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Research roundup: Improving individual well-being at work

Current research signals the importance of individual well-being and offers strategies for preventing employee burnout.

Cite this
Rose, S. A. (2021, July 16). Research roundup: Improving individual well-being at work.

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Burnout is recognized by the World Health Organization and is included in its 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a syndrome that negatively influences health. Both individual and organizational factors play a role in mediating the effects of workplace stress. The modern workplace requires that employees be resilient—the COVID-19 pandemic made that clear. Companies had to swiftly change how their employees work to maintain personal safety and public health while still advancing organizational goals, supporting employees in balancing personal life with work life, and providing continued options for career sustainability and growth.

These studies highlight the data behind both individual and organizational engagement in activities that improve overall well-being. Identifying further strategies to maintain workplace well-being and reduce burnout could be beneficial to psychologists personally and in their work with clients.

Positive well-being reduces burnout

Dal Corso, L., De Carlo, A., Carluccio, F., Colledani, D., and Falco, A. (2020). Employee burnout and positive dimensions of well-being: A latent workplace spirituality profile analysis. PLoS ONE, 15(11), Article e0242267.

A positive state of overall well-being increases the traits needed to reduce the likelihood of burnout. This report looked at the role of workplace spirituality on burnout in addition to whether positive supervisor behaviors influence employee burnout. Workplace spirituality, or spirit at work, is broadly defined as a positive state of well-being that includes feelings like connectedness, energy, and drive. The authors evaluated the variable of positive supervisor behaviors as a possible influence between the amount of workplace spirituality an employee has and the likelihood for burnout.

Two simultaneous studies were conducted with roughly 200–300 full-time, adult employees across several workplaces in Italy. The first study assessed self-reported, positive supervisor behaviors, burnout, and workplace spirituality. The Spirit at Work Scale (SAWS) assessed individuals’ workplace spirituality in both studies and a latent profile analysis was then used in the second study to group similar patterns of scores across four SAWS subscales: work engagement, positive affect, self-efficacy, and resilience.

Results of the first study indicate that high rates of individual workplace spirituality play a direct role in reducing burnout. While positive supervisor behaviors do not directly affect burnout, they play a mediating role. The second study suggests that individuals with high workplace spirituality also rank high in work engagement, positive affect, self-efficacy, and resilience.

Leisure activities improve career sustainability

Kelly, C. M., Strauss, K., Arnold, J., and Stride, C. (2020). The relationship between leisure activities and psychological resources that support a sustainable career: The role of leisure seriousness and work-leisure similarity. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 117, Article 103340.

Dedicating time and energy to a leisure activity dissimilar from one’s job increases the traits needed for career sustainability.  A sustainable career is one where employees, “remain healthy, productive, happy, and employable,” in a way that fits into an individual’s broader life context (Kelly et al., 2020). The authors investigated how engagement in a leisure activity impacts attributes like resilience and self-efficacy, specifically, if those attributes are generated or depleted.

280 adults in England were recruited at sporting/leisure venues and through internet advertisements. An online questionnaire was sent out to all participants once a month for seven months. The average, monthly response rate was about 50%. The questionnaire assessed both seriousness and similarity of the leisure activity and amount of time spent on the leisure activity. “Seriousness” was defined as “the extent to which individuals identify with, and persevere in, their activity,” and “similarity” as “the extent to which work and leisure involve similar demands and skills.” The authors additionally measured resilience and self-efficacy. It was hypothesized that the more time spent on the leisure activity, the more an individual’s resilience and self-efficacy would increase—two traits needed to sustain work engagement.

The results show that engaging in a leisure activity that is either high in seriousness and dissimilar to work or low in seriousness and similar to work is positively associated with work-related self-efficacy. When these conditions are met, the more time that was spent on the activity, the more positive the association. If an activity is both high in seriousness and similarity, time spent has a negative association with self-efficacy scores. While the study also assessed resilience, no association was shown between leisure and resilience perhaps because the length of follow-up time of the study was not sufficient to capture development of resilience.

The studies prove that creating space to engage in leisure not only improves individual prospects for career sustainability, but the likelihood of an increase in better organizational outcomes as well.

Organizational engagement decreases employee responses to occupational hazards

Sprang, G., Lei, F., and Bush, H. (2021). Can organizational efforts lead to less secondary traumatic stress? A longitudinal investigation of change. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Advance online publication.

Organizations that are informed about secondary traumatic stress and engaged in activities to reduce its impact on individuals see a reduction in employees’ responses to indirect exposure to trauma while at work.

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is an occupational hazard for employees who provide services to individuals suffering from trauma. This study hypothesized that an individual’s STS and burnout levels will decrease because of their organization’s engagement and improvement in activities that reduce STS, which is associated with individual well-being and positive organizational outcomes.

Seven organizations interested in becoming more STS informed were chosen out of a pool of applicants. Selection was based in part on the highest rates of employee-reported indirect exposure to trauma at work. 2,345 responses were collected at baseline, at end of the study, and five-months poststudy with a response rate of about 90%. Following baseline data collection, each organization was provided coaching and consultation based on the needs of each team. The Secondary Traumatic Stress Informed Organizational Assessment (STSI-OA) was used to assess the degree to which an organization was STS informed at all three time points.

Employees at organizations that had the highest STSI-OA scores showed statistically significant decreases in STS and burnout after active coaching and consultation ended and five-months post-study, highlighting that teams were able to learn effective, sustainable behavior change.

Organizations that recognize sources of stress and make efforts to improve the health of their employees can impact overall individual and organizational well-being.

Clinical implications

Work is a significant component of many adults’ lives. Fostering well-being at work can lead to engaged and productive employees and better organizational outcomes. From children and students to academics, practitioners, and organizations, burnout may happen if an individual or organization is not equipped with the strategies to identify and prevent it.

Recognizing the strategies that support personal well-being, psychologists can help address the negative effects of stress at work with clients by implementing activities that foster self-efficacy and resilience. Similarly, psychologists themselves can mediate the effects of secondary traumatic stress by implementing informed activities and policies in their practices that support individual and group well-being.

Cultivating positive spirit at work, engaging in leisure activities, and fostering organizations sensitive to secondary traumatic stress all have benefits on overall well-being for the people and the organization.

Further reading

  • Building your resilience. We all face trauma, adversity, and other stresses. Here’s a roadmap for adapting to life-changing situations, and emerging even stronger than before.
  • Colleague assistance and self-care. These documents were developed by APA’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance to help individual psychologists and state, provincial, and territorial associations address the needs of psychologists within their jurisdictions.