Blog #35 – Making a difference in the workplace
It is all well and good to make the case that the business community needs to pay more heed to well-being in the workplace, but at some point the practical implications of doing so must be tackled. In other words, all the statistics in the world about stress and depression and their negative impact on productivity and profitability may well raise awareness around the issues, but that alone does not constitute action. Awareness is vital but it represents no more than a starting point. If a company invites a speaker to address it on the topic of workplace well-being, a 45-minute presentation can only hope to highlight the key issues and offer compelling evidence in support of those points, but it will not be possible for any speaker to click their fingers and send an audience away magically transformed, oozing clarity and insight. Instead, even if they have created the necessary awareness, any such speaker would most likely be accosted upon leaving the podium with insistent queries around the theme of “Yes, but what do we do about it?” That is the point at which the real work begins.
In recent years, organisational and social psychologists have devoted much time and effort to research endeavours seeking to answer such questions.
Raquel Rodriguez-Carvajal was the lead author of a 2010 study which examined the role that positive psychology can play in the workplace, emphasising the potential for “mutual gains for individuals and organisations.”
Pointing to the ever-changing nature of the modern workplace, they highlighted two different strategies that companies tend to opt for when managing this process, what they described as “the traditional deficit or problem-solving approach” or a “positive-abundance approach”, with the latter reflective of an attitude that an overall goal of any organisation should be to maximise the potential of employees.
They reviewed 154 articles as part of their study, and found that positive approaches geared towards building on strengths helped to facilitate “mutual gains” – where both the organisation and individual employees benefited. Among the areas they highlighted were how organisational culture relates to job satisfaction, how organisational support predicts employee well-being and general health, and how a ‘servant’ leadership style, which seeks to facilitate the development and growth of individuals, is linked to positive outcomes.
In 2013, M Christina Meyers, Marianne van Woerkom, and Arnold B Bakker’s article highlighting “the added value of the positive” was published in European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. This review looked at positive psychology interventions which had been undertaken in the organisational setting up to that point. The authors looked at 15 studies that met three key criteria – being concerned with the cultivation of positive subjective experiences, building positive individual traits, and building civic virtue and positive institutions.
Among the interventions they looked at were: loving-kindness meditation, a resilience promotion programme for adults, counting blessings (gratitude), and cognitive behavioural coaching (helping people to think in more effective and realistic ways, i.e., identifying and overcoming cognitive distortions).
They reported positive results, concluding that these approaches represented “a promising tool for enhancing employee well-being and performance.” As well as building on strengths, they also noted that the interventions impacted positively on negatives, e.g., they were linked with reduced levels of burnout, stress, depression, and anxiety.
In 2014, Seth Kaplan and co-authors had an article published in Journal of Business Psychology in which they tested the effectiveness of two positive psychology interventions in increasing employee well-being.
With an eye towards examining the role that the individual can play in managing their own well-being, they looked at gratitude and social connectedness. Participants in the gratitude condition were asked to maintain a log of work-related gratitude at least three times per week for the duration of the study, while those in the social connectedness condition were told to engage in activities designed to increase social ties in the workplace three times per week and to document their experiences.
They reported that the gratitude intervention was successful in influencing self-reported gratitude and positive affect, but did not impact on negative affect to a statistically significant degree. Also, both interventions were found to have been linked to a reduction in illness-related absenteeism.
Reflecting upon their findings, the authors concluded that self-guided interventions can impact positively on employee well-being. Crucially, from the company perspective, such interventions can be delivered at little cost.
As you can imagine, the studies referred to above represent no more than the tip of the iceberg. There is a wealth of information out there, with new studies being reported on a regular basis. The take home message is that the importance of looking to maximise well-being in the workplace is becoming increasingly accepted, and we are continuing to learn more about how best to do so as time passes.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.