If you think your employees seem a little downtrodden lately, you’re probably right. After all, it’s usually around this time of year that people are starting to get worn out from winter anyway, and if you add record levels of job dissatisfaction, high unemployment and the continued economic recession to the mix, you’ve got a recipe for burnout.
However, it’s during tough times that the need for inspired, engaged employees is especially great. Just ask Shawn Achor, founder and CEO of Aspirant, a global positive psychology consulting firm, and author of the forthcoming book The Happiness Advantage.
“Companies oftentimes are seeing people [wallow in] helplessness and despair,” Achor said. “What we’re finding is if you can train your brain to be positive in the midst of a challenge, you significantly raise your ability to be able to deal with it.”
The main tenet of positive psychology research is that — contrary to many current business models — it’s only when people have attained a base level of happiness and satisfaction that they can increase productivity and performance at work.
“The problem is that each time we have a success, we change the goal post of what success looks like. So if you met your sales targets last quarter, now we move the sales goals further,” Achor said. “We push happiness over the horizon. [But] what we find is that individuals that are positive have significantly higher levels of productivity, creativity, resilience, [and are] significantly more likely to stay with the company and have less burnout. So what we find then is that the formula is backwards: Happiness is actually a precursor to greater success.”
The good news is that it’s possible to teach employees to adopt positive mindsets — even during challenging periods — and the benefits are long term. For example, Achor said Aspirant recently worked with KPMG, a global provider of tax, audit and advisory services. In the middle of the busy 2009 tax season, KPMG’s auditors and managers engaged in a three-hour course designed to teach them how to find and focus on positive elements within their environments and reach out to their social support networks instead of retreat.
“We get them to create positive habits and change their energy to make those positive habits easier,” Achor said.
Aspirant then tested the managers who received the training and compared the results with those of a control group at three different times: immediately following the training, two months later and four months later.
“Within one week, the managers who had been trained were reporting significantly higher levels of optimism, performance as a leader, greater levels of social support and less stress,” Achor said. “When we tested those individuals again four months after the three-hour training, we weren’t necessarily expecting to see that effect continue for so long, but we were thrilled to find out that the group that received the positive psychology training showed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction — which is job satisfaction and quality of life put together. This is the reason positive psychology is so important as a field, because we’re looking at how we can make long-term changes to performance and happiness at work.”
Achor said his firm has engaged in positive psychology training across various industries in 38 countries, and the results have been similar.
“I’ve seen this work for bankers in Zurich, and yesterday I was with truckers in Florida. I’ve worked with schoolteachers, HR departments, technology firms, with farmers in Zimbabwe. And what we’re finding is that the human brain works the same everywhere,” he said. “I’ve heard so many people say, ‘If I can get through the next eight to 14 hours of work, then I’ll be happy,’ or, ‘If we can get through this quarter, then we’ll be happy.’ [But people] shouldn’t wait till the end of work to be happy and be positive. A positive brain will always outperform a negative or stressed brain.”