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Workplace Well-being

written by Nikki Bardoulas 5 July 2012

Nikki Bardoulas, MAPP '08, teaches high school social studies in Chicago. She applies aspects of positive psychology in her general teaching strategies and also directly teaches a variety of the concepts to her AP and regular psychology students.

Articles by Nikki are here.

Chicago Skyline

On June 28th in Chicago, I had the privilege to attend the Work & Well-Being Conference put on by APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program.

A variety of engaging speakers, each with unique expertise, offered different perspectives on this broad but increasingly relevant topic. Discussions went from the macro level down to the micro level, ranging from an examination of wellness programs implemented by organizations across the nation to recommendations for individuals to deal successfully with stress.

Large Scale Wellness Interventions

Some of the research shared by Cheryl Larson from the Midwest Business Group on Health suggested that many companies are focusing on the physical aspects of wellness with varying degrees of success. One popular example has been for companies to pay more towards employees health plans if they don’t smoke. Some continuing challenges include making sure that all employees are fully aware of all that their health plans offer them. Another impediment seems to be that some high level corporate leaders are failing to model the behaviors that are being asked of those below them. One of her strong suggestions was to tie the bonuses of mid-level managers to their ability to engage their employees in the health and wellness programs and activities.

From “Cop to Coach”

The morning sessions were followed by a panel of representatives from companies winning the awards presented at the conference. See the editor’s note below for a list.

   Carrot beats stick

The organizations they represent (including a 44 person law firm and a hospital that employs 4,500) have experienced self-reported satisfaction from their employees as well as significant improvement to their bottom lines: increased productivity, minimal increases in health care costs, and remarkably low turnover. One of the themes that emerged here and carried forth throughout the day, was the debate between incentives versus penalties. The panelists consistently affirmed that incentives (such as a small bonus for working out twice a week) had proved to result in greater participation then punitive policies. Similarly, they emphasized the importance of adapting the role of Human Resources personnel from “cop to coach.”

The Brain and Leadership

Dr. John J. Randolph connected recent research in neuropsychology to leadership. Specifically, he noted that leaders who operate from the emotional intelligence area of the brain, as opposed to the analytical frontal cortex, proved more effective when interacting with those they lead. He also familiarized the term “amygdala hijack” which loosely refers to the negative effects of experiencing an emotional threat. As the amygdala is the part of the brain that is tied to emotions, particularly fear and anger, he illustrated that when it is activated, workers often experience a reduced ability to make decisions and greater difficulty managing stress.

David Yamada


Another popular presenter and a unique addition to a psychology conference, was law professor David Yamada. He discussed the other end of the spectrum of the psychologically healthy workplace – one where bullying is occurring. Unfortunately this is not a rare phenomenon though it often looks different from the images one might normally associate with the term. Yamada offered the following as examples of work place bullying:

  • false accusations of mistakes or errors
  • exclusion or silent treatment
  • withholding information necessary to do one’s job effectively
  • defamation of character

Namie and Namie have shown that for victims, combined and consistent use of these methods has been shown to produce symptoms similar to post traumatic stress, as well as other detrimental psychosocial effects. Yamada culminated his talk by giving a brief summary of his last 12 years of research and legislative efforts to support those affected by bullying in the workplace.

Regaining Balance

    Dr. Larissa Barber

One of the last sessions of the day, imposingly entitled No Longer a Five O’Clock World, took an optimistic note and offered several interventions to counteract and recover from work stress. For many modern workers, clocking out at the end of an eight-hour day not to think about the job again until the next day is no longer a reality. Advances in technology give employees constant access to their work.

