Waving a magic wand over the workforce may not be the remit of human resources (HR). But sometimes you might feel you need special powers to transform demoralised clock-watchers into happy, productive staff. The good news is that there is a way of boosting employee morale without using fairy dust, and it’s called ‘positive psychology’.
Put simply, this is a branch of psychology that helps workers create positive emotional states, so that they can perform to the best of their ability.
While this may sound like the ultimate in touchy-feely psychobabble, a number of organisations, including weapons and technology firm BAE Systems and the Norwich Union insurance group, are investing in positive psychology to improve leadership development and help with recruitment.
Positive psychology is gaining ground in the workplace because it’s seen as an effective way of cutting stress, boosting morale and improving productivity. Every year, stress costs the economy £3.8bn, so even the most hard-nosed employers would do well to take notice.
Its proponents argue that staff who are engaged and absorbed in work they find meaningful are likely to be ‘resilient’ – or better able to deal with pressure and challenge – than colleagues who feel under-valued, or feel they have no control over what they do.
Happiness experts, such as American psychologist Martin Seligman, have identified three ways of being that are conducive to happiness: a lifestyle that is pleasant one that is ‘engaged’ (in which someone is involved in absorbing, engrossing work) or one that is meaningful (in which the person feels that their work is connected to some greater meaning or purpose).
So should HR professionals take this seriously? According to Dr Tim Anstiss, an occupational health physician who focuses on improving individual, team and corporate health, if you apply some basic principles of positive psychology to how you manage employees, many other aspects of HR will fall into place more easily.
“HR has moved away from tea and sympathy and has been developing its human capital management capability,” he says. “Now, personnel professionals are looking at bigger workplace issues such as organisational culture, leadership, bullying, and so on. It makes sense to look at positive psychology alongside these areas.”
Positive psychology approaches can help us experience less stress and become more effective, productive and co-operative, he believes.
“Wellbeing is not just about long walks, jogging and improving your diet, but about flourishing, discovering and using your strengths, and reaching your potential as a human being,” he says.
And while many organisations use cognitive behavioural therapy to help individuals who are already facing serious issues such as depression or anxiety, using positive psychology in HR management can help pre-empt such problems in the first place.
“This is because it can help create better environments and strengthen the “psychological contract” by more clearly aligning the organisational purpose with the goals, values and intrinsic motivations of staff,” says Anstiss.
Once staff have moved away from framing what happens to them in negative terms, there is more chance that they will take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Again, this is not just about doing lunchtime yoga, but also helping staff ‘re-craft’ their own job and teams around their strengths and talents.
“Financial directors should be as interested in this new science as HR directors, because it has an impact on organisational efficiency,” Anstiss points out.
“All you need to do is look at the opposite – a demoralised, sullen, miserable workforce is less effective at every level, including customer service. The contrast with an engaged, happy workforce where people co-operate, share ideas and respect each other could not be greater.”
If Anstiss is right, HR could be at the forefront of a good mood revolution.