A Psychologically Healthy Workplace: Some Things to Keep in Mind

Posted by Matt Grawitch

The Organizational Health Initiative at Saint Louis University emphasizes the importance of a psychologically healthy workplace in overall organizational performance. As a way of contributing to the concept of a psychologically healthy workplace, I attended and presented at the recent Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference. It was probably the best conference experience I’ve ever had.

The topic of my particular talk focused on engagement. There are so many misconceptions out there about what it means to be engaged at work. Some people think it relates to your workplace friends or workplace relationships. To that I say being too social at work and having too many close friends sounds like the archenemy of performance.

Other people think that it means loving your organization and feeling connected to the organization’s mission. To that I respond that loving your organization can occur for a variety of reasons (such as great pay or benefits), and feeling connected to the organization’s mission means nothing if you can’t perform your job well.

I am not bashing the benefits that people can experience when they feel connected to the mission of the organization or have a few close friends at work. Both of those can be instrumental in an employee’s sense of well-being. It’s just that those two things are not engagement.

To really understand engagement, you have to go back to the original definition that Kahn presented in 1990. He argued that engagement was defined as “psychological presence.” That means that to be engaged in something – like a hobby or a sport – you need to be psychologically present in what you are doing at the time. In layman’s terms, it means you are harnessing every ounce of you – your energy, your concentration, your emotion – and applying it to what you are doing at the moment. That is the engagement experience.

I’m sure those of you who have heard me speak before will not be hugely surprised to find that my talk made a few waves. That’s because when I start talking about engagement, I start talking about the importance of understanding the unique engagement experience of individual employees. What do they feel like when they are engaged? What are the things that happen in the organization that facilitate that experience? What are the things that happen in the organization that inhibit it?

Now, that doesn’t sound controversial – until you realize that many consulting firms make a living providing people with misinformation about engagement. Engagement is about a best friend at work. Engagement is about what your boss does to engage you. Engagement is about feeling connected to the mission. If I were British, I would yell “Bollocks!”

Engagement isn’t about any of those things. Engagement is about feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally present while you are completing your work tasks. Being present means you’re not distracted by worries at home. Being present means you’re not thinking about something else you’d rather be doing. True, your boss can have a positive impact on the engagement experience, but there are many factors that can influence “presence.”

Being present means:

  1. Having sufficient personal resources (energy, time, skills) to meet work demands;
  2. Possessing sufficient interest in meeting those demands that you are willing to marshal your resources toward effectively responding to them; and
  3. Responding to demands in an environment that does not promote distractions and interruptions that might disrupt your flow.

That’s what being present means, and that’s what it means to be engaged at work. So, if you want to better manage your people, create an environment and a culture that promotes actual work engagement, not just one that promotes friendships or effective management.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nate/279320072/

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