This is a story about Doug*, a high-achieving, charismatic and energized individual. Doug is a prolific “doer” who doesn’t schedule appropriate reflection time to note whether all of his doing is really benefiting his career or his organization. Doug has recently received some 360-degree feedback from his senior reports. It suggests that although Doug is creating the impression of busyness and eagerness, he is not making the impact that he would like to.

Doug is committed to changing this perception by developing new behaviours and new internal thought patterns that support behaviour change. A personal change plan is developed and Doug starts to take action toward achieving his plan.

As happens, circumstances in Doug’s organization are rapidly changing and Doug soon finds himself confronted with escalating work-related stress. He knows he is in trouble with his change plan. He feels unable to cope. He feels a decreased sense of self-efficacy and a powerlessness. He has not developed an effective coping response for this situation. What follows is Doug’s positive expectation for his old behavioural pattern/habit as an alternative coping mechanism. He lapses. His lapse is probable, even normal and natural. Whilst a lapse can mean a few days of not actioning his planned program, a relapse indicates an extended period of not actioning that program.

What is needed? A Relapse Prevention Plan. A Relapse Prevention Plan is a behavioral self-control program for individuals who are trying to maintain changes in behaviour. It’s a strategy for getting clarity, for anticipating and coping with the problem of relapse.

Factors that contribute to relapse include negative emotional or physiologic states, limited coping skills, social pressure, interpersonal conflict, limited peer/social support, low motivation, high-risk situations and stress. Relapse Prevention strategies can be grouped into two categories;

(i) Coping skills strategies— finding ways to reframe the habit change process as a learning experience with errors and setbacks that can be expected as mastery develops,

(ii) Lifestyle modification strategies— workplace and social practices designed to strengthen an individuals overall coping capacity.

Here’s an example of Doug’s Relapse Prevention Intervention:

Warning Sign: I know I am in trouble with my change program when I feel unable to cope with high levels of job-related stress.

General Coping Strategy: I will learn how to say no to taking on extra projects, limit my work to 45 hours per week, and learn how to use relaxation exercises and meditation to unwind.

Doug’s next step is to identify ways to cope with the irrational thoughts, unmanageable feelings, and self-defeating behaviours that accompany his stress. Doug developed the following coping strategies:

Irrational thought: I need to try harder in order to get things under control or else I will fail

Rational thought: I am burned out because I am trying to hard. I need to take time to rest or I will start making mistakes.

Unmanageable Feelings: Humiliation and embarrassment.

Feeling Management Strategy: Talk about my feelings with others. Remind myself that there is no reason not to talk about it with others around me. I am a fallible human being and all people get tired.

Self-defeating Behaviour: Driving myself to keep working at a pace even though I know I need to better balance my time.

Constructive Behaviour: Take a mental break and relax. Ask someone around me to review my work/project and see if they contribute.

If you would like to develop a Relapse Prevention Plan by working with a coach, I’d love to hear from you.  Contact Michelle Clarke, Leadership, Expat and Personal Branding Coach at


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