‘The positive or negative ‘lens’ that employees use to view a situation shapes their reality, their happiness and every other outcome’

Can simple positivity really boost health and productivity?

As a multinational employer, the question of whether your employees’ glasses tend to be “half full or half empty” may not immediately seem relevant to managerial decision-making, employee retention, increased sales and the cost of your medical claims reduction.

Well, think again. It is! And, the evidence for this is strong. Optimism makes a real difference in these matters as well as in levels of productivity and disease generation, progression, and recovery.

Also, research has shown that positive employee behaviours and attitudes can influence business outcomesas employee satisfaction, behaviour and turnover can help predict the following year’s profitability. They also have a strong correlation with customer satisfaction. 

Putting the positivity into optimism

‘The positive or negative ‘lens’ that employees use to view a situation shapes their reality, their happiness and every other outcome’

So, what exactly is optimism? It’s a state of mind, a belief that the outcome of an endeavour will be good. And this it seems, is vital. A workplace filled with employees that feel undervalued or helpless is a significant problem for an employer. In such an atmosphere, problems rather than solutions become the focus of attention and people devolve responsibility for solving issues because they don’t believe that they can deliver change. In such a state, employees are likely to get depressed, achieve less at work than their talents might warrant and reduce the vitality of their immune systems.

The positive or negative ‘lens’ that employees use to view a situation shapes their reality, their happiness and every other outcome. Before attempting to change that lens, employers need to identify optimism and pessimism as traits in the workforce.

The making of an optimist

As discussed above, optimists are defined as expecting the best possible result from any given situation.This is usually referred to as ‘dispositional optimism’. It reflects a belief that future conditions will work out for the best.

This doesn’t mean that optimists do not face hardships. They do, but the difference is that when they do, hardships are seen as ‘learning experiences’ and even the most miserable day always holds the promise for them that ‘tomorrow will probably be better’. In the workplace, optimists react to problems with confidence, believing negative events are temporary and manageable.

The perpetual pessimist

Pessimism is characterised by a negative mental disposition, where people tend to view problems as internal, unchangeable, and pervasive. Pessimists are defined as tending to believe that bad events will last a long time, undermine their actions and are their own fault. Negativity may appear to be a great defence mechanism: if you keep your expectations low enough, you won't be crushed when things don't work out. But recent research has revealed that the tendency to be a wet blanket in just about any given situation – a trait experts call ‘dispositional pessimism’ – doesn’t merely ruin a good time, it's a bad strategy by just about every measure. 

It is important to remember that while many things are beyond our control there are a number of areas we can control.

Well, the great news for employers is that optimism can be learned.

Health is a state of mind and body

There seems to be no doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. A study found that optimists who maintained a positive attitude were significantly less likely than their pessimistic counterparts to succumb to cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke and infection.

So, what are the health benefits of a positive outlook?

  • Living an average of 7.5 years longer
  • A 55% lower risk of death from all causes
  • A 23% lower risk of heart-related death
  • A stronger immune response to a vaccine
  • Greater resistance to developing a cold.

And the health impacts of a negative outlook?

  • 70% more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke
  • Six times more likely to have a stroke
  • Over four times more likely to have another heart attack in the next 10 years
  • Two and a half times more likely to develop heart disease.


How to build optimism and increase workplace wellbeing

So now we’ve convinced you that this is important, what do you do about it? Well, the great news for employers is that optimism can be learned. Companies that develop optimistic work environments will probably experience far lower levels of work disruption due to absenteeism and presenteeism when compared to peer organisations in their industry.

“To maximise the opportunities for success it is important to invite employees to actively become part of the process to deliver a solution.”

Optimism benefits the individual and the business – it is a win/win scenario. In every workplace one of the biggest challenges is disrupting learned and engrained behaviours. Pessimistic attitudes are contagious in the workplace and some people will be less open to change than others. Simple strategies to break the negativity cycle include actions such as changing seating arrangements to prevent echo chambers of negative reinforcement and encouraging positive employees to socialise with those with a less optimistic attitude.

Companies can’t afford to ignore the issue of workplace optimism and a simple first step is to be clear on why there is a need to shift the culture to be more optimistic. There is a need to awaken employees lulled to sleep by the monotonous rhythms of fire drills and lack of inspired opportunities. Employees may have turned off reasons to care. They are likely to be sceptical, apathetic. It is important to be prepared for this.

Second, identify how to measure progress when moving to a culture of workplace optimism, which behavioural indicators to shift and target key business outcomes such as: a decrease in sick days, increased productivity and improved quality of work.

Finally, engage employee representatives and managers. To maximise the opportunities for success it is important to invite employees to actively become part of the process to deliver a solution. Simply by engaging employees and emphasising they can have a positive impact on the organisation can make a real difference to their attitude. Alexander Kjerfulf, an international author and speaker has highlighted why it is important that managers improve workplace relationships:

“Employees who have positive workplace relationships are happier at work… and we know that people who are happy at work are more productive, more creative and more successful overall.”

Read the full whitepaper here

3. Archives of General Psychiatry, November 2004

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