Employees trudge through the door just before 9am and settle at their desks in a grey, airless office. The pay is average, there’s not a lot of room for career development and flexible working is frowned upon. Nobody is particularly happy at the company, so there is a pretty high turnover of staff.
It’s not a great situation for any worker but fortunately, fewer businesses are being run in this way. In recent years, there has been greater focus on improving the psyche of employees and making them happier and healthier. And to do so, leaders are looking to positive psychology.
Essentially, the driving force behind workplace positive psychology is the notion that satisfied employees are more productive, creative and create a better working environment.
“Positive psychology can be defined as a scientific approach focusing on the positive and optimal aspects of human life such as wellbeing, happiness and thriving,” says Rob Baker, positive business psychologist and founder of Tailored Thinking, a positive psychology, wellbeing and HR consultancy.
Positive psychology began as a new domain of psychology in the late 1990s, led by researchers Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Seligman, in particular, began to study and explore what happens when people focus on creating positive outcomes. And positive psychology as a field was born.
“Positive psychology as a discipline applies to all areas of life, and there are many subfields looking at how to create and foster happiness, wellbeing and thriving in different aspects of our lives and society such as education, coaching, work and therapy,” Baker explains.
Research around positive psychology in the workplace explores how leaders can nurture positive performance and human potential by helping workers thrive. And there are a number of benefits for both employer and employee.
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“Firstly, it can increase levels of self-esteem and positive emotions,” explains Baker. “Secondly, it can improve relationships within the working environment. Human connection is an integral part of who we are and how we feel. So, improving these connections and relationships at work can enable us to feel more positive at work, improving our communication with one another.”
Finally, engaging in positive psychology in the workplace can help develop a positive mindset and outlook on life, which can go some way to improving general wellbeing and mental health.
“Positive psychology emphasises the positive rather than the negatives and our strengths rather than our weaknesses,” Baker adds.
“Positive psychology is not about ignoring problems or shying away from challenges or conflict, but instead finding ways to navigate through these in ways that not only buffers stress and adversity but lifts peoples, teams and organisations.”
So how can employers introduce elements of positive psychology into their workplaces?
“As a starting point I often start with three core ideas or pillars relating to the following: Discovering and harnessing strengths, developing a clear and compelling vision, and highlighting and reinforcing the meaning and purpose of work.”
Focusing on people’s strengths is a great way to increase productivity, motivation and engagement levels in work. We’re all different, so embracing and recognising that we bring different things to work can be hugely beneficial. “Job crafting and enabling people to personalise and shape their work is a fantastic way for people to leverage their strengths,” Baker says.
Fostering a positive vision and climate in work enables people to tackle any challenges head on with a concept called a “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, explains it as a belief that one’s skills and talents can be cultivated through hard work. If you have a “fixed mindset,” however, you believe your abilities were predetermined at birth — and therefore cannot be developed.
“As humans we always tend to focus on the negatives and what is going wrong in our lives or jobs,” adds Baker. “So, a positive vision enables people to strive to do good work and gives everyone a clear sense of where they are going and why they are heading there.”
By helping people connect with their work and gain meaning from it, they’re less likely to view it as the daily grind, or just a form of income. More than nine out of 10 employees are willing to sacrifice a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work, according to 2017 research. Those who found work meaningful experienced significantly greater job satisfaction and productivity too, boosting their company’s revenue.
“Focusing on the meaning of work is a great way for employers to really engage and motivate their people,” Baker says. “You can shine a light on people’s meaning at work by sharing feedback on how their work has contributed to, or positively benefited, others or create opportunities for people to see and speak to customers and consumers.”