT are effective in both increasing worker resilience and enhancing innovation and performance. Circling back to our previous discussions of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), understanding how ACT interventions work is a crucial part of understanding the role of relational framing in this context. ACT interventions are designed to impact an individual’s psychological flexibility, that is, one’s ability to contact the present moment without avoidance, enabling persistence of change in behavior in pursuit of values or goals (Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Lillis, & Masuda, 2006).

In ACT interventions, psychological flexibility is established through six core processes:

  1. Acceptance

  2. Cognitive Defusion

  3. Being in the present moment

  4. Self-as-context

  5. Values

  6. Committed action (Blackledge & Drake, 2012)

From an RFT perspective, psychological flexibility can be viewed as an indication of an individual’s repertoire of relational responding. Specifically, certain repertoires of relational responding enable more flexible, adaptive responding to environmental contingencies, whereas other repertoires result in less flexible responding (rigid rule following). According to RFT, many of the functions of antecedents and consequences in the workplace are established through relational responding. For example, the positive emotional feelings (or predicted feelings) associated with having a “corner office” might be due to its participation in sameness (coordination) relations with being successful, or due to “greater than” (comparison) relations between the employee’s view of himself/herself and his/her colleagues. Without language to make one office “better than” another, it is unlikely that the actual differences between offices would affect behavior. Rather, it is the derived sameness relations between the “corner office” and “success” established by the employees verbal behavior and derived comparison relations between “me” and “them” that makes the “corner office” a derived reinforcer. Such verbal transformations of function are necessary for us to work together toward long-term goals, but this power of language to transform the functions of stimuli may also encourage psychological inflexibility because, to a degree, verbal behavior can establish its own reinforcement. In fact, numerous research studies have shown that verbal rules can induce behavior that is insensitive to programmed contingencies (see Hayes, Zettle, & Rosenfarb, 1989 for a review).


There is now considerable evidence that psychological flexibility is an important predictor of employee mental health. A number of the intervention studies mentioned in the previous post provide evidence that enhancing psychological flexibility is one of the key components that determines the effectiveness of ACT interventions. In various studies, increased psychological flexibility showed to function as a mediator of change even after controlling for changes in cognitive content. A few examples:

  • Bond and Bunce (2003) conducted a longitudinal study with 412 customer service center workers in which greater flexibility not only predicted better mental health but also performance (fewer errors) one year later.

  • Donaldson-Feilder and Bond (2004) surveyed 290 workers in the UK from five different organizations to compare how well psychological flexibility and emotional intelligence, another meta-cognitive measure, predicted well-being. The correlation between psychological flexibility and general mental health and physical well-being was stronger than the correlation between emotional intelligence and these outcome variables.

  • Bond and Flaxman (2006) found that job control and psychological flexibility predicted the learning, performance, and mental health of 488 customer service center workers. Additionally, there was an interaction effect of psychological flexibility on job control. Higher levels of psychological flexibility increased the beneficial effects of higher levels of job control on learning, performance, and mental health.

  • In a rehabilitation setting, McCracken and Yang (2008) surveyed 98 workers including nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, physicians, speech and language therapists, psychologists, and administrative staff. Psychological flexibility, mindfulness, and values-based action were associated with less burnout, better health, and better well-being.

  • Bond, Flaxman and Bunce (2008) tested the extent to which a work reorganization intervention improve mental health, absence rates, and job motivation by enhancing perceived levels of job control. Participants with higher levels of psychological flexibility perceived that they had greater levels of job control due to the intervention, which led to improvements in mental health and absence rates.

As you can see, greater psychological flexibility had not only a direct positive effect on mental health, but also indirect benefits through enhanced job control. Clearly ACT interventions have been effective in a variety of organizations, both in reducing psychological distress at work and in enabling workers to enhance their performance. Interventions have demonstrated reliable positive effects on general mental health and decreases in depression, depersonalization, stigmatization, and burnout. They’ve also been shown to empower employees to take on new work challenges, and embrace positive change in work practices and structure. The constructs based on relational frame theory that are understood to underlie the efficacy of ACT interventions, particularly psychological flexibility, mediate the impact of ACT interventions in the workplace and are associated with increased employee resilience and performance improvement.


Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(1), 1–25.

Hayes, S. C., Zettle R. D., & Rosenfarb, I. (1989). Rule following. In S. C. Hayes (Ed.) Rule-governed behavior: Cognition, contingencies and instructional control (pp. 191-220). New York: Plenum.

Bond, F. W., & Bunce, D. (2003). The role of acceptance and job control in mental health, job satisfaction, and work performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(6), 1057–1067.

Donaldson-Feilder, E. J., & Bond, F. W. (2004). The relative importance of psychological acceptance and emotional intelligence to workplace well-being. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 32(2), 187–203.

Bond, F. W., & Flaxman, P. E. (2006). The ability of psychological flexibility and job control to predict learning, job performance, and mental health. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26(1-2), 113–130.

McCracken, L. M., & Yang, S.-Y. (2008). A contextual cognitive-behavioral analysis of rehabilitation workers’ health and well-being: Influences of acceptance, mindfulness, and values-based action. Rehabilitation Psychology, 53(4),479–485.

Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(3), 645–654.

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