Meaning and purpose at work go far beyond the simplistic “Find your why” self-help trend that’s made millions for certain marketing gurus (though it would be more properly attributed to Nietzsche) or the appropriation of ikigai that’s the latest buzz.
There are no simple answers to meaning, only explorations. I suggest seekers take a look at Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and, for contrast, Maslow’s “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Then bring it into the modern work context with Job Crafting and Cultivating Positive Meaning and Identity in Work, by Amy Wrzesniewski et al.
A long-haul truck driver fell asleep during his shift in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 13. Heading north on Route 147, he drifted into the eastbound shoulder for almost 375 feet, struck the side of the road and flipped his rig. Thankfully, the driver only suffered a minor injury and nobody else was harmed.
Is it enough for a job candidate to “show up” for an interview?
A prominent voice on LinkedIn recently garnered more than 17,000 likes with a post that read, in part:
We just hired a Gen-Z candidate with zero experience. Here’s why… They arrived 10 min early for their morning interview (respect ✊), pronounced my name correctly (major kudos), had a firm handshake, dressed sharp, and brought a hard copy of their resume (I didn’t need it). During the interview they smiled, made eye contact, and were honest about having zero experience (we value honesty). They asked me questions, they wanted to learn, they showed up! To all the hiring decision makers out there, don’t disqualify candidates because they don’t have “experience.”
By all means, don’t discriminate against Gen-Z or any other Gen, or against candidates who don’t have experience if the job doesn’t require it. But be smart about hiring, based on Continue reading »
This week, CBS News, CNN, and other major outlets blared headlines and articles — most accompanied by photos of office workers collapsed face-down on their desks — claiming that burnout had officially been recognized as a disease. The news spread like wildfire but was almost completely unfounded. Continue reading »
This is based on a response I wrote to an astute new leader of a wellness industry organization who was asking, “What should be next for the organization to move wellness forward?”
Broaden the base. Reach out to professionals trained in fields other than exercise, nutrition, and HR. Especially, bring in folks trained in the relatively fast-growing field of I/O Psychology, who have a deeper, evidence-based understanding of wellbeing and also tend to be well trained in analytics. Speaking of which…
Train wellness professionals in analytics. HR finally seems to be getting serious about data, and wellness will be left behind if we don’t have stronger competency in this area. We don’t need to be data scientists, but we should be able to direct analytical work and speak the language. I’ve been studying statistics, business analytics, and advanced Excel, and it’s already added value for my clients.
Help us understand the wellness needs of employees. Because wellness in the US has been market driven, we give most of our attention to what purchasers (employers) will buy, rather than what employees want. Unfortunately, these are rarely the same thing.
Help identify and then advocate for where wellness fits in an organization. As long as we’re tucked away in benefits departments, we’ll be undervalued and weighed-down by healthcare cost-reduction fantasies.
Health Circles is a structured process in which employees hold facilitated meetings over a course of time to identify what’s holding their health back and what can be done to improve it – with an emphasis on job design and the psychosocial health risks at the workplace.
This excerpt from a webinar (hosted by Lumity) describes a multi-year, controlled study of hospital nurses and aides at a hospital Continue reading »
Not to be missed: Bruce Daisley’s brilliant interview with William Kahn, widely credited with coining the concepts of psychological safety and personal engagement at work. To whet your appetite for the entire interview, here’s a taste: Continue reading »
Science For Work summarizes research-based evidence that can guide business management decisions, with emphasis on industrial and organizational psychology. Their recent post, Why You Should Consider Fairness When Designing Your Change Management Process, exemplifies the well-researched, practical, and engaging content this non-profit organization provides. The topic, organizational justice, can be difficult to comprehend by well-being professionals for whom organizational behavior is uncharted territory. But Science for Work does a fine job breaking it down. See their infographic (below) followed by my two cents, then head on over to ScienceForWork.com to learn more.Continue reading »
Worldwide, a yearning for civility blossomed in 2018, and workplaces were no exception.
