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the future of work

Last week, I thanked a stranger for doing a great job.

This woman, who works for the Toronto Transit Commission, often stands on the southbound platform at the Yonge and Bloor Street station, during the chaos of morning rush hour. In the midst of throngs of people jostling to get to work, this TTC employee smiles and calmly tells all those around her to "have a great day" or reminds them how many days remain until the weekend. I often think about her impact on commuters, so I finally thanked her in person and on Twitter, and it made me feel good. Then the TTC thanked me for acknowledging them and wished me a good morning on Twitter. That turned out to be a great day.

I'm not normally one to dwell on any New Age-spiritualist trends, but even my inner cynic recognizes that gratitude is powerful. While being thankful for family, friends and everyday comforts seems easy, mustering up gratitude for one's work and colleagues feels more challenging. It's easier to apply a negative filter to the many tasks that need to get done in a day – the endless e-mails, the paperwork and having to deal with disgruntled colleagues or customers. Standing back and appreciating your work – I mean really enjoying the experience – is a lot more challenging, but I decided to give it a shot.

During the days that followed, I struggled to be grateful when an important meeting was postponed at last minute. I tried to be grateful for the opportunity, and imagined the meeting would be even better when it does occur. When a consultant I needed decided to disappear on holiday for longer than expected, my fledgling gratitude attitude started to waiver. I decided to be grateful for the challenge, and anticipate the benefits it will reap – eventually.

I took solace after stumbling on an article by Anna Hart, a writer for The Telegraph, GQ, and The Wall Street Journal among others, who recently wrote that gratitude changed her life since it acts as an antidote to stress.

"For me the main benefit of gratitude at work is stress relief, because stress and gratitude cannot co-exist. When you are feeling grateful for something, any attached stress evaporates," Ms. Hart said.

At the root of this work-related stress resides the desire to perform well, but many of us, Ms. Hart observed, take this desire to an extreme. In the process, we forget how great it is that we want to succeed precisely because we are excited about the opportunity and experience, she explained.

"Replacing 'I'm so stressed about this' with 'I'm so excited I get to do this,' has been a game changer for me. … I think gratitude is an invaluable practice to any workplace [since] it also prevents us from taking co-workers for granted or harbouring feelings of resentment," she added.

Still, gratitude, while proven and simple, remains elusive at work. A 2012 study by the John Templeton Foundation discovered that over 90 per cent of Americans believe that grateful people are more fulfilled and lead richer lives. Of those polled, 94 per cent of women and 96 per cent of men felt that grateful bosses were more likely to be successful.

However, on the list of things most people felt grateful for, their current job came in last, with the exception of those earning over $150,000 a year. Despite extolling the benefits of gratitude, only 10 per cent said they expressed it to their colleagues every day, with 60 per cent saying they do it only once a year or never at all. The numbers were even lower when it came to demonstrating gratitude to one's boss, even though most said they would work harder for a grateful boss.

Plasticity Labs, a Waterloo, Ont.-based company that measures and aims to improve employee happiness, looked at the survey and tested whether they could inject gratitude into a workplace. They conducted their own survey, taking 65 employees who range in age from 18 to 82 and divided them into two groups. One group was asked to describe on a regular basis what they were grateful for at work, and the second group was asked to do the same for their personal lives. Those who focused on positive aspects at work eventually reported greater workplace gratitude and showed greater job satisfaction than those who focused on life outside work. The first group also reported an increase in job performance and reduction in turnover rates. All the company needed to do to benefit from the results was to allocate time for the simple activity of writing down what makes employees feel happy.

So what are you grateful for? A genuine response to this question may not instantly come to mind but give it some time, and while you're struggling, take a moment to tell a colleague – or even a stranger – that their work is appreciated.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler