This month brought with it positive news on the levels of unemployment in Northern Ireland. As of May 2018 the unemployment rate had fallen to its lowest ever level of 3.1%. This compared favourably with the UK rate of 4.2% and was the first time in 5 years the unemployment rates in NI have been below those in the UK. The figure of 3.1% also represents a significant decrease from the peak of 8.2% a decade ago in the aftermath of the recession. Similarly, as of April 2018, the Republic of Ireland is also experiencing a 10-year low in the rate of unemployment, at 5.9%. So, all is perfectly well, right? Everybody should be bursting with positivity… after all as reported in the media, notwithstanding the unhealthy underlying stats on long-term unemployed, NI is at “full-employment” and the UK as a whole, alongside RoI, are also experiencing significantly low unemployment rates.
As with all things in life, it is not that simple. Having more people in work is of course a positive. However, this shouldn’t mean we turn our investigative torches off, rather that we shine the light in a different direction. With more people in work, there is a responsibility on employers and society more broadly, to consider the impacts work can have on our health and well-being. Workplaces can certainly represent a much needed source of purposeful activity and meaningful relationships, key ingredients in human flourishing (Deci and Ryan, 2000). However, there also remain many risks to our well-being, as evidenced by the latest CIPD survey on health and well-being in the workplace (May 2018) which reported that:
- 37% of organisations report that stress-related absence has increased.
- 55% say that reported common mental health conditions have increased (41% in 2016).
- 51% are increasing awareness of mental health issues across the workforce compared with 31% in 2016.
There are many ways employers can take steps to alleviate contributory factors to stress and create lasting improvements in their employees’ mental well-being. One of these is to place an emphasis on developing the psychological capital (PsyCap) within their organisation… psy what?!?… what is that and how do we do it?!?!?
Psychological capital has developed from the growing body of work within positive psychology – the study of positive emotion, of engagement, of meaning, of positive accomplishment, and of good relationships (Seligman, 2012). The goal of positive psychology is to promote flourishing or optimal functioning in individuals, but also collectively in organisations, through understanding and creating the conditions to promote positive organisation behaviour (POB). Emerging from this field, the concept of psychological capital refers to the psychologic strengths of Hope, Efficacy, Resilience and Optimism, or HERO. The good news is that PsyCap has been empirically linked to improved job and life satisfaction (Luthans, Youssef et al., 2007) and is increasingly considered a high-potential source of competitive advantage for organisations.
Alongside the more readily accepted notions of financial/ economic capital, or even broader human/ social capital, a specific focus on building psychological capital is being embraced by forward-thinking organisations. A sole focus on the financial bottom line is increasingly being replaced with a focus on multiple bottom lines, one being employee health and well-being, directly impacted by increased psychological capital. As Luthans and Youssef (2017) highlight, organisations can successfully use PsyCap as leverage to tap into still largely unchartered territories of human strengths, thriving and excellence – what commercially and competitively astute employer would not want their employees to harness such benefits when manufacturing or delivering their products and services?!
As highlighted above, PsyCap consists of four ‘HERO’ constructs, namely Hope, (Self)-Efficacy, Resilience and Optimism. A brief description of each is set out below, alongside ways in which these can be developed. The latter point here is a key determinant in each of the four constructs being a fundamental pillar of psychological capital; that is – they are all malleable and can be developed through focused facilitated learning opportunities and deliberate practice – exciting, right?! This belief is underpinned by recent advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity and the ability of our brains to constantly form new neural pathways and develop new habits and ways of thinking and acting, no matter our age – again, very exciting!
“Hope is a good thing; maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
(Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption)
Hope, an essential component in nurturing the human spirit, carries deep within its core a belief that things will always change for the better, no matter how awful or uncertain. It is a cognitive process which motivates us as individuals to: (1) hold and believe in a sense of personal agency to effect our personal goals (will-power); and (2) create alternative pathways to achieve our personal goals and overcome barriers (way-power), (Snyder et al., 2001). A final important element of hope is that it influences our willingness to set and accomplish increasingly challenging goals. In the context of the workplace, it is perhaps not surprising that hope has been linked to increased resiliency and improved performance effectiveness in times of uncertainty or challenge, as well as improved employee satisfaction and retention.
Recognised interventions that can develop hope include working with employees to improve the quality of their goal-setting and their perceived ability to achieve those goals (will-power and way-power). Having leaders work with their employees to improve goal-setting and identify a series of challenging goals facilitates “stepping” or graduated mastery of new skills. However, it is also important to know when to assist employees with ‘re-goaling’ to avoid false hope and negative impact on their PsyCap. To help them break down difficult or complex goals into manageable bite-size chunks and celebrate small achievements of tasks, but also of new behaviours or emotions observed, throughout the process of goal achievement.