In addition toChristine Porath’spresentation at SHRM, civility surfaced on the agenda of major wellness conferences, and a prominent midwest health care system launched, withsome fanfare, an introductory “Choose Civility” e-course. Continue reading »
If a job has high Motivating Potential, the jobholders are more likely to feel their work is meaningful, to exhibit high levels of motivation, performance, and job satisfaction. If a job has low Motivating Potential, jobholders are more likely to exhibit negative outcomes, like absenteeism, turnover, and sluggish performance.
A New York Timesarticle recently revealed that the company has protected, arguably even rewarded, executives accused of sexual misconduct. It described one exec who “often berated subordinates as stupid or incompetent.” The company “did little to curb that behavior.”
A screenshot the exec’s ex-wife included in a lawsuit, according to the Times, showed an email he sent to another woman: “You will be happy being taken care of,” he wrote. “Being owned is kinda like you are my property, and I can loan you to other people.”
In our quest for a psychological-safety poster child, we may need to conduct a better search.
Right down to the way it uses the word “organic,” the article aligns with my recent post about the importance of a work environment that encourages employees to craft their own “fun at work,” rather than simply having fun activities prescribed:
And the best cultural markers are those that aren’t imposed on employees—mandatory game night or spin classes!—but are those that are formulated by employees. These create a shared sense of continuity, which creates the foundations for trust and support and strengthens the bonds between people. Organizational culture is rooted in the ways companies encourage these organic interactions but also in how they support their employees themselves.
The article argues that Maslow never conceptualized the pyramid commonly used to illustrate his Hierarchy of Needs. The figure was developed by a consultant seeking to simplify Maslow’s theory for corporate clients, and it distorted Maslow’s work in the process.
Maslow’s theory aside, we can find a broader learning here. The phrases “some consultant,” “distorted,” and “overly simplistic,” remind me that consultants and other practitioners do, indeed, habitually oversimplify and distort theories of employee wellbeing.
In the employee benefits and wellness spheres, a couple of examples of oversimplification come to mind:
Consultants and other practitioners increasingly cite Self-Determination Theory, which says that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are prerequisites for human flourishing. But many present the theory as a simple explanation of behavioral motivation and are hard-pressed to explain what relatedness is or how it fits in.
Behavioral economics is a trendy framework consistently misrepresented. Wellness consultants have described it as a theory of intrinsic motivation. Behavioral economists, however, will assert that there is no such thing as intrinsic motivation. If behavioral economics had to be bucketed as one or the other, it could only be considered — with its warm embrace of incentives and other manipulative techniques — a framework for extrinsic motivation.
Scholars resent such oversimplification. But I’d be cautious about one-sidedly indicting consultants.
Perhaps scholars should endeavor to communicate their theories and findings in a manner more accessible to lay practitioners. Were relatedness and competence really the best terms to communicate what’s intended in Self-Determination Theory? Indeed, delve into the details of Self-Determination Theory, and you’re likely to find it nearly incomprehensible to non-psychologists. The theory picked up steam outside psychology circles mostly after Daniel Pink simplified it in his bestseller, Drive.
Similarly, behavioral economics has repeatedly been distorted by TED-talk superstars who have little or no training in either behavior, economics, or any combination of the two.
We wellness professionals would benefit by reading fewer bestsellers and more journal articles. I might also suggest that scholars — in order to learn how to reach an audience of practitioners with minimal distortion before TED talkers and bestselling authors pull the rug out from under them — study fewer journal articles and more bestsellers.
Perhaps a consultant would not have created Maslow’s pyramid, and it would not have taken hold to the extent it has, if Maslow or another scholar had more effectively illustrated his ideas.
[Hat tip to Kuldeep Singh, who shared the “Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid” article on LinkedIn, and Rob Briner, who shared the video in the lively discussion that ensued. This blog post is adapted from comments I contributed to that discussion.]
In previous posts about the transition from wellness to wellbeing, I neglected to address the studies of wellbeing — including many attempts to define it — that were done before corporate America appropriated the term.
