Home All Workplace Well-Being is Not an Oxymoron

Workplace Well-Being is Not an Oxymoron

written by Shannon Polly 2 July 2014

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.



On May 30 in Washington, D.C., I had the good fortune to attend the Work & Well-Being 2014 Conference put on by the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program of the American Psychology Association (APA).

Dr. David Ballard opened with some fascinating, fresh data on workplace well-being published by the APA in April. He says that recent claims in the press that 70% of workers are disengaged are inaccurate. If you drill down into the data, about 50% are engaged to a moderate degree, 25% to a high degree, and 25% to a lesser degree. Those details make it look like a much more positive picture for achieving workplace flourishing.

The biggest takeaway from the recent research is that engagement numbers shoot up when workers feel valued. If employees feel valued, 92% are satisfied with their jobs compared to only 29% if they do not feel valued. Only 25% feel tense or stressed at work if they feel valued. If they feel valued, 91% feel motivated to do their best compared with 25% if they don’t feel valued. “It’s not a crisis,” Ballard passionately stated.

Dr. James O. Pawelski introduced the terminology:

  • red cape interventions that stop bad things
  • green cape interventions that grow good things.

There were many approaches to workplace well-being represented during the day, including both red cape and green cape interventions.

Bullying: Red Cape Interventions Needed

Law professor David Yamada described the need for red cape interventions in addressing workplace bullying. “Allegations of workplace bullying are very threatening to organizations. Bullying targets often feel abandoned by organizational leadership, HR, and their co-workers.” He defines bullying as any of the following:

  • False accusations of mistakes and errors
  • Hostile glares and other intimidating non-verbal behaviors
  • Yelling, shouting and screaming
  • Exclusion and the silent treatment
  • Withholding resources and information necessary to do the job
  • Behind-the-back sabotage and defamation
  • Use of put-downs, insults, and excessively harsh criticism
  • Unreasonably heavy work demands designed to ensure failure

Have you ever had a moment where you thought your boss was a psychopath? According to the APA only about 1% of the population would be categorized as psychopaths based on DSM criteria. But Ron Schouten who is an attorney and psychiatrist has written Almost a Psychopath. In the book he claims that almost 10% of the population could be seen as a psychopathic. Apparently, as you move up in an organization those characteristics get magnified. So if you thought your past boss has some of those characteristics, you might be right.

Currently there are no laws in the United States that prevent workplace bullying unless it intersects with a protected class based on race, gender, age, and so on. Yamada has been working for over a decade researching the topic and pushing legislative efforts to support those affected by bullying in the workplace. A great red cape intervention.

Walking the labyrinth

Walking the labyrinth

A Healthy Break in the Labyrinth

The APA had a wonderful break between sessions. Participants were led to a roof top garden and labyrinth that the APA built at the top of a nearby building. What a wonderful intervention to walk with other participants and find our way around the path.

I rent office space in that very building and even after 2 years of working there, I never knew what the labyrinth sign in the lobby meant. Now I’ll be sure to stop in when I need an energy break in the middle of the day.

Sneaky Wellness: A Green Cape Intervention

Lois Tetrick, expert in the I/O psychology field and a leader at George Mason University, discussed more green cape interventions regarding how we can implement successful workplace wellness practices.

The five key elements for a successful wellness program are:

  • Health education targeting skill development and lifestyle behavior change
  • Supportive social and physical work environment
  • Integration into the organization’s structure
  • Linkage to related programs such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)
  • Worksite screening and education linked to appropriate medical care

Frequently, companies build these programs and employees (especially men) don’t take part in them.

Her most intriguing story was about how you can be “sneaky” about wellness program. At Google, they used what Dr. Tetrick would call an economic psychology model. They used small nudges. They wanted to increase consumption of water and reduce the consumption of soda. Any drink you want is available day or night at Google. They didn’t take out the Coke machine. They simply put a fridge beside it with a clear glass door showing bottles of water inside. As you might predict, the consumption of water went up. If you can make the environment more conducive to healthy behavior, habits can change.

Recently research has shown that people consume fewer calories when they have a small plate rather than a large one. In the Google cafeteria they put small plates next to the big plates. As people started taking the small plates, the big plates were moved further back so that they were harder to reach. Small plates were put in front. Did the employees even notice? Probably not. A low profile workplace wellness program can reduce resistance and have a bigger impact on employees.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from her talk is that a recent meta-analysis showed that even though most interventions are focused on individuals, interventions targeted at the organizations are much more effective for increasing well-being.

What’s in a Name?

