The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Take a Little Oxytocin and Call Me in the Morning

A trusting workplace improves the health of employees.

I’ve written a lot about how fostering a high-trust work environment can create more joy on the job—and, in turn, help boost a company’s financial health through higher levels of productivity and innovation.

But can a more trusting workplace also help improve the health of individual employees?

A neuroscience study that I recently conducted at a large midwestern manufacturing company shows that the answer is yes.

To understand how a culture of trust affects work and health, my team and I designed work-relevant tasks for employees to do and put sensors on participants’ torsos and hands to measure their cardiac activity, vagal tone (a measure of relaxation), and stress responses. We took blood samples, as well.

Participants also completed our Ofactor survey of organizational trust. As I’ve explained previously, Ofactor is based on eight specific practices—including giving unexpected praise, setting clear goals and demonstrating concern for the whole person—that increase oxytocin, the chemical foundation for trusting others. Years of experiments have shown that when managers increase interpersonal trust in this way, it deepens employee engagement and, in turn, improves organizational performance.

The results of our midwestern study were profound: Our analysis of blood samples showed that employees in the top quartile of the Ofactor survey released 228 percent more oxytocin when working with colleagues compared with those in the lowest trust quartile.

Comparing those who rated in the top quartile of Ofactor with those in the bottom quartile, we found that people in high-trust divisions said they felt 49 percent closer to their work colleagues and had 31 percent more joy at work.

They were also two percent more productive. This makes perfect sense. Trust facilitates work by bringing people together with a sense of focus on each other and the tasks to be done.

But notably, these effects continued after people had stopped working.

For instance, when we measured the change in people’s heart rates five minutes after work had concluded to assess how quickly they recovered from stress, cardiac activity declined 155 percent more in the high-trust versus low-trust group of employees. Even more rapid reductions in stress were found in respiration rates and electrodermal activity (the stress reflected in the sweat in the hands) for employees who worked in high-trust divisions.

This suggests that working in a low-trust job may adversely affect people’s health.

Indeed, the health data we collected revealed that high-trust individuals took 33 percent fewer sick days and had 7 percent fewer doctor’s office visits. The high-trust group also had 53 percent less chronic stress.

“Hippocrates said to drink only water from the spring, go to bed early...eat sparingly and nothing fat,” Peter Drucker once observed. To this he might well have added: And work for a company that cultivates trust.

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This post orginally appeared in The Drucker Exchange May 1, 2014 and used by permission.

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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