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Jennifer Newman: How to improve one's psychological well-being at work

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says self-acceptance, positive relations with colleagues and having a purpose all contribute to fostering psychological well-being in the office.

Workplace psychologist says self-acceptance, positive relations with peers contributes to fostering well-being

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says happy workers are less likely to gossip and more likely to go the extra mile. (Getty Images/Caiaimage)

Many workplaces have a variety of health and wellness programs — from running groups to heart-healthy-clinics — but the psychological well-being of staff is also very important, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to explain how to foster psychological well-being at work.

Rick Cluff: What is psychological well-being and how does it relate to work?

Jennifer Newman: Generally speaking, it's striving towards your potential — realizing what you are capable of, and being able to meet and deal with life's challenges. At work, it means finding as many ways as possible to keep moving towards your goals for yourself and your work-life. It means recognizing what you are capable of and finding ways to draw that out of yourself.

It also means learning how to handle the ups and downs at work. Psychological well-being has six dimensions:

  • Self-acceptance,
  • Positive relations with others,
  • Autonomy,
  • Environmental mastery,
  • Purpose in life,
  • Personal growth.

If staff focus on these, they can build up their psychological well-being at work.

What would one way be to improve our psychological well-being at work?

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

Cultivate self-acceptance. The happiest workers are those who accept their good and bad qualities, and they combine this with trying to improve and grow over time.

For example, I worked with a groundskeeper who was extraordinarily critical of himself. If his boss seemed out of sorts at all, he'd blame himself. So he had to start by accepting he had a habit of criticizing himself and taking things personally. Then he could improve.

He began noticing that his boss was sometimes a bit moody. But that didn't have anything to do with him. He started feeling happier, and he stopped treating himself badly about the things he couldn't control.

Self-acceptance is one thing, but doesn't getting along with co-workers help staff psychological well-being?

Yes, having good relationships with co-workers and your boss is important. If staff focus on being concerned about their colleagues, their happiness increases. Workers who try to empathize or walk a mile in each other's shoes, find it makes them feel good. But compromising at work is important too.

For example, there was a worker who made himself and others miserable. He was rigid about rules.  And it wasn't the safety sensitive ones. He took every policy and procedure literally and there was no give. He wound co-workers up in nonsensical details, and wouldn't budge — and this caused a lot of frustration and anger at the workplace.

But what about those who set high standards for themselves and others? Can't setting the bar high contribute to psychological well-being?

Autonomy is important to psychological well-being. Workers need to conduct their work lives according to their convictions. To experience well-being, there are times workers need to resist social pressures.

For example, I worked with a driver who noticed a couple of his colleagues were putting one of their peers down, every time they saw him. They called him names and made comments about his race. The driver decided the next time he heard it he would intervene. After he defended his colleague, two other drivers started putting him down. But he felt it was the right thing to do. Workers who evaluate themselves according to their own personal standards experience well-being.

How can a worker cultivate psychological well-being if the workplace is toxic?

It depends a lot on the worker. There are some who size up the situation and leave. That's how they safeguard their well-being. Then there are others who wouldn't dream of leaving. They derive well-being from trying, in small ways, to change the system.

It's called environmental mastery. Even in toxic situations, there are staff who use small opportunities that come their way to create and change. And, they try to create mini-environments within the workplace that match their values.

But not everyone experiences well-being that way. Others may leave and find a more healthy environment, or some might identify a better place to work inside the organization and make a lateral move.

Many workers find their work pointless. This must have an impact on their psychological well-being?

It does. Psychological well-being means having a sense of purpose in life and having goals one works towards. If that's not happening, your psychological well-being will suffer. Even people who thought they 'had it all' can discover they feel their work lives are completely meaningless.

For example, I worked with a business owner who was questioning everything she did, despite growing a successful business. She founded it on how she likes to do things. It was all her way. But she felt there was something missing. After some soul searching, she realized she'd built her business to just impress others. Once she realized it, she decided, "I'm going to stay in business, but I need to find another reason to do this, for myself, and not everybody else."

That's what psychological well-being is all about — it's what you want in your life, and making it work for you, and that might involve making changes.

This interview has been edited and condensed

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman explains how to create psychological well-being in the workplace