How we feel about where we work matters. It gives us a sense of purpose, a feeling of being in control of our lives, personal growth, positive relationships and improved self-esteem.
Beyond the the social and personal benefits of wellbeing at work, there is considerable evidence that higher levels of staff wellbeing are good for employers. It has links to performance and creativity while reducing staff costs.
There is strong and consistent evidence – from multiple, large scale scientific studies conducted in many countries – that the social aspects of work are associated with wellbeing.
However, creating a positive social atmosphere in a workplace is not
simple. Many organisations have employees from diverse backgrounds who may commute long distances from different areas. Lots of actions could potentially be taken – but which will work?
Starting with nearly 1,400 scientific papers and reports, we narrowed
our focus onto 8 studies of the best possible evidence to examine which
actions to improve workplace social atmospheres are also best for
Everyone gets on... If they didn’t, a lot of people would be unhappy; I know I would
What are the key findings?
Where you see the following symbols it indicates:
strongWe can be confident that the evidence can be used to inform decisions.
promisingWe have moderate confidence. Decision makers may wish to incorporate further information to inform decisions.
initialWe have low confidence. Decision makers may wish to incorporate further information to inform decisions.
Shared activities can improve wellbeing and performance by improving workplace social atmospheres.
Shared activities: what works?
It doesn’t have to be big or complex. Shared social activities involve workers doing things together as a group. Examples in the studies included:
• internal mentoring programmes
• action planning groups based around specific issues
• social events.
Wellbeing in the studies used was mainly measured as job satisfaction.
All the cases in the review included the following features. However, it’s difficult to know if these are necessary for success because we don’t have a comparison to understand if the studies would have been successful without these aspects.
Inclusivity is important, including engaging people who might be reluctant or unable to interact in shared activities was an aspect in all the studies reviewed.
Multiple components and sustained activity. All of the successful cases in our review featured a number of workshops or activities – from as few as three one-hour workshops to a more extensive programme delivered over several years. In no case was there a one-off activity.
Attempts to make sure the workers generally looked forward to the activities, for example by asking staff to make suggestions for the kind of activities they would like to see.
All of the cases in our review had input from someone external to each work group. We can’t draw any conclusions from this. It could be that outsiders can offer fresh perspectives on issues, bring new skills and
experiences. However, we don’t have any examples where social activities were initiated from within the workgroup. It may be that organisations are more likely to run an evaluation when they pay for external input.
Fair treatment: what works?
We found only two studies that investigated attempts to improve wellbeing through promoting fair treatment at work. One study was simply an email message that gave workers advanced warning, with some justification, for a new policy on monitoring workers’ internet activity at their work stations. The other was based on a more extensive overhaul of an appraisal system to make it fairer.
Fairness and fair treatment at work are clearly important and there is a wealth of research demonstrating that teams with higher perceptions of fairness have higher wellbeing. But we did not find consistent or robust evidence for actions that improve wellbeing through improving fair treatment at work. That is, we do not know which actions promote a sense of fairness at work that subsequently improves wellbeing.
How can we turn this evidence into action?
1. Employers, managers and business leaders
Good social relationships at work are important. Carry out
activities that aim to strengthen social relations and evaluate
them to understand it they have been effective, or not.
The 2012 Public Services (Social Value) Act indicates public
sector organisations should consider the social value of contracts. Public sector organisations could encourage good practice through service commissioners prioritising purchasing goods and services from suppliers that can demonstrate a commitment to good social relationships within their workplaces.
2. Employees and team members
The social atmosphere in work matters. When looking for work, find out how companies encourage shared activities between workers. Employers should be able to give several examples, such as group training workshops, internal mentoring programmes and problem-solving groups.
Small behaviours which increase the levels of team wellbeing can be important. We don’t yet know what works to increase pro-social behaviours at a team level, but individuals can still play a part. In first joining a team, you may not have all the technical know-how, but you may be able to contribute to the wellbeing and performance of your team through small, helpful acts and improving the social environment.
3. We need more trials: research implications
What is worth the time and cost? Which activities work better for specific groups and challenges?
Which activities are more important for dispersed workers, or teams with particular challenges? How could a company radio help, compared to a basement table-tennis table? Are they really worth the cost and time?
The role of small actions and behaviours, such as courtesy, or kindness
We know from research that prosocial behaviours are linked to higher performance. But what works to increase prosocial behaviours? And what are their impacts on wellbeing? This appears to be a key area for future trials.
Experimental studies have also shown how workplace trust is linked to higher job satisfaction and an increase in workplace trust can improve performance. However, our search of the literature found no studies which had considered ‘what works’ as well as measuring wellbeing. This is another key area for future trials. What can be done in different contexts to increase trust, which ultimately improves wellbeing and performance?
Understanding what works to promote a sense of ‘fairness’ in a workplace
A wealth of evidence indicates fair treatment at work promotes wellbeing, however we don’t yet know which actions promote a sense of fairness at work that subsequently improves wellbeing. Carry out proportionate evaluations: innovative activities are taking place across
workplaces to improve social relations, yet they are not being evaluated. Proportionate evaluations would help us to understand which are worth the effort.