We’ve all heard numerous titles for the relationship between work and life outside work. Work-Life Balance? Work-Life Fit? Work-Life Integration?

Dr. Matthew Grawitch explained that work-life balance is a poor term because it is confusing conceptually and unreachable in practice. We don’t expect people to spend half of their time at work and half outside of work.

What are we trying to achieve here? It doesn’t mean getting to do everything a person wants in a day, week, or month. It is not a woman’s issue or a parent’s issue. It is a dynamic process, not an end goal.

This is why Dr. Grawitch proposes the term work-life interface for the “ongoing interplay between work and non-work demands from the perspective of the employee.” When done well, employees perceive that, at any point in time, the “allocation of their physical, mental and emotional resources between the work and non-work domains matches their expectations.” It is not a static experience, and it fluctuates over time. It tends to arise from a collaborative effort between employees and employers.

As you see from the model above, there are a number of factors (both real and perceived) that affect our stress levels when interfacing work with life.

His suggestions for interventions include encouraging employees to take control of their own wellness and implementing work-life benefits that recognize the other aspects of their lives, such as childcare or eldercare financial benefits and paid time off. Employers can implement job sharing options and offer vacation and leave time. As far as dealing with resource allocation, employers can offer general life competency development training for skills such as time management and mindfulness. They can also implement autonomy interventions such as telecommuting and flextime.

As someone who is her own employer, my takeaway was that I have to play both roles and work on time management and mindfulness for myself.

I love my job!

   I love my job!

Conference Uncovered a Hidden Treasure for Me

While it was a small conference, the speakers were compelling and passionate. I would encourage all readers who are interested in positive psychology in the workplace to explore the website of the APA Center for Organizational Excellence. It has many offerings that can help you continue to learn. They have a searchable database of abstracts of what is going out into the popular press. They update the abstracts every week or two and their professional literature every month. Good Company is the name of their newsletter, podcast series, and blog. In addition to webcasts and online courses, I recommend their next conference, Work & Well-being 2014 – Chicago to be held on September 11 and 12! Their organization is a hidden treasure, much like the labyrinth at the top of the adjacent building.


It elevates all of us to hear about exemplars in any certain field. For that reason, we wish to honor the winners of 2014 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards and 2014 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

Look here for the criteria for these awards and for a search field to find winners from this and previous years.

The 2014 award winners are:

Best Practices Honorees

Look here for the criteria for these awards and for a search field to find winners from this and previous years.

The 2014 winners are:


American Psychological Association. (2014a). 2014 Work and Well-Being Survey.

American Psychological Association. (2014b). [Graph] Psychologically healthy workplaces have lower turnover, embrace diversity and motivate employees to excel.

American Psychological Association. (2014c). [Graph] Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Support Work-Life Balance, Growth and Development and Employee Well-Being.

Grawitch, M., Barber, L., & Justice, L. (2010). Rethinking the Work–Life Interface: It’s Not about Balance, It’s about Resource Allocation. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2(2), 127–159. Abstract.

Mearns, K., Hope, L., Ford, M. & Tetrick, L. (2010). Investment in workforce health: Exploring the implications for workforce safety climate and commitment. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 42 (5), 1445–1454. Abstract.

Richardson, K. M., & Rothstein, H. R. (2008). Effects of occupational stress management intervention programs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 13(1), 69–93.

Schouten, R. (2012). Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy?. Hazelden.

Van der Klink, J. K. L., Blonk, R. W. B., Schene, A. H., &van Dijk, J. H. (2001). The benefits of interventions for
work-related stress
. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 270–276.

Wansink, B. (2010). Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Bantam.

Yamada, D. (2008). Workplace bullying and ethical leadership. Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 1 (2), 49/



Photo Credit: Most are from Shannon Polly. Logo from APA Center for Organizational Excellence.
Cafeteria from David Ortmann

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Scott Crabtree 3 July 2014 - 9:52 am

Big THANKS for a very well-written, concisely summarized report from what sounds like a very cool conference Shannon! A potential client asked me the other day “You say you apply ‘cutting-edge’ research; how do you stay up to date?” I read great articles on PPND by Shannon Polly and others. 🙂

Shannon Polly 3 July 2014 - 7:48 pm

Thanks, Scott! It’s not my research…so we should all thank the researchers.


David Yamada 10 July 2014 - 11:21 pm

Dear Shannon,

Thank you for including my presentation on workplace bullying in your excellent summary of the APA program!

I wrote up a blog post, referencing your article, and commenting on the relationship between positive psychology and developing responses to bullying at work:


David Yamada
Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA


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