Optimism, most closely linked with the work of Seligman, is best explained as individuals adopting an attribution style that explains positive life events through personal and permanent causes, and negative events through external and temporary causes. The positive impact of adopting such an outlook is that it builds positive expectancies, in turn motivating people to commit to their goals, adopt positive coping techniques and minimise self-doubt. Increased levels of optimism within the workplace, consistently seeing the glass half full if you will, are linked to improved performance, for example in sales and leadership.
Optimism can be learned and developed… yes, by even the most hardened pessimist (it might just rely on the facilitator having a little more hope!). Rather than pessimists habitually assuming responsibility for negative outcomes beyond their control or attributing credit elsewhere for their own achievements, they can be encouraged to disrupt and reframe their underlying toxic assumptions and replace them with more positive and productive ones. Another alternative is to work with employees who become pessimistic by virtue of consistently setting unrealistic or unattainable goals, leading to repeated failure. Skilled leadership therefore also involves knowing when to tone down an employee’s expectations and assist them with more effective goal-setting strategies (Carver & Scheier, 2002).
Resilience is commonly understood to refer to our ability to bounce-back from adversity and emerge stronger from having overcome such events, perhaps a sales pitch that missed the mark, a client report that wasn’t well received or a more personal workplace difficulty/ setback. It is also worth noting that employees may need to bounce back from even seemingly positive but potentially overwhelming events, e.g., greatly enhanced responsibility and accountability. An old world view was that resiliency could only be observed and admired in highly unique individuals, but positive psychology research has shown we can all develop our levels of resiliency. In essence, it’s not how often we ‘fail’ that is important, but that we ‘get up and go again’ each and every time and learn from the setback – ‘bounce-back AND BEYOND!’
Three established approaches that have been shown to develop resiliency in the workplace are (1) the fostering of supportive environments (from colleagues, mangers and senior leaders) where employees know that people genuinely care; (2) the establishment of an ethical and trustworthy culture, typified by open and inclusive decision making and where doing things ‘well’ means doing them ‘right’; and (3) investing in training for core competencies to enable employees to be more productive and doing so in a collaborative learning environment, fostering supportive work relations.
Self-efficacy, a concept emerging from Bandura’s (1997) Social Cognitve Theory, is concerned with our belief in our abilities to successfully achieve what we set out to, basically how confident are we that we will succeed in a specific task. Although seemingly simple, high levels of self-efficacy have a major impact on our intention to take on challenging goals and commit to putting in the effort to achieve them. After all, if deep down we don’t really believe we’ll get that promotion, meet those demanding SLAs or create a truly innovative solution… then we have a ready-made excuse to mentally check out when the going gets tough – “I was never actually going to achieve the goal, so no big deal?!?!” Conversely high-levels of self-efficacy can enable us to delve deep into our motivational reserves, achieving high levels effort we were didn’t know we had!
To enable your employees to strengthen their self-efficacy here are four established practices. The first is to help individuals focus on their past successes, ideally those similar in nature to their current challenge. Help them increase their awareness of personal success stories and appreciate them, too often we brush past these or become embarrassed and focus on the negative. Secondly, observing others achieve success in the workplace and overcome barriers, fosters self-belief in one’s own ability. Importantly, the more your employee can identify with the ‘model’, the stronger the sense of personal confidence that will result. Social persuasion is a third option, whereby managers can create conditions for small successes to be experienced, avoiding the likelihood of early failures in more complex tasks. A final approach is to work with employees to help them understand and reframe their physical and emotional responses in stressful situations. Rather than sensing butterflies in the stomach as a sign they are about to deliver an awful presentation, employees with high levels of self-efficacy will interpret the same butterflies as energising – helping them be at their best!
“Consistent Effort is a Consistent Challenge” (Bill Walsh)
Our workplaces today have become increasingly fast-paced, with multiple demands from ever increasing sources. This brings it with a great challenge of helping employees deliver consistent business results, whilst maintaining positive levels of mental well-being. However, research has demonstrated that programs increasing your employees’ psychological capital can have dramatic and enduring effects on their mental well-being (Kaplan et al., 2014) AND your competitive advantage. This realisation is evidenced in the recent CIPD survey (2018) which reported that many more organisations are now providing training aimed at building personal resilience compared with previous years (2018: 44%; 2016: 26%; 2015: 24%).
At Think People we work in collaboration with our clients to deliver tailored workshops and strategies to build their psychological capital, based on our expertise, knowledge and experience of what works in practice. To speak with us about how your organisation could benefit from similar workshops, please contact us.
By Dr. David Woods
Senior Organisation/People Development Consultant