Dr. Larissa Barber of Northern Illinois University argues that when used correctly, technology actually allows greater flexibility to our lives. With smartphones and videoconferencing, more companies are allowing their employees to work from home. Still, with an ambiguous line between work and home life, high expectations, and a competitive culture, workers are developing chronic strain. Barber suggests making it a priority to follow these practices during non-working hours:

  • Psychological Detachment: Consciously take at least some time off in the evening→ no email or even talking about work. Psychologists no longer believe venting is helpful.
  • Mastery Experiences: Spend time outside of work on hobbies, sports or volunteer work that you are good at and enjoy (sounds a lot like flow)
  • Sleep: Quality, Quantity, & Consistency. The common idea that we can make up for lost sleep later on just doesn’t work. As much as possible, keep regular sleep hours throughout the week, including the weekend, and limit possible technology interruptions.

Barber shared that one of the students in her psychology course is the father of a teenager. After hearing Barber speak about the importance of sleep, he began taking his daughter’s cell phone away during the night, and he reported that the difference in her demeanor was night and day. Her grades and personality improved.

Overall, a healthy combination of these practices reduces the symptoms of chronic stress and allows workers to be more fully engaged while at work – and thus more productive.

Questions that Remain

Many dynamic questions arose but I’d like to share two that seemed to elicit some of the greatest interest:

  1. Could organizations with wellness programs that value and incentivize physical health lead to discriminatory practices towards obese individuals or smokers? If so, is that a bad thing?
  2. Anecdotal evidence suggests that victims of workplace abuse who go to HR with their concerns often find themselves as targets who later regret sharing. If policies are not yet in place to protect them, what should these individuals do?

I want to close by acknowledging that most of these topics have greater complexity than my broad summary encapsulates. Ultimately, I greatly enjoyed the Work & Well-being conference and feel it offered numerous practical and exciting opportunities for application. I strongly recommend the conference as a whole and a further review of the proceedings.

Editor’s Note: There is no better way to create a sense that something is possible than to show examples of that something in action. For that reason, we wish to honor the winners of 2012 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards and 2012 Best Practice Honorees by listing them below. The name of each is a link to the story of how it won its award.

Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards given in 2012:

Best Practice Honorees:


Program descriptions and specific speakers information

Britton, K. H. (2008). The importance of active leisure. Positive Psychology News Daily.

Keashly, L., & Jagatic, K. (2003). By any other name: American perspectives on workplace bullying. In S. Einarsen, H. Hoel, D. Zapf, & C. Cooper (Eds.), Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace (pp. 31–61). London: Taylor Francis.

Keashly, L. & Harvey, S. (2006). Workplace Emotional Abuse In E. K. Kelloway & J. Barling (Eds.), Handbook of Workplace Violence. Sage Publications.

Namie, G. & Namie, R. (2003). The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, 2nd edition. Sourcebooks.

Yamada, D. (2097). Imagine the good workplace: It starts with individual dignity.

Chicago Cityscape courtesy of Ken Douglas
Carrot and stick courtesy of Bruce Thomson

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Senia 5 July 2012 - 4:12 pm


Welcome as an author! Super to have you here.

Sounds like a really good conference.

I’m a big fan of what you write about as research from Dr. Barber: detaching, MORE sleep, and mastery experiences outside of work. These three sound like they would unambiguously help in almost any situation.

It’s always good to be able to succinctly state a goal, and I think those works “cop to coach” are a nice way of keeping that goal prominent.

Thanks so much for a thorough summary. And for so many research tips in one place.


Anonymous 10 July 2012 - 7:10 pm

Interesting about the bullying… Namie and Namie actually haven’t shown that bullying is related to PTSD as your article states, that was a lot of other researchers. Namie and Namie simply cited that research in their book. Just want you to be providing accurate information.

I would encourage anyone researching bullying to look at other experts too. Namie has very specific ideas about bullying and how to end it, but there are a lot of other thought leaders who have their own ideas that might be more suitable for your situation specifically. So please, do the research beyond Namie. While the Namie’s have a great publicist who keeps them active on the Internet, they aren’t the only people with answers.

Loui Alloro 13 July 2012 - 11:42 pm

Agree with Senia. Completely! Glad to hear your voice, Nikkola!


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