The science behind gratitude at work

The act of being grateful can help employees to focus on what matters, according to behavioural experts

The science behind gratitude at work

The holiday season has kicked off for many – with the hope that the festivities and year-end incentives at work will book-end what has been a challenging and, at times, heartbreaking 2020.

While it may seem nearly impossible to find things to be thankful for in the past year, the very act of being grateful can help the mind stay focused on what matters, behavioural experts recommend.

Most companies have reward and recognition programmes in place as a way of saying ‘thank you’ to staff and keeping them motivated.

But in a year of unprecedented change, handing out ‘Employee of the Year’ awards would mean nothing to employees if their boss fails to understand the hardship they’ve been through and their commitment to stay on track.

For HR leaders, it’s crucial to understand the science behind gratitude. After all, it’s the bedrock of an authentic employee appreciation programme.

Read more: How do you encourage gratitude in the workplace?

Three levels of gratitude at work
In a new study published in the Academy of Management Review, experts pointed out how gratitude in the workplace exists on multiple levels.

1) Episodic gratitude

Episodic gratitude is seen in unique heart-warming moments, such as when a person receives a gift and feels appreciated by another person. It comes from experiencing specific events.

“Gratitude at this level is an emotion in the classic sense – an affective phenomenon that persists for a brief period of time,” wrote the research team led by Ryan Fehr, an associate professor at the University of Washington - Michael G. Foster School of Business.

“Low-intensity feelings of gratitude might arise from a small favor from a co-worker or customer. High-intensity gratitude might instead arise when a co-worker prevents an employee from getting fired or saves a project at the last minute,” they said.

The researchers believe employee appreciation programmes increase episodic gratitude.

2) Persistent gratitude

Persistent gratitude at the individual level occurs when a person exhibits a “stable tendency to feel grateful” in a particular setting. When people witness examples of episodic gratitude frequently enough, they tend to feel more positive and evaluate life at work with this attitude of gratitude.

3) Collective gratitude

Collective gratitude refers to individual or subjective experiences of gratitude converging into a “shared organizational-level phenomenon”.

“Once formed, collective gratitude acts as part of the social context of the organisation,” the researchers said. “In other words, it becomes a defining feature of the organisation itself, shaping the way employees construe the organisation and their place within it.”

This is why the top employers invest in a positive workplace culture: prosocial behaviours are established through constant interaction with colleagues until these behaviours become the norm.

Read more: The benefits of ‘workplace gratitude’

Why some employees go above and beyond

Even in the era of remote work, interaction between colleagues, or between managers and their direct reports, offers opportunities not only to express gratitude but also feel appreciated at work.

“Employees frequently go above and beyond their assigned tasks by helping each other and engaging in proactive, prosocial behavior. These extra-role efforts are typically aimed at improving their colleagues’ lives and the functioning of the organisation,” the researchers said.

“However, in fast-paced and performance-driven work environments, beneficiaries may not always take the time to express gratitude, leaving benefactors feeling as if their actions are overlooked and ignored. From an organisational practice perspective, one path to addressing this issue and fostering gratitude is through employee appreciation programmes.”

These initiatives, the researchers said, are “most likely to foster gratitude when they focus on praising employees and teams for their effort and perseverance”.

The caveat, however, is that they can backfire when they “single out one employee’s performance at the expense of others”.

HR leaders play a crucial role in cultivating this culture of gratitude and appreciation, but they must do so in an authentic manner.

“By making gratitude a fundamental part of the employee experience, leaders and managers can leverage the benefits of gratitude for employees and the organisation as a whole,” the researchers suggested.

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