Business people across the globe will be familiar with the acronym ‘VUCA’, used to describe the world as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Even if you weren’t convinced about the usefulness or relevance of this term before COVID-19, it’s very likely that the past 12-15 months will have changed your mind. The pandemic has shown that the world is unpredictable and the ways in which we do business have to be able to change and adapt quickly or languish and die.
Businesses that have survived and thrived during the pandemic are those which have been able to pivot – that is, work in new ways that enable short-term survival along with long-term resilience and growth. Examples include pubs which could not open during lockdown offering take-away food, retailers selling online rather than in bricks-and-mortar shops, and manufacturers switching lines: e.g. distillers making hand sanitiser rather than alcoholic drinks. In these successful and enduring businesses, employees, leaders and managers have been creative, optimistic and resilient in the face of unimaginable disruption. Rather than persisting with their usual ways of operating, they have spotted and seized the opportunity to do things differently. What enables them to do this and how is the science of wellbeing relevant?
This past year has seen an even greater focus on mental and physical wellbeing. Naturally the pandemic and the fear of ill-health has stress and anxiety, as people have juggled remote working, home schooling and caring for elderly relatives and friends. On top of their regular responsibilities, HR departments the world over have had to wrestle with new policies and procedures around furloughing staff, virtual recruitment, supporting staff to return to work after illness and those with long-COVID, as well as helping teams and team leaders adapt to remote working. Few businesses can succeed without an engaged and high performing workforce and it’s natural to assume that alleviating stress and anxiety is key. No leader wants their staff to be stressed or anxious, and for many organisations, the HR department is both the first and last resort when it comes to supporting staff who are struggling.
So we know that a focus on workplace wellbeing is vital: numerous studies show that people with higher wellbeing are less likely to take time off sick, suffer burnout, or leave. But there is another side to the wellbeing coin. High wellbeing at work is not only an antidote to stress and burnout, it also creates a competitive advantage: employees with higher wellbeing are more productive, make more sales, get higher performance ratings and higher pay, and are better leaders. Studies also show that higher wellbeing is linked to better relationships, higher creativity and increased resilience, which are essential for businesses to survive and thrive during difficult times. The icing on the cake is research showing that every $1 invested in employee well‐being yields a return of $3-$5.[i] Workplace wellbeing should be top of every leader, manager, and HR professional’s list of business priorities.
With such compelling evidence that wellbeing is correlated with important business outcomes, many positive psychology academics and practitioners are keen to explain how the science can be applied in practical ways. If you want a resilient, creative, high-performing business, you need resilient, creative high-performing people. Organisational psychology researchers Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton and Robert Quinn emphasise the role of ‘positive leadership’ practices in creating workplace wellbeing. Many of their recommendations aren’t rocket-science, but they aren’t necessarily easy to implement either. Let’s look at the key domains where positive leadership can make a real difference to workplace wellbeing and organisational performance.
(Adapted from Cameron, 2008)
- Creating a positive climate at work
Positive leaders have a role in creating an organisational climate which enables their employees to thrive and do their best work. This isn’t about tangible perks like free drinks or gaming machines, even though these might be appreciated. A Gallup Organization survey found that fun at work is not top of the list for Millennials; they prefer opportunities to learn and grow[i]. Creating a positive environment at work is more about feeling safe to share both positive and negative emotions, reflect on and learn from what is going well and also what is not going well, share ideas without being laughed at and take risks without the fear of reprisals. Positive leaders can help to develop such a climate by openly expressing their compassion to those having a difficult time, appreciation to those who have done a good job and forgiving those who have made a mistake. You might think that one person’s bad mood won’t matter to workplace wellbeing overall, but research shows that both good and bad moods have a ripple effect across social groups. So, if those in positions of responsibility take a positive lead, others will follow suit.
- Enabling Positive Performance
Research shows that people naturally want to perform well; they want to feel competent, make progress and feel a sense of mastery in what they do. Leaders and managers have an essential role to play in facilitating high performance at work. Broadly speaking they can help in two ways; by reducing or removing barriers such as workload, unrealistic deadlines and unnecessary bureaucracy, or by increasing resources such as mentoring or coaching, giving regular constructive feedback, and increasing autonomy.
Numerous studies suggest that feeling autonomous at work is linked to higher motivation, performance and wellbeing, and that a perceived lack of control over one’s job can lead to stress and ill-health. In other words, it’s good for us and for the business if we are as free as possible to make our own decisions about work, choose our goals, and choose how and when we do our work. Leaders and managers play a vital role in creating a sense of autonomy for their staff, for example ensuring that they are involved in making decisions and solving problems and, where possible, that they have a choice about what they do, how and when. It’s not surprising that many people are less keen to return to the office post-pandemic, because homeworking can offer that freedom and flexibility.
In their 2021 book “Workplace Wellbeing: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams”, the Gallup Organisation stresses the importance of balancing autonomy with feedback. According to Gallup, the problem with the traditional manager-employee review process is that feedback is received far too late. Their research shows that employees working remotely who have feedback a few times a week are significantly more engaged and high performing than those who have feedback a few times a year. In other words, give staff the freedom to make decisions where you can, and then provide frequent (at least weekly) meaningful feedback on progress, which is both constructive and inspiring when improvements are required and appreciative when things are going well. In Gallup’s own words, ‘The combination of autonomy and meaningful feedback is the magic formula that produces the greatest benefit’.[ii]
Another way in which leaders and managers can facilitate high performance and workplace wellbeing is by identifying and nurturing the natural strengths of their employees. According to the work of psychology professor Alex Linley, playing to our strengths leads not only to optimal performance, but also to increased energy, higher engagement and greater resilience. There are various psychometrically tested strengths assessments which organisations can use, such as the Clifton StrengthsFinderTM and StrengthscopeTM. The evidence which underpins applying a strengths focus in the workplace suggests that it can lead to lower employee turnover, as well as higher productivity, sales and profitability[iii].
