Isaiah Pickens Ph.D.

Revolutionary Thoughts

3 Keys to Workplace Wellness Based on Psychological Science

Strategies for promoting wellness in the 21st-century workplace.

Posted Mar 06, 2020

Isaiah Pickens/Shutterstock
Source: Isaiah Pickens/Shutterstock

It felt like her first day, despite being her third year at the job. Her steady corporate climb was met with some resistance but led to this opportunity presenting her big idea to the big bosses. The year was 1990 and the stress connected to excelling or failing at her pitch weighed on her because a clear pathway to lifelong employment at this dream job hung in the balance.

Fast forward 30 years and another young woman preparing to pitch her bosses is stressed for different reasons. She is not sure if this job is connected to her passion, allows her to show up authentically, or is generally beneficial to her overall wellbeing and right for the long-term life she envisions. Her bosses are also stressed by concerns that acceptance or rejection of her pitch may be misconstrued as a violation of the implicit or explicit rules of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In the 21st-century, workplace stress abounds in forms rarely acknowledged in the 20th century and requires a nuanced plan to promote a healthy work environment for employers and employees. These approaches aim to maximize potential while supporting several new forms of in-person and remote collaboration required to integrate the increasingly specialized skills of a more diverse workforce. Here are science-based keys to navigate the complexity of the 21st-century workplace.

1. Foster a psychologically safe workplace using a holistic perspective of wellness.

Generating ideas and executing plans in the workplace requires interpersonal and emotional risks that can lead both employees and employers to resist potential rejection. As rejection and workplace stress can lead to feeling unsafe in the work environment, intentional organizational efforts to promote psychological safety are consistently linked to staff who work together more cohesively, trust the decisions of leadership and colleagues more willingly, and display greater productivity and willingness to try novel approaches to solve old problems.

Psychological safety is often defined as a person’s ability to manage stress or connect with someone who can support stress management. At the heart of building a psychologically safe work environment is understanding how the workplace can trigger different fears and hopes based on who a person is and how their life experiences have shaped their perspective about strategies to maintain emotional stability and connectedness to others.

A couple of recommendations for building a psychologically safe workplace include:

  • Upgrade the staff lounge and other spaces in the office to soothe senses. Sensory input from sounds, smells, touch, taste, and sight can either trigger the stress response of fight, flight, or freeze or provide a gateway to self-regulation when staff are encouraged to use sensory calming tools routinely during the day. Create spaces where sensory soothers such as a room for rest with dim lighting, playdough or sand to fidget and release anxious energy, or sweet-smelling incense are readily available to calm the stress response.
  • Create opportunities to build trust through cultivating shared wellness practices that promote psychological safety. These opportunities can include beginning team meetings with a brief wellness activity such as a one-minute meditation, developing gratitude routines throughout the organization that gives opportunities to express gratitude for others, and developing a set of guidelines for disagreeing with colleagues in a manner that aims for connected relationships and repairing damage when it occurs.
  • Learn how to support emotional recharge that is connected more directly to the whole person. People feel stress for a variety of reasons but giving them an opportunity to identify strategies for recharging their emotional, intellectual, relational, physical, spiritual, and financial wellbeing provides a more complete set of options to alleviate stress related to specific important life domains. This can be done with a self-care assessment tool and also by inventorying different stressors in the workplace and brainstorming a list of wellness strategies to address these specific stressors that will be incorporated into the workplace.

2. Strive for leadership and staff opportunities to express authentic selves.

The desire to feel valued is an extension of the biological need to belong and connect with others who can provide guidance for navigating the world safely. One of the most important filters for understanding whether we are valued and safe is our social identity. Stress is generally tied to what makes us feel threatened or afraid, while motivation is tied to what makes us feel whole and fulfilled.

According to identity-based motivation theory, stress can be triggered when an event prompts feelings of inadequacy related to personally salient social identities—suggesting that identities ranging from being a father, woman, Black person, Christian, or any other personally important identity can become a pathway toward stress or further psychological safety when supported. The workplace can inadvertently create spaces that constantly invalidate the important social identities of individuals, and in the process, increase the likelihood that staff feel underappreciated and leadership misses the chance to enrich the work environment with the unique talents that manifest when individuals are able to reveal their authentic selves.

