The Science Of Flourishing: The Key To Addressing Employee Burnout

Leaders can set their employees up for success by incorporating flourishing practices into the habits and practices of their workplace.

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I’m hearing a whole new level of worry among leaders. The COVID-19 crisis has taken its toll on employees with increased workplace demands, lack of childcare, and worry over the health of family and friends. As stress and burnout reach epidemic proportions in the workplace, the “go-to” approach of offering employees stress management or well-being classes is no longer enough. Simply put, leaders have run out of solutions.

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Yet what I am finding is that few leaders know about the science of flourishing, how to bring it into the workplace, and its ability to buffer employees from stress. The science of flourishing comes from two sub-fields: positive psychology, and positive organizational scholarship. What makes the science of flourishing different from traditional approaches to psychology and organizational science is the focus on the optimal state of human functioning- when we are at our very best in terms of well-being, performance, or character.

What we have found is that the science of flourishing not only provides us with information on how to create a great life, but it also turns out that it’s useful in managing stress and burnout. Flourishing solutions range from small practices that take a few minutes, to system-level strategies that involve redesigning the workplace so that flourishing occurs as work tasks are accomplished.

Think of it like this: we wouldn’t expect our car to operate at full speed without providing proper maintenance of engine fluids and tire pressure. We all know that the car would function at half speed and eventually give out long before its true lifespan. This seems like a simple problem to fix: give your car what it needs to function at optimal levels. Once you understand what human beings need, you realize most workplaces are failing to give employees what they need to function at optimal levels, and then they wonder why they have low engagement scores. 

So, what are some of the key ingredients to flourishing? I list below the five most important ingredients that are summarized in Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, an acronym that stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.

POSITIVE EMOTIONS We need to have moments throughout the day where we feel positive emotions, such as joy, awe, gratitude, hope, amusement. These emotions provide an immediate energy boost. Frequency is more important than length, so you only need moments of positive emotions scattered throughout the day to be energized and rejuvenated.

ENGAGEMENT Being fully immersed or engaged in an activity is also an important ingredient for our well-being. Engagement is what happens when we are so focused on an activity that we lose track of time.

RELATIONSHIPS As social beings, we have a fundamental need for human connection. Often, it is possible to work alongside others and never really have a meaningful connection. Positive relationships require a sense of mutual positive regard, where we feel able to be authentic and feel supported.

MEANING It is important for human beings to feel our lives have purpose, and at the end of the day, that our activities made a difference. The key here is that the value of our work has meaning that extends beyond ourselves by impacting others directly or towards a larger shared purpose.

ACHIEVEMENT Being able to take pride in something we’ve done or accomplished is also important. Achievement is about setting goals, committing ourselves to action, and persevering until our goal is accomplished. A 2019 study in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology found that flourishing workplace interventions not only increase job satisfaction and happiness at work, but they also reduce workplace stress and emotional exhaustion. The reason why flourishing is useful in addressing negative experiences is because the five ingredients are known to renew, rejuvenate, and energize us, emotionally and physically.

Related: "The Great Resignation," And The Future Of The Workplace

Leaders can set their employees up for success by incorporating flourishing practices into the habits and practices of their workplace. Just as important is for leaders to pay attention to the energy levels of employees, and take the time for these restorative practices. Here are three easy ways leaders can implement the science of flourishing right away:

1/ Do your employees know how their work contributes to the overall goals of the team or the organization? If you have hired an employee, they play some role in contributing to the overall success of the company. All too often, leaders assume that employees know how their work makes a difference. More often than not, employees don’t know if or how their day-to-day activities make a difference. Even if they do, hearing it directly from their leader or supervisor is a way of letting them know others appreciate what they do. This strategy directly promotes positive meaning, relationships, and emotions.

2/ Allow moments of play or light heartedness at work At the beginning of a meeting, make it a habit to add a few minutes of fun. If it is a virtual meeting, consider playing an uplifting tune as you are waiting for members to join, or a quick home office scavenger hunt. You can also dedicate a separate social gathering for a virtual talent contest. We have the assumption that joy or happiness doesn’t belong in the workplace, because it reduces productivity. But some CEOs, such as Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations, have found ways to fully incorporate joy into the workplace, while still remaining productive and profitable. Bringing joy to the workplace not only promotes flourishing by increasing positive emotions, but it also strengthens workplace relationships.

3/ Celebrate accomplishments All too often, we move onto the next challenge without ever taking the time to savor our wins. Taking the time to recognize the small wins by dedicating five minutes at the end of meetings devoted to calling out the small victories of your team. Not only does this directly promote flourishing by fulfilling our need for achievement, but it also builds positive relationships, meaning, and emotions, if done as a group.

If your first response to all of this is that you simply don’t have the time to practice it, consider that it is energy management -not time management- that is far more important to workplace performance and productivity. Activities that promote flourishing are an important part of energy management, because they have restorative and energizing properties. Time spent rejuvenating employees is time well spent, particularly during these times of exceptional stress.

Related: Understanding The Reasons For Entrepreneurial Burnout Can Help You Tackle It Better

Dr. Amy M. Young

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Amy M. Young, PhD., is part of the faculty at the Ross School of Business, and she is also Faculty Director at the Center for Positive Organizations Consortium. michiganross.