The Science of Gratitude at Work
As we enter the season of giving thanks, it’s a good time to renew our commitment to a practice of gratitude. Research shows that doing so boosts the well-being of both individuals and organizations.
Gratitude is also a simple but powerful practice that can help reduce burnout, not only because it feels good, but because it’s a scientifically proven way to manage distressing events. In essence, gratitude is about expressing thankfulness—it’s the state of being grateful, being appreciative of benefits received.
Turning our attention to what we are grateful for, especially in the midst of challenges, brings many benefits including stress reduction and a boost to our immune systems. Studies show that intentional gratitude practices boost attention, determination, and enthusiasm as well as reduce anxiety, depression, and physical ailments.
According to UC Berkeley’s Dr. Summer Allen, “...gratitude is an intrinsic part of being human, part of the very building blocks of human biology.” Neuroscientists have found that gratitude activates different areas of the brain including those affiliated with forming social bonds. In addition, gratitude creates a feeling of reward in the brain, which is enhanced in people who are more grateful.
Fifteen years of gratitude research have highlighted its many benefits. While many of us give thanks before we dig into our holiday meal, we may not be aware that gratitude can also buffer us from life’s challenges. Studies show that gratitude improves the quality of sleep, reduces stress, boosts our immune systems, and increases our overall sense of well-being.
And it plays a major role in psychological well-being, including making us happier, calmer, and improving our relationships. It’s been shown to lower levels of drug use and can help people recover from addiction. It reduces depression as well as suicidal thoughts and actions.
Gratitude’s protective factor is immensely helpful in the midst of chaos, as environmental crises and political stressors present us with new challenges we haven’t faced before. Simply put, gratitude helps us recover more quickly from traumatic events.
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. ... It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events."
Melodie Beatty, Best-selling author
Gratitude at Work
Bringing the benefits of gratitude into work settings may be more important than ever. Studies show that gratitude improves people’s job satisfaction, their sense of self-efficacy, and helps them manage stress. This leads to few sick days and higher levels of engagement.
Dr. Ryan Fehr at the University of Washington studies gratitude in the workplace, working with managers from tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon. He says that the first rule is to create a gratitude habit, which can shift the culture in powerful ways, where “persistent gratitude is shared by members of an organization.” This leads to increased engagement, retention, positivity, and even better health. Here are six strategies for bringing more gratitude to your workplace.
- Start meetings with gratitude
Whether your meetings are in person or online, start a meeting by asking people to share something they are grateful for. This helps people get to know each other, fostering connection. It also helps people become more present and less stressed because it lowers blood pressure while releasing dopamine and oxytocin.
- Engage in acts of appreciation
We live in a culture where it’s common to point out problems but rare to highlight the positive. Build time in your meetings for people to appreciate others’ contributions and efforts—or use online tools or apps built for coworker appreciation. According to Dr. Camille Preston, “Gratitude builds engagement and trust, increases retention and results in higher quality work.
- Find gratitude in challenging times
When you experience something difficult at work, reflect on what you learned—this can turn a challenging experience into something positive. One teacher is fostering resilience in her students by calling them “oops-ortunities”, helping them see that mistakes can become opportunities. Choosing to seek out and focus on the silver lining shifts people out of negativity to gratitude.
- Look for the impact
Several studies show that when we can see the impact of our efforts on others, we feel more gratitude. All of us do things that impact others, whether it’s making the project go smoothly, or supporting a coworker who is having a bad day, or playing our specific role in the mission or vision of the organization where we work. Managers and senior leaders can help make this last connection more clear by talking about the successes of the organization and the impact it’s having on the world.
I cover these last two in more depth, along with many more great practices, in my latest book, Wired to Become: The Brain Science of Finding Your Purpose, Creating Meaningful Work, and Achieving Your Potential. Please find a free section here.
Helping Healthcare Workers
Healthcare workers have been experiencing the highest levels of burnout and turnover of any industry. These jobs are often very stressful and recent labor shortages have added more pressure or already strained systems.
This year, I have had the honor to work with many healthcare organizations as we work together to address burnout and boost well-being. A gratitude practice is proving to be an accessible and effective tool. Consider these results:
- One study of 1,575 healthcare workers found that having them spend less than ten minutes writing a gratitude letter to someone who’d done something special for them significantly decreased their burnout with results lasting for up to a week.
- Another study at Duke University had healthcare workers write gratitude letters or make a list of 3 things they were grateful for every day for 2 weeks. Not only did the group have reduced burnout but 75% found it easier to think of other things to be grateful for.
- Healthcare workers from five hospitals were asked to journal twice a week over a month. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group journaled about things they were grateful for, another group journaled on work hassles, and a third group on whatever they wanted. The gratitude group showed reduced stress and depression and the effect lasted for three months.
The practice has proven to be so effective that the American Nurses Foundation and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center have partnered on a program titled “Gratitude Practice for Nurses” that contains a complete kit of materials any healthcare organization can use. Consider passing this information along to healthcare providers you know.
Three Gratitude Practices to Start Now
Several studies show that these three gratitude practices yield great results for individuals and organizations. Consider how you can use these over the coming weeks to build a habit that becomes easier with time.
- Keep a gratitude journal
Research shows that people who keep a gratitude journal report better physical health (e.g., lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, as well as reduced congestion, sore muscles, and nausea) in as little as two weeks. Start a team gratitude journal that everyone can contribute to, or purchase gratitude journals for your employees to use at home—a simple nighttime ritual of listing three things you’re grateful for just before you fall asleep can create powerful results.
- Write a gratitude letter
Write a quick letter to someone who did something for you—it can be big or small but it’s something for which you are grateful. Thank them and let them know what they did, how it made your life better, and let them know that you appreciate them. This does not need to be long—the Duke study found that 7-10 minutes was all it took to pen a quick note that yielded all the benefits for the sender and receiver.
- Hold a gratitude huddle
In this busy work world of meetings, it’s easy to get focused on the to-do list. Balance that out with a gratitude huddle where people share things they are grateful for. This can easily be woven into regular staff meetings. In healthcare, safety meetings during the shift change is particularly impactful but it works in all industries.
As we enter this season of gratitude and the winter holidays, we have an opportunity to engage in radical self care that will help us continue to heal from burnout and manage the onslaught of distressing news. An investment in a gratitude practice will payoff many times over in better health, both physical and mental. It will also help us feel connected in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, I want to take this time to express my gratitude for YOU. I am deeply thankful to be part of this network of like-minded professionals and I feel so blessed to be able to connect with each other, learn together, and support one another. I wish you a wonderful holiday season filled with lots of rest, connection, and joy.
JOIN OUR COMMUNITY
Be the first to know of Dr. Britt Andreatta's latest news and research.