As legendary occupational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper says, “Define wellbeing? We can’t even agree on how to spell it Hyphen or no hyphen?” (I’ve paraphrased Sir Cary.)
“Wellness programs focus on physical health while well-being addresses ‘all things that are stressors in an employee’s life.’”
So far, so good.
Then they wrote:
“ Improving employee health was the most frequently mentioned (82%) reason for offering well-being programs, followed by: decrease medical premiums and claim costs…”
If those two quotes don’t have you scratching your head, you’re reading too fast. Please back up and keep rereading until you’re appropriately distressed.)
Gallup’s Essential Elements of Wellbeing
In recent years, Gallup describes wellbeing, based on their massive surveys, as consisting of (these are verbatim):
Purpose*: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
In 2010, Gallup’s Tom Rath and James Harter published “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.” The book served up the same five elements that Gallup advocates today, except the book used the label “Career,” whereas Gallup now calls the same element “Purpose.” Hmmm.
Gallup, with their partner Healthways (which eventually was acquired by Sharecare — creating the Gallup-Sharecare pair) argues that employers should address all five elements of wellbeing. For a price, they offer consulting services to help.
Employers faithfully adopted the five elements, depicting their wellbeing program goals with circles perfectly divided into equal parts — each representing one of the five elements — sometimes shoehorning in another element or two, like “emotional,” “environmental,” or “spiritual.”
But employers have not been well-served by their simplistic pie diagrams, which are used as virtual checklists to perfunctorily confirm that each element is addressed…
A fragmented effort to address what is in wellbeing, rather than a cohesive strategy to support what wellbeing is, may be one reason why, in practice, nothing but the name has changed.
Since his groundbreaking review, “Subjective Wellbeing,” first appeared in 1984, psychologist Ed Diener has probably published more wellbeing research than anyone. Though Diener evaluated the elements of what he calls “subjective wellbeing,” he defined it not by its elements but by the experience. To Diener, wellbeing is…
“…how people evaluate their lives — both at the moment and for longer periods… These evaluations include people’s emotional reactions to events, their moods, and judgments they form about their life satisfaction, fulfillment, and satisfaction with domains such as marriage and work. Thus, subjective wellbeing concerns the study of what lay people might call happiness or satisfaction.”
“Happiness or satisfaction.” Isn’t that what we always knew wellbeing to be, before we picked it apart?
I Feel Good!
With the various definitions of wellbeing circulating helter skelter, Uncle Sam (in the form of the CDC) played peacekeeper:
“There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning. In simple terms, well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good.”
Rath and Harter’s description of wellbeing and other definitions of wellbeing emphasizes how you get there — the road to wellbeing. Diener and other psychologists emphasize how you are when you arrive.
Wellbeing and Burnout
Diener mentioned marriage and work, referring to domain-specific wellbeing. Here’s where that comes into play…
In job crafting research — as with a lot of organizational development research — “wellbeing” often is measured in the work domain only. Work wellbeing doesn’t just mean job satisfaction; it goes deeper to how employees are.
How do you measure how employees are at work?
For perspective, consider the symptoms of burnout:
A feeling of not making a difference
It’s not unreasonable to say that the opposite of burnout is work wellbeing — having energy, purpose, and optimism at work. This is why burnout metrics have, sometimes, been used to measure work wellbeing.
Focusing on work wellbeing — which, on the surface, seems to be just one domain — may be heresy to employee wellness leaders looking to check off their list each element of wellbeing.
But employee wellbeing programs risk getting in their own way if they try to do too much. Would it make sense to help employees thrive at work — the domain over which employers have most control — before trying to get them to thrive in, say, relationships, community, or even physical health?
On one hand, focusing on work wellbeing seems to contradict arguments against checking the elements off one-by-one. On the other hand, if the elements are interdependent, bolstering work wellbeing helps support the other elements. And if the others are supported at the appropriate time and place, work wellbeing will benefit.
