Praising away stress

Thumbs in front of a skyline. © Fotolia

Praise from your boss, or a gesture of recognition from your company – such things are balm to the soul. Employees who feel appreciated can deal better with stress. By Susanne Wenger

​Promoting good health at the office is regarded as an aspect of modern business strategy. A whole industry of advisers lives from it. But there is a pretty simple method of keeping your staff fit and productive: expressing your appreciation for them. The fact that a company’s employees are its most valuable asset is written into the mission statement of every business, says Nicola Jacobshagen from the Institute for Psychology at the University of Bern. “But in reality, there is often a ‘zero-feedback culture’”. Employees think: As long as I don’t hear anything, then everything’s OK. They only react when I make a mistake. Jacobshagen knows that this does not necessarily reflect a general attitude in which employees are insufficiently appreciated: “But perhaps managers just don’t notice how they come across”.

This is a missed opportunity, as a new study by the Institute for Psychology proves. When employees are actively shown that they are appreciated, it becomes an important long-term factor in well-being at the workplace. Stress researchers are already familiar with connections between a lack of appreciation and well-being. When people only ever give of themselves and hardly get any reward, they suffer ill health. There’s been little research into the reverse effect but it also holds true, as these psychologists have now proven with their research based on six companies in four different cantons. When people are praised at the workplace, it lowers their experience of stress and helps them to deal better with stressful situations on a long-term basis.

"A powerful resource"

Because being praised gives wings to our feeling of self-worth, it is “a powerful resource” in managing stress, says Jacobshagen. It is at least as effective as other cushions for stress at the workplace, such as giving people autonomy in how they structure their work. Some 200 employees Wengerof a hospital, a union library, an industrial company, a telecommunications company and two cantonal offices were involved in the study. The researchers conducted three surveys of these employees over a period of half a year, asking about their experiences of being appreciated. Furthermore, questionnaires on working conditions and well-being were filled out. It became clear that there were undoubtedly tendencies towards a culture of appreciation and that these had a reliable impact: there were increases in motivation, in contentedness and in the feeling of belonging to the company. Employees’ overall performance also improved.

But Jacobshagen sees a need for optimisation. The most appreciation was shown to those who performed extra tasks – and she warns that this is a “dangerous spiral” that can climax in employees being subjected constantly to excess demands. And the company does not always have to engage in large-scale gestures of thanks such as an excursion for personnel or a hefty bonus. Line managers can find sufficient opportunities to express their appreciation during their everyday work. The time that this costs is invested well, says Jacobshagen. And it’s not just about praising people, either. Showing appreciation can also mean giving an employee a new, interesting task to fulfil. Or helping to solve their computer problems quickly.

Another great source of motivation is being appreciated by one’s colleagues at work, not to mention praise from clients. Even managers themselves thirst for appreciation, though they get it rarely. One can only embolden employees to praise their boss once in a while, says Jacobshagen. “In return, you get a stress-resistant boss”.

Susanne Wenger is a freelance science journalist.

(From "Horizons" No. 102, September 2014)