The art of creating psychological well-being at work

Psychological well-being at work

How and why do people change their behavior when they’re not alone? And what about the way they change how they behave at work? In this series, our expert and work psychologist Christophe Nguyen takes an experiment in social psychology and adapts it to the business world. In this fourth episode, he argues the importance of “psychological well-being” and that the number of hours worked is, in fact, not the primary factor deciding employee health.

The case study: our false assumptions about working hours

Christophe Nguyen says: “I recently met an employee, Paul, a computer developer, who said he enjoyed working when he felt passionate or excited about something. Pretty standard answer, right? Nevertheless, his story is interesting because it shows that it’s not so much the number of hours someone works that impacts an employee’s health, but the atmosphere in which they carry out their tasks. Yes, Paul was quite stressed at his previous job, which was for the same company but with a different team. And the environment was quite unhealthy: there was little flexibility, no willingness to listen, and ever-changing objectives.

“So he decided to switch teams. The result: he saw a big difference in his day-to-day life. Paul told me he feels more satisfied and more efficient. Where before he was stressed and often anxious, a different environment meant that everything changed for him, for the better. This surprised him because he’s actually doing exactly the same job as before: his tasks are exactly the same and he works the same number of hours… maybe even more than before. He doesn’t even count his hours – or doesn’t anymore. He’s even willing to put in more of an effort to help out his peers and to be more flexible with his schedule.

“His story raises questions about what truly affects the psychological health of employees. Is stress simply mathematically connected to working long hours? If the number of hours worked isn’t all that matters, are there then other, more qualitative elements to take into account?”

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The experiment: workload versus working conditions

That stress or certain diseases are caused by an overwhelming workload has been proven many times over. In 2021, a popular article published jointly by the WHO and ILO explained that anything beyond 55 hours of work per week is associated with a higher risk of stroke and depression – tied to stress in particular. “In a first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with long working hours, WHO and ILO estimate that, in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week.” The study concludes that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% increased risk of stroke and 17% increased risk of dying from heart disease, compared with working 35 to 40 hours per week.

Another study, involving 11,215 men and 12,188 women, conducted by researchers at the Department of Research and Policy at Age UK from University College London and Queen Mary University of London, links the number of hours worked to an increased risk of depression. The British researchers showed that women who work very long hours – at least 55 per week – or who work all weekend, had the worst mental health among all participants. Specifically, they had many more symptoms of depression than women who worked the standard number of hours, clocking in at between 35 and 40.

Long working hours are undeniably a big risk factor for employee health. However, there’s also additional research that add nuance to this perhaps too one-dimensional approach. Several studies have failed to demonstrate a link between long working hours and symptoms of depression. For example, data from the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health revealed low correlating ratios between working hours (between -0.02 and -0.05) and depressive symptoms. Rather, the study suggested that workers’ control over their rest time plays a larger part. In other words, being able to stop working when you feel tired is more important than working fewer hours.

Similarly, in an investigation that was published in the British Medical Journal entitled “Predicting new major depression symptoms from long working hours, psychosocial safety climate and work engagement: a population-based cohort study,” the authors analyzed potential diagnoses of depression related to longer working hours and linked it to the level of work engagement and a low psychosocial safety climate. (The “psychosocial safety climate” describes the work climate supporting workplace psychological health). When they looked at people who worked more than 41 hours per week, they found that these two factors ultimately influenced health and the development of depression.

It’s clear that workload remains something to keep an eye on to avoid any psychosocial risks (PSR) or over-commitment. So looking at the sample they followed over two periods, they were able to see that there was a certain number of hours that would need to be monitored in order to avoid any symptoms of depression. However, they showed that above all else, it was a climate of low psychosocial safety that had a negative effect on health: there is an additional 300% risk of major depression symptoms appearing when that’s the case.

So what does a low psychosocial safety climate mean?

  • Lack of flexibility or autonomy
  • A bad atmosphere at work
  • Lack of social support
  • Lack of recognition
  • Lack of feeling of meaning in their work
  • No opportunity to express negative feelings
  • Not being allowed to make mistakes
  • Inappropriate managerial practices.

As such, it’s not so much how many hours one works that makes the difference, but the conditions in which the work is done as well as the flexibility that employees have to take breaks or to control their schedule.

At the same time, there are questions around the effects of spending a prolonged period with a low workload, which can lead to a loss of sense of purpose, a lack of recognition, or a feeling of isolation.

Engineering psychological well-being: how to establish quality working hours

1. Drawing on Karasek’s demand control model

Creating an environment of psychological well-being fits in with Robert Karasek’s job demand control model: you have to drill deeper into the concept of working hours and look at all the determining factors, as well as looking at the resources needed to carry out the work required.

The determining factors to watch out for are:

  • Psychological strain: which has many aspects, both quantitative and qualitative, such as the psychological burden associated with carrying out tasks, the quantity and complexity of these tasks, unplanned tasks, time constraints, interruptions and contradictory requests. The workload is not only the sum of the necessary tasks, it also takes into account the resources that are made available, the emotional aspects, and both the experience and the reality of the situation.

  • Decision-making freedom: this involves giving the employee autonomy in certain areas. There are two aspects of note. First, using their skills, in other words allowing the employee to use their skills and to develop new ones. Second, decision-making autonomy – allowing them to choose their way of working, and to have a say in any relevant decisions. As mentioned before, having the power to control when they take time off can be beneficial to a worker’s health.

  • Social support: feeling supported and heard by their manager as well as being able to get help from their peers. This is where the work environment also plays a role in the work experience. Paul felt that he couldn’t really count on management in his previous position, as he was worried that he wasn’t allowed to make any mistakes. In the long run, the pressure he was under ended up exhausting him.

2. Ensure the four basic conditions for a climate of psychological well-being at work

Which are:

  • Upper-management committed to occupational health and safety issues: the subject must be included in overall strategy so that it isn’t simply a novelty. What does that mean specifically? Health-related indicators are just as important as those related to financial performance.
  • Management should include occupational health issues in their annual objectives and results: resignations, burn-outs, long-term sick leave – all these indicators must be taken into account. The managerial culture should also be reviewed to be sure to prioritize the well-being of employees using new practices: communicating openly, accepting vulnerabilities, listening to and supporting teams, being proactive, understanding their role in these matters on a day-to-day basis.
  • Quality of Life at Work (QLW) is everyone’s business: everyone has a role to play and share responsibility for this subject. From the employee to management, QLW and health at work must line up – clearly and perfectly.
  • 360° organizational communication: there is explicit and straightforward communication about psychological health and well-being at work. In order to do this, employees must be heard on the subject on a recurring basis. Then concrete actions are followed through based on those proposals. All the players are thus able to make those suggestions, make ongoing contributions, and take action to improve employee health at work.

3. Monitor indicators of the quality of the work done

Which are:

  • The number of hours worked: as previously mentioned, there are limits that should not be exceeded whatever the case. To do this, the employer should be strict about times when employees log in and the number of email exchanges. Keeping an eye out for solutions can be very useful to identify behaviors that tend to lead to being “always on” or unable to disconnect. For example, there are reporting tools that provide visibility and information on all user access. They can alert you to any connection activity.
  • Regular questionnaires: that allow employees to be asked whether they feel they are doing a good job or not. Do they identify with their daily tasks? Are they proud of what they’re accomplishing? If there’s a disconnect or they feel like they’re not fully invested, this must be taken into account and corrected.
  • Managerial points: the relationship with management is a key point for honing in on variations in the quality of work. Each employee should have regular exchanges with their manager. The goal? To identify what drives each individual. Or to figure out the sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. What makes them feel invested? How much autonomy do they want? Addressing these issues is crucial to employee health, much more so than their number of work hours, strictly speaking. Employees and managers need to know and be able to talk about their workload and all of its relevant aspects.
  • A corporate culture which leans towards disconnection: beyond any requirements or directives that may be given, it’s about setting an example. Management has a pivotal role to play here: they must fight “digital stress,” promote “digital empathy” and encourage a personal “digital ecology.” This more-reasoned approach to digital technology means a renewal of the corporate culture, which means including new guidelines on healthy behavior.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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Discover our expert's profile

Christophe Nguyen

Occupational psychologist, teacher at the IAE (Lyon School Of Management) and speaker.

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