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How to Improve Workplace Wellbeing

The importance of lightheartedness and underscoring employee contributions.

Key points

  • While underestimating how much employees are struggling, leaders are having a hard time too.
  • Leaders need to make it safe for employees to talk about stuggling in the workplace
  • Leaders can cultivate flourishing in the workplace by making simple changes.

During an off-site luncheon meeting, high-level leaders were intently focused on the launch of a new product, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Not only were all eyes, literally and figuratively, on this team, but the arrangement also meant a potential financial gain for shareholders. After a sluggish previous quarter, a big “win" was needed. However, for one executive, Jason (not his real name), while his eyes were focused on the slides being presented, his attention was elsewhere.

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During our consulting session, Jason shared the fact that the word “exhaustion” kept rising to the surface. At times it happened when work overflowed into his personal life, and he found himself shrugging off work and home responsibilities. Other times, he would sit in his car trying to summon up the motivation and energy to enter the office. In the past, Jason was one of the first ones in the office- often the one making the first pot of morning coffee. He also felt he wasn’t productive, despite no one actually calling him out on anything.

Although Jason felt his suffering was unique to his situation, I explained to him that he is not alone. The issue “burnout” is all too familiar with a growing number of employees. Sadly, According to Slack Future Forum, 40% of employees felt burned out in 2022.

Research by Deloitte Insights suggests leaders are suffering too. In this study, 41% of executives reported being stressed, 40% reported being overwhelmed, 30% reported feeling lonely, and 26% reported being depressed.

What's just as shocking is the fact that we don’t talk about suffering in the workplace. Instead, we think we have to quit our job or disengage from our work (quiet quitting). Maybe what we actually need is to make it safe to talk about suffering at work.

As an organizational psychologist who's been researching and advising leaders on workplace well-being for years, there are many practices that promote well-being, require minimal time and resources, and actually improve workplace productivity. Bringing the topic of struggling out of the closet and having open authentic conversations is one of them. Doing so can generate compassionate support, psychological safety, and team alignment - all of which improve workplace productivity. What I've also found is that such conversations between a leader and employee can be a profound moment. As one healthcare technician shared with me, “I felt that he actually cared about me as a person. I’ll never forget how he was there for me when I needed it. I didn’t feel so alone and I didn’t feel as though I had to keep this big secret from others at work.”

Leaders play an important role in making it safe to talk about suffering in the workplace, but this is just one of the many things they can do to improve mental health in the workplace. When I speak to leaders about the topic, they are open, but aren’t quite sure how it fits their current mode of operation. On the business side they are facing significant time pressures, a rapidly changing business landscape, and worry about economic recession and possible layoffs. On the personal side, they’re seeking something that can help them ameliorate their own suffering as well.

I share with them a flourishing perspective to workplace well-being that provides evidence-based workplace practices involving slight changes to the way we work. Based on the fields of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship, this research identifies what we need to optimize human functioning and how we can redesign workplace practices to promote optimal functioning. What we know is that positive relationships, positive meaning, and positive emotions are the nutrients we need to flourish. Research also demonstrates that organizations that make sure employees have these nutrients increase their energy level, which subsequently drives organizational success. Flourishing practices range from small things that take a few minutes to system level strategies that involve redesigning the workplace so flourishing occurs as work tasks are accomplished.

Below I’m offering some ways in which leaders can start with flourishing. Since these are only guidelines, leaders can make them as simple or complex as they fit within their organization.

Here are three easy ways leaders can implement the science of flourishing right away:

Source: Shutterstock

1) Tell your employees how they matter: Do your employees know how their work contributes to the overall goals of the team or the organization? If you have hired an employee, they play some role in contributing to the overall success of the company.

All too often leaders assume that employees know how their work makes a difference. More often than not, employees don’t know if or how their day-to-day activities make a difference. Even if they do, hearing it directly from their leader or supervisor is a way of letting them know others appreciate what they do. This strategy directly promotes positive meaning, relationships, and emotions in both the employee and the leader.

2) Allow moments of play or lightheartedness at work: At the beginning of a meeting, make it a habit to add a few minutes of fun. If it is a virtual meeting, consider playing an uplifting tune as you are waiting for members to join or a quick home office scavenger hunt. We have the assumption that joy or happiness doesn’t belong in the workplace because it reduces productivity. This is an assumption that needs to be debunked. Some CEOs, such as Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations, have found ways to fully incorporate joy into the workplace while still remaining productive and profitable. Bringing joy to the workplace not only promotes flourishing by increasing positive emotions, but it also strengthens workplace relationships.

3) Celebrate accomplishments: All too often we move onto the next challenge without ever taking the time to savor our wins. Taking the time to recognize the small wins by dedicating five minutes at the end of meetings devoted to calling out the small victories of your team. Not only does this directly promote flourishing by fulfilling our need for achievement, but it also builds positive relationships, meaning and emotions if done as a group.

If your first response is that you simply don’t have the time, consider that it is energy management - not time management - that is far more important to workplace performance and productivity. Activities that promote flourishing are an important part of energy management because they have restorative and energizing properties. Time spent rejuvenating employees is time well spent, particularly during these times of exceptional stress.

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