- Fostering positive relationships
People are the lifeblood of any organisation and having good relationships with colleagues is essential to our wellbeing and contributes to performance and engagement. Studies show that routine momentary or short-lived interactions, such as bumping into someone in the corridor, over lunch or at the watercooler, can make a significant difference. Jane Dutton refers to these brief interactions as ‘high quality connections’. Her research found that they not only increase mental and physical wellbeing, they also enhance trust, resilience, creativity and openness to learning, and thus lead to higher individual, team and business performance[iv].
Dutton suggests many ways in which we can create high quality connections with work colleagues, for example:
* actively listening, which means that we turn away from our screens to give the speaker our full attention;
* watching our tone of voice or language when giving constructive feedback face-to-face or via email;
* taking an interest in and celebrating personal as well as professional successes;
* showing compassion when someone is having a hard time.
She also emphasises the responsibility of the leader or manager to be a reliable role model, making sure what you say and do are aligned. Finally, she stresses the importance of creating opportunities for play, that is, opportunities to experience frequent positive emotions, have fun, celebrate achievements, for team building and social gatherings.
One final point about the importance of relationships at work concerns social capital, which refers to the links, shared values and understandings between people that enable them to trust each other and work together. We know that high social capital enables individuals and organisations to flourish as well as providing reliable alliance and support during difficult times[v]. Often this capital is developed through the momentary connections described by Jane Dutton. The huge shift to homeworking caused by the pandemic, whilst leading to greater autonomy and flexibility, undermines opportunities to create social capital through shared experiences and unplanned interactions which are only possible when working face-to-face. The long-term solution may be for organisations to follow a hybrid model, allowing staff to divide their time between working from home and the office. The World Happiness Report 2021[vi] states that even two days a week in the office provides time to network, collaborate and socialise, thus building high quality connections and boosting essential stocks of social capital, whilst retaining the flexibility and autonomy benefits of working from home.
- Creating positive meaning
The final piece of the workplace wellbeing jigsaw is meaning at work, by which we mean that work has a recognisable point and purpose in the organisation, is in harmony with the employee’s personal life or provides the opportunity to benefit others in the community, society or even the planet. The connection between meaningful work and wellbeing is well documented. Studies show that unemployment has a long-term scarring effect on physical and mental wellbeing, in terms of lower pay, increased future incidence of unemployment, poorer health and reduced life chances. Having meaningful work, on the other hand, is linked to a wide range of individual and organisational benefits including higher wellbeing, greater job and life satisfaction, lower anxiety and depression, higher engagement and perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation, better teamwork, greater commitment to the organisation and being less likely to quit[vii].
Whilst finding meaning at work is a personal endeavour, Kim Cameron is clear that leaders and managers have an important role to play. Knowing what drives your employees and emphasising and reinforcing their core values is vital in being able align the organisation’s purpose and what people value, and make the long-term benefits of work outcomes clear. Through the balance of autonomy and feedback mentioned above, leaders and managers can enable employees to set goals that are personally interesting and therefore intrinsically motivating, through which they are more likely to experience a sense of purpose. Studies have shown that people who are mentored or who use their strengths in their work are more likely to view their work as meaningful[viii].
There is evidence that leadership styles and meaningful work are related. Employees are more likely to experience meaningful work if their boss has passion, vision, authenticity and energy and if they have high quality relationships where they feel understood, cared for and supported. Finally, organisations can foster greater meaning at work by supporting the higher ideals of employees, for example by encouraging them to volunteer, even if volunteering is completely separate from their job.
The vital role of HR professionals in fostering workplace wellbeing
It is through adopting and practising these simple positive leadership behaviours that leaders and managers can foster higher wellbeing in their employees, which leads to higher performance and positive outcomes for the organisation as a whole. HR professionals have a vital role to play in promoting these practices and supporting leaders and managers to implement them. The first thing to consider is how wellbeing is measured in the organisation. HR professionals can help select and implement a psychometrically robust measure of psychological wellbeing. This will help organisations evaluate the impact of new practices. HR can also support leaders, managers and supervisors in developing their people-management and relationship-building capabilities through appropriate positive psychology coaching and mentoring. Fostering a strengths-based approach in all people management processes (e.g. job design, recruitment, performance appraisal and team building) indicates that adopting a formal strengths framework might be beneficial. Finally, HR professionals can be great role models when it comes to implementing the new practices they want to encourage in the workplace; they can, for instance, seek 360o feedback on their own strengths, as well as on their behaviours and how these positively impact the wellbeing of others.
In his book the Happiness Advantage, Professor Shawn Achor wrote “Happy CEOs are more likely to lead teams of employees who are both happy and healthy, and who find their work climate conducive to high performance”[ix]. Doing work that you find personally engaging and meaningful and playing to your strengths at work is a great place to start.