Business Psychology

Article No. 355
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.


New research demonstrates a simple way to relieve the negative effects of work stress.

When the pace of work increases, impatient customers form lines, and a ringing telephone interrupts work, you might hear some angry outbursts from your employees. That's one symptom of work stress, and it's pretty dramatic when people open their mouths and unrepeatable words fly out that would never escape them if they had better control of themselves. Shocked customers often make decisions when they witness such theatrics, and none of these decisions bode well for your business, but angry outbursts are just the beginning.

People die from stress. In fact, it may be killing some of your employees right now. Do they complain of still necks, muscles tightened into knots, trouble sleeping, or high blood pressure? Are there conflicted, troubled relationships trailing behind them?

Researchers have been studying work stress and occupational health for years, but the best advice they offer employers is to find ways to reduce negative aspects of the work setting: i.e., time pressure, long work hours, and role ambiguity. But Joyce Bono, from the University of Florida, feels this focus on the negative is a mistake. She recognized a contribution positive psychology could make to help the problem of work stress.

Positive psychology explores the contribution that positive experiences make to people's health and well-being. It seems simple, and it's very popular among mildly depressed people who look for ways to make their lives happier, but it hasn't been applied in work settings to help people with work stress, and no one had experimented with positive psychology practices in a work setting. Professor Bono used a well-known exercise, the three-good-things exercise, and experimented with it in a work setting. She wanted to counteract negative rumination, which she feels is a common cause of work stress.

Typically, people pay special attention to negative events at work. It is, Bono says, evolutionary. Paying special attention to threats has helped our species survive random visits of saber toothed tigers and other dangers. But a persistent focus on the negative keeps us in a constant state of fight or flight, and being unable to choose between them leads to a state of panic. This is the consequence of ruminating about negative work experiences.

Professor Bono used the three-good-things exercise to help 61 women who worked in medical practice offices in a large metropolitan area focus more on the positive instead of ruminating about the negative.

The three-good-things exercise invites people to recall three good things that happened to them that day and to write these down as the last thing they do before they go home. Bono also asked them to include an explanation of why these things happened. Bono's experiment only lasted 15 work days, and only 8 of these days included the three-good-things exercise, but Bono still managed to measure significant changes. The changes were small but consistent. The three-good-things exercise relieved stress, especially in the realm of work-family conflict. People were more comfortable at work, and they were more comfortable at home when they needed to get their minds off work.

Why does this work?

Bono's three-good-things exercise crowds out negative rumination and replaces it with positive rumination. Since the exercise is completed at the end of the work day, it allows positive rumination to carry over into evening family time.

Psychologists have identified four core features of psychological well-being: mastery, a purposeful life, quality interpersonal connections, and positive self-regard. Like physical exercises that strengthen core muscles, the three-good-things exercise strengthens the four core features of psychological well-being, and this reduces the negative impact of stress, particularly when people explain why these positive events occurred. These explanations create durable, predictable understandings of the person and the way the world works for this person.

Reference: Bono, Joyce, Theresa Glomb, Winny Shen, Eugene Kim, and Amanda Koch (2013) Building Positive Resources: Effects of Positive Events and Positive Reflection on Work Stress and Health. Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1601-1627.

© Management Resources

See Also:

Increased Attention for Work
Turning up the Heat
Emotional Regulation on the Job

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