Praising essential workers is not just a good thing, it's critical to their recovery from burnout

May 1, 2022

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Praising essential workers is not just a good thing, it's critical to their recovery from burnout

Remember all those Twitter and Instagram posts thanking front-line workers after the COVID pandemic hit? Turns out those were a big deal to essential workers. Unfortunately, not all the essential workers felt the love, and that had major negative impacts.

A new study finds essential workers who receive public praise are energized and recover in healthy ways from the stress of their jobs, while those who don’t receive that praise experience negative emotions and are more likely to drink, smoke or overeat to recover from work.

What the researchers say: “There are a lot of people that work behind the scenes, and we don’t see them, but they do need our public gratitude,” said the study’s lead author. “One of the main drivers behind doing the project was to understand what public gratitude does for essential workers while also calling attention to essential workers who are less visible.”

According to the study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, a significant number of essential workers in less visible fields — corrections officers, sanitation workers, truck drivers — felt the public had expressed no gratitude toward them at all. The research included two main studies: a survey of 186 corrections officers in hard-hit New England states during May/June 2020 and a second survey of 376 other essential workers who had seen social media posts praising their work or the work of other essential workers.

Quotes from two essential workers paint a clear picture of the disparity between those receiving the public praise (think nurses, doctors and grocery store workers) and those who did not.

“We’re doing three times the amount of work and feel more unappreciated than before this virus,” said one corrections officer. “Sometimes I question why I’m still an officer.” Contrast that with what one nurse reported in the media as saying: “From the patients, from the families, from management, from random people on the street… They stopped to say ‘Thank you,’ and it just re-energizes you.”

Those who felt seen and appreciated were more likely to engage in healthy activities associated with a positive mental state, like exercising, meditating and spending time outdoors.

The authors say the study demonstrates the importance of public gratitude for essential workers’ long-term health, well-being and, indirectly, for the quality of their work. They also said the findings are also applicable beyond COVID-19, to other future health crises and disaster situations where essential workers do critical work, as well as to routinely stressful events.

“The general public needs to be more cognizant of the fact that showing gratitude to only some essential workers (but not others) can have detrimental effects on those who don’t receive gratitude,” they said. “People should remember that expressions of gratitude are essentially free, and yet they can have a substantial impact on the well-being of essential personnel.

“From an organizational perspective, this is a pretty powerful insight because companies spend a lot of money on other programs or initiatives that are intended to improve well-being of these workers, and yet may not be positively impacting these workers in the same way that felt gratitude does.”

So, what? Praise is a vital element in good management—whether the employee is “essential” or not. Alicia and I frequently work with organizations where we ask “How many of you have received any praise at work (virtually or in person) during the past five working days.” Often, not one hand goes up.

Praise triggers the reward neurochemicals oxytocin and dopamine and stimulates the brain to learn and to be engaged. Dopamine also strengthens the immune system, hence the finding by the researchers that those that were praised were healthier. Both chemicals add to people’s sense of self-esteem. This, of course, leads them to look after themselves better and leads to a healthier lifestyle.

Praise also is known to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and increase the pleasure people find in their work. If work becomes a pleasurable activity then, no matter how stressful it is, it is unlikely to lead to burnout.

As the researchers maintain, however, often what praise there is in organizations is limited to the high-performers—the so-called “essential” personnel. Interestingly recent research has shown that managers can get more bang for the buck if they also praise those that are not high-performers. Though praise and public recognition raise the level of performance and counter burnout in all employees, they do more for the second-string performers and even the under performers than for the stars.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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