If you can find some downtime (or some treadmill time?), listen to “Dealing With Burnout” the Wisconsin Public Radio Morning Show. One of the guests wasMonique Valcour PhD CPCC, who has a gift for articulating, in super-practical terms, the connection between work and wellbeing. Monique explains what burnout really is, and delivers keen insight when the first caller makes a reference to the role of autonomy in addressing his own burnout. She talks about burnout as an “interpersonal phenomenon” and notes the supportive effects of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. And she provides practical tips for workplace leaders.
By the way, not only is it essential for us wellness professionals to address the burnout that occurs amongst employees, but I’m observing that it’s increasingly common within HR, Employee Benefits, and Employee Wellness teams. So if you don’t feel the need to learn about burnout for your organization, learn about it as an act of compassion for yourself.
It may be hard to get your brain around abstract models of stress, especially when they don’t line up with the usual fright-or-flight illustrations or seem remediable by the relaxation tips commonly sold as solutions. But if we care about workers, and how employers may be able to help them, we can’t ignore the harmful effects of effort-reward imbalance.
Think back to Psych 101 and you’ll remember that most human transactions are based on our expectation of an even exchange, or social reciprocity. It’s like an unwritten contract. We’re hard-wired for evenhandedness, and when we get — or believe we’ve gotten — a raw deal, we suffer from physical and emotional stress.
In the workplace, employees trade their currency — effort — for the employer’s currency, rewards, which include:
job security and prospects for promotion
respect and prestige within the organization
The balance — or imbalance — of effort and reward may be influenced by an employee’s motivational style, especially for employees who are intrinsically driven to overextend their effort independent of rewards, often to fulfill their underlying longing for approval. This surfaces as “overcommitment” in the effort-reward imbalance model.
When physical and or mental job effort outweigh the reward — or employees perceive the balance to be out of whack — the result is chronic stress and, over time, the physical and mental problems that stress can lead to.
This understanding of work stress was first conceptualized by medical sociologist Johannes Siegrist.
The model of effort rewards imbalance claims that lack of reciprocity between costs and gains (i.e., high-cost/low-gain conditions), define a state of emotional distress with special propensity to autonomic arousal and associated strain reactions.
Siegrist’s theory was put to the test in Britain’s classic “Whitehall II Study,” which followed more than 10,000 civil service workers for 11 years. Results showed that effort-reward imbalance led to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as declines in overall physical and mental health. Study subjects who were lower on the organizational chart and those with less workplace social support had the highest levels of risk among those with effort-reward imbalance. Since then, research has shown even more pronounced effects of effort-reward imbalance, especially on the risk of heart disease and depression — based on rigorous studies of employees in a wide range of occupations working in countries across the globe.
The Whitehall researchers, led by social determinants of health pioneer Sir Michael Marmot, felt their results showed that cardiovascular disease and other stress-related illnesses could be prevented by improving work conditions. Their work led to a campaign to encourage employers to:
Improve rewards by recognizing good job performance
Encourage job-skill and professional development
Foster social support at the workplace
Siegrist has proposed additional solutions:
Leadership development among supervisors, emphasizing the importance of esteem, recognition and appropriate feedback.
Building upon non-monetary rewards, like flexible work options, more effectively matching job status to achievements, and fostering job security.
Effort-reward imbalance is one of the two most influential frameworks for understanding job stress, alongside the demand-control model of job strain. In fact — despite our preoccupation with other models that push accountability for stress solely on workers — regarding both demand-control and effort-reward imbalance, Siegrist wrote in 2014:
Empirical evidence on their health-adverse effects is far broader than is currently the case for any other stress-theoretical model related to work and employment.
Ultimately, most elements of the psychosocial work environment can be plugged into one or both of these models.
Whether effort-reward imbalance is a product of employee perception or actual work conditions remains a topic of debate. Most likely, both play a role. Certainly, job demands and job control have been validated as causes of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, in contrast to trendy notions that stress is a mindset or is a good thing and that employees are on their own to address it. The role of personal interventions is to help employees with problem-solving skills that can help them advocate for themselves, assess their level of effort as objectively as possible and, in some cases, moderate overcommitment. Stress management and resilience programs may play a supporting role.