Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to the Rescue!

Author:  Jennifer Charlicki

Institution:  University of Alberta


Recent research has tackled the question: what can we do to minimize the physical and mental stresses from work? Dawn Querstret and colleagues suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can foster positive effects on workplace rumination, fatigue, and sleep. One group of participants engaged in a CBT workshop where they answered questions about their workplace, and also listened to how others cope with work-related stress, whereas the second group of participants did not. Six months after the initial assessment, the two groups were compared, and Querstret and her team concluded that CBT had in fact had positive effects on various aspects related to workplace exhaustion. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy merges two major fields of psychological science—cognition and behavior—with the aim of changing maladaptive thought patterns that affect our daily lives, such as only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the positive ones. The goal of CBT is to make individuals aware of how and when they engage in maladaptive thinking, and the types of effects that these thoughts have. For example, individuals often engage in arbitrary interference, which means jumping to conclusions, or personalization, which happens when an individual assumes that someone else’s actions are due to personal flaws as opposed to situational factors. CBT has been found to be effective in altering maladaptive thoughts pertaining to self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression (Albano & Barlow, 1996, Hall & Tarrier, 2005, and Shinpei et al., 2014). The goal is to then examine whether CBT can be expanded into other areas, such as the workplace. The notion behind CBT is that once we successfully tackle these maladaptive thoughts, we can begin to look at situations in a more positive light. 

As a longitudinal study, the same group of participants were assessed at multiple times. 227 participants responded to an online questionnaire which assessed different factors.  The participants rated statements regarding work-related rumination (e.g. Do you become tense when you think about work related issues during your free time?), work related fatigue (e.g. Too much is expected of me in the work place), sleep quality (e.g. Do you use sleep medications? How long do you sleep?), and job demands (e.g. Do you have to work very fast?). Of those 227 participants, 102 of them participated in the CBT workshop at their workplace. Six months later, Querstret’s team did a follow up to measure the differences between those who attended the workshop and those who didn’t. Querstret’s researchers hypothesized that those who attended the workshop would report lower workplace rumination, less chronic fatigue, and that they would have improved their sleep quality by the follow up session.

The goal of the CBT workshop was to educate participants on the effects that maladaptive thoughts have on the workplace and actions that can be taken to alter those thoughts, how our emotions, thought processes, and behaviors interact, and to identify the participants’ strengths so they could deal with work-related stress. The participants began by learning of the effects that stress has on health. They then had to identify their top three work related stressors and share them with the group in order to open their eyes to different ways that people respond to similar stressors. 

The next part of the workshop was to have the participants engage in an awareness exercise called the “ABC exercise.” Here, the merging of cognitive and behavioral science is evident. Cognition looks at how we learn, understand, and perceive our surroundings, whereas the behavioral approach looks at observable behaviors and how they are affected by the environment. This exercise divided the entire situation into different parts: (A) activating event, (B) beliefs and thoughts, and (C) emotional and behavioral consequences. The goal of this was to show participants that the consequence of the event (C) is not necessarily due to the event itself (A), but rather to how one perceives the event (B). By gaining this awareness, participants could better tackle their maladaptive thoughts and have a better overall experience. As part of the awareness exercise, participants were asked to identity mind traps, past experiences or expectations that we have of an event, that affect how we perceive a situation. By becoming aware of these mind traps, participants gained clarity as to how often a situation is perceived in a more negative light.

At the end of the workshop, participants developed a plan that they could implement in the future, which highlighted what they thought were the most important areas of change and how they could go about implementing that change (e.g. better time management, creating strong work relationships, etc.). After having the participants that completed the work shop and those not included, complete the same questionnaire 6 months later in follow up, Querstret and colleagues were able to verify two of their three hypotheses. They found that those in the CBT workshop did in fact report less rumination and less fatigue. Querstret’s group mentioned that even though there were no significant results to conclude that those in the CBT workshop had improved their sleep quality, there was still an overall increase. The lack of statistical significance may be due to the large amount of time in between the two questionnaires; they suggest that the positive effect on sleep quality may have simply faded over the course of six months. To alleviate this, the Querstret and colleagues suggest that a “booster CBT” session may be needed to sustain the positive effects on sleep.

The findings from this study demonstrate an effective method that individuals can use to not only become “psychologically detached” from work, but to do so in a way that empowers them. Querstret’s suggestion for a booster session indicates that there are ways to apply CBT to realistic work settings in order to sustain the positive effects. CBT is a method that can easily become a form of internal coping because it provides awareness that individuals can access when needed. This method could possibly expand into other fields such as education or interpersonal relationships, and work to help individuals identify their maladaptive thought patterns, and find individually structured methods to tackle the negativity and live their days with ease and clarity. With just a little guidance and knowledge on CBT, you can learn more about your own thought patterns, and you can become your strongest support system.



Albano, A.M., & Barlow, D.H. (1996). Breaking the vicious cycle: Cognitive-behavioral group treatment for socially anxious youth. E.D. Hibbs, P.C. Jensen (Eds.), Psychosocial treatments for child and adolescent disorders: Empirically based strategies for clinical practice, American Psychological Association, 43–62

Hall, P.L., & Tarrier, N. (2005). A cognitive-behavior approach to the enhancement of self-esteem in a patient suffering chronic bipolar disorder. Clinical Case Studies, 4, 263-276.

Querstret, D., Cropley, M., Kruger, P., & Heron, R. (2016). Assessing the effect of a Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)-based workshop on work related rumination, fatigue, and sleep. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 25, 50-67.

Shinpei, Y., Yasumasa, O., Keiichi, O., Miki, M., Go, O., Yoshihiko, K., … Shigeto, Y. (2014). Cognitive behavioral therapy for depression changes medial prefrontal and ventral anterior cingulate cortex activity associated with self-referential processing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(4), 487-493.