Some strategies for creating spaces that promote authentic expression of self include:

  • Let the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lead the way. At the heart of DEI is finding avenues for individuals to express their authentic selves in a way that is valued by others and aligns with the company mission. Key DEI principles include disrupting bias and harassment, promoting spaces to safely discuss feelings of non-acceptance, and promoting opportunities to celebrate authentic and unique aspects of individuals.
  • Invite weekly brief readings or film viewings about an event or experience that illuminates the worldviews of staff. Often an article, poem, or video clip that resonates with a colleague’s life experience can be a relatively disarming start to a facilitated discussion about challenging topics.
  • Promote a growth mindset about self and relationships. A growth mindset speaks to the ability to have an expansive perspective about one’s ability to achieve goals and counters beliefs that performance is fixed and failure is an indication of permanent incompetence. It has also been linked to stress-reducing cognitive skills. When applied to understanding the multifaceted identities and perspectives others bring to organizations, promotion of a growth mindset organization-wide can support more expansive perspectives of the talent and skills others bring, the reasons for conflict, and how to create opportunities for people to feel accepted as their authentic selves and contribute toward a healthier workplace.

3. Imbue workplace duties with meaning and build compassion into the organizational fabric.

Effective workplace wellness moves beyond reducing workplace stress and strives to promote workplace fulfillment. Feeling psychologically safe as one’s authentic self is an important foundation, but connecting the workplace to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose is a key factor for many young adult professionals to remain at a job. Connecting job duties with meaning and purpose becomes easier when the workplace culture involves compassionate interactions between leadership and staff. Compassionate interactions have been associated with increased feelings of trust, openness, and a host of other attributes that may facilitate staff sharing ideas about how their work can be made more meaningful. 

Suggestions for infusing purpose into the workplace with a wellness lens include:

  • Promote work/life alignment. The pendulum of remote versus in-person work, push for increased paternal leave, and opportunities for staff to participate in physical wellness programs at work are recent attempts employers have made to support employees’ pursuit of work/life balance. The effectiveness of these strategies is multiplied when the values undergirding employees’ authentic identities guide organizational wellness plans and are directly used to generate ideas about aligning needs in work and life with skills to sufficiently meet those needs. Connecting strategies with authentic identity potentially achieves a feat beyond reducing stress and begins to make inroads toward building strengths that increase sense of purpose and efficacy.
  • Let healthy emotional contagion take control. The emotional state of organizational leaders can be contagious and shape work culture. Developing organizational leadership’s emotional intelligence provides a pathway for modeling psychologically safe approaches to resolving conflict, building trust, and connecting work tasks with opportunities for meaningful contribution in the workplace.
  • Honor mental health with intentional actions to maintain wellbeing. Few actions honor mental health in the workplace more than promoting a compassionate work environment. Compassion toward others reflects empathy in action—a willingness to understand others' perspectives and respond in an emotionally attuned manner. Self-compassion is linked with a reduction of the stress response and can position a person to replace stress-inducing thoughts with healthy perspectives that lead to healthier expressions of one’s authentic self. Infusing wellness and mindfulness activities promoting compassion toward others and self-compassion into the workplace may provide a catalyst for an organizational transformation that naturally leads to workplace wellness.

The evolution of workplace wellness presents opportunities to connect health with holistic practices reflecting the values shaping how individuals navigate the work environment. The promise of this next iteration of workplace wellness lies in the potential to create a work culture that values those whose stress partially stems from their values being ignored, and now, are affirmed through partnering with employers to build a safe and authentic space allowing them to meaningfully contribute to the world with their professional talents.

References

May, D. R., Gilson, R. L., & Harter, L. M. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 77(1), 11-37.

Wolever, R. Q., Bobinet, K. J., McCabe, K., Mackenzie, E. R., Fekete, E., Kusnick, C. A., & Baime, M. (2012). Effective and viable mind-body stress reduction in the workplace: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of occupational health psychology, 17(2), 246.

Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, stress, & coping, 30(4), 379-395.

Edmondson, A. C., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct. Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav., 1(1), 23-43.  

Visser, V. A., van Knippenberg, D., Van Kleef, G. A., & Wisse, B. (2013). How leader displays of happiness and sadness influence follower performance: Emotional contagion and creative versus analytical performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(1), 172-188.

Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self‐compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness‐based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health, 26(5), 359-371.