Positivity Matters in Times of Crisis

Training, connection, and supportive networks accelerate recovery.

One of the things that surprised me most about positive psychology research is that I rarely get to research places that start out happy. In fact, the majority of my research has occurred in high-crisis or challenge situations. I started with depressed Harvard students, then worked with banks around the world during the financial crisis. I have done work in the wake of school shootings; during the Boston bombings; and with schools in Flint, MI, in the midst of cyclical poverty and a water crisis. More recently, my research led me to the healthcare industry that is reeling financially.

What I’ve learned over and over again— even in the most severe situations—is that in times of crisis, positivity matters more than ever.

But many leaders worry, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, economic meltdown, and social unrest, that trying to emphasize positivity and happiness will make them look out of touch—and rather than helping their people, it will backfire

The reason for this is quite sensible at first. It feels tone deaf to talk about the positive when people are sufferring. But upon closer reflection a huge flaw is found in this mindset. If we are waiting until challenges lessen at work to find happiness and optimism, or for structural racism to be abolished, inequalities to go away, or poverty and violence to disappear, we will never find happiness. Not will we receive its proven benefits in our personal and professional lives.

In fact, when we have large challenges facing our worlds, we need our best brains possible to bear upon that situation. After two decades, my research consistently shows that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain—especially during crisis and suffering. The more positive the brain becomes during challenges, the more capable it is to recover from stress, anxiety, and trauma, and proactively adapt to changing circumstances.

So now is the time for Training and HR professionals to make the necessary link for their organizations, not only between positivity and performance, but also for positivity as the pathway forward in this pivotal moment for so many people.

Case Study: Genesis Health System

