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It is pretty straightforward for companies to evaluate the skills and experience that a new employee will bring to his or her job. But it is much harder to assess that person's attitude and approach to work, and predict how they will react when they face challenges. These personal traits and attitudes – known as "psychological capital" – are key to employee performance, and help foster a happy and healthy workplace, says Jamie Gruman (@jamiegruman), an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph, who spoke recently at a health and wellness conference in Toronto.

What is the "physchological capital" that you suggest employees bring to their jobs?

People tend to be familiar with intellectual capital, which is what people know; and social capital, which is who they know. Psychological capital is who you are, or who you are becoming. It is made up of four personal resources: hope, optimism, confidence and resilience. Together they represent the character of an individual. There is a growing amount of research showing that employees who have psychological capital perform better and are more productive.

How can employees and employers beef up psychological capital?

There have been studies that show you can increase it. For example, one of the best things to do to build confidence is to practise something and get better at it. If you have newcomers in an organization, give them something you know they are going to do well, then something a little bit harder, and then something a little bit harder. Before you know it, they are doing something that three or four weeks ago they didn't think they could possibly do.

Employees can also take the initiative to try to become more confident. They can volunteer for something they don't know how to do, something relatively easy. Then, next time, volunteer to take on something a little more challenging.

Isn't it difficult for people to be optimistic when there are so many cutbacks and layoffs in the workplace?

You are right, but one of the components of psychological capital is resilience. In a crazy environment like the one we have currently, it is that much more important. If you have a resilient work force, and there is a downsizing or you get bought out, people have the personal resources that allow them to manage that change and to not crumble.

How do you train people to be more resilient?

It is the one element of psychological capital that develops out of the other three. If you focus on building people's confidence, optimism and hope, they become more resilient.

But there are ways to build resilience. It involves removing threats to people that are unnecessary. When people are starting a new job, don't force them to do things you know are going to cause them anxiety. Let them handle that later on. That removes some of the pressures that might cause them to want to leave.

How important is getting feedback in a work environment, to make employees more positive about what they are doing?

It is crucial. People can't be resilient if they don't have an accurate picture of reality. It is not about wearing rose-coloured glasses and floating through clouds. It is about knowing what is happening and addressing the reality of the situation. One of the ways that you gain knowledge of the situation is through feedback.

Are positive employees always better workers?

Not always. We tend to think of optimism as desirable and pessimism as undesirable, but it depends on the employee.

Some people say, "I am not so sure how I am going to perform here. If I don't do well, here is what I am going to do." They think through the implications of what they are going to do if they don't perform well. This is called defensive pessimism, and research shows that people who are defensively pessimistic can perform just as well as people who are optimistic.

If you are overly optimistic, you are not going to try as hard on certain tasks, because you think it is going to turn out okay and you don't invest the necessary effort.

Certainly, there are lots of very pessimistic and cynical journalists, who are good at their jobs and very successful.

People who are in a good mood tend to be very creative, and think very broadly. But they are not as good at scrutinizing detail as people who are in a bad mood. People who are cynical or pessimistic are probably drawn to journalism for that reason – they are not satisfied with the status quo, and they are very good at seeing the little details that don't quite fit with the total story.

How important is stress in making people feel positive or negative about their work?

It depends on the kind of stress. Some stressors are motivating because you can handle them, while others are debilitating because you can't. It becomes a matter of understanding the nature of the stressors, and the techniques that are available for dealing with them. Some people do things that are very ineffective, such as saying to themselves: "Everything is going to be okay. Don't worry." Well that is not effective if things are not going to be okay.

Other people take the bull by the horns and engage in problem-focused coping, dealing directly with the stressor to the extent that they can. That is very effective because the stressor is minimized.

Not all stressors are negative. One of the things that we find is that people who suffer moderate amounts of stress early in their careers become more resilient later on. So it is not beneficial to avoid all stressors in your life, because you don't build yourself up that way. It is like not being exposed to germs when you are a kid, and then you have a weak immune system.

How important is it for people to completely disengage from work when they are away from the office?

It is crucial. Research shows that it is not enough just to get away from work. You have to mentally turn off. To reap the benefits of your time away from the stressors at work, you need to completely purge them from your mind. If Friday night comes and you are still thinking about your presentation on Monday morning and the deadline that you have on the following Friday, then you don't reap as many benefits from your weekend as you do if you can completely get those thoughts out of your head.

It is important to do things like turning off your phone on Friday night at 7 p.m. and not turning it on until Monday morning. Or not checking your e-mail. It takes a lot of discipline, because it is actually physiologically addictive to do these things.

Isn't that getting tougher to do, now that people are so connected to work by technology?

Yes, it is harder and harder to do. It has almost become an ethical issue. Does an organization have the right to own you 24/7? I think the answer is no. But the challenge is, if I don't do it and someone else is willing to do it, they will get the job and I won't.

That is why progressive organizations will implement safeguards on their employees' downtime. They know that on Monday morning that person is going to have their batteries recharged and they are going to be a better employee.

What is the best way to ensure you have a positive frame of mind at work?

The most important thing is to recognize that life is short and precious and fragile. You need to appreciate that you have a roof over your head and it hasn't just been hit by a typhoon. You need to appreciate what you have, while you have it, because most of it is going to disappear at some point.

Imagine someone, in a wheelchair, who after 20 years of not being able to walk, suddenly stands up. That would be glorious. Well, you know what? I can stand up now. That is a wonderful thing. That understanding is vital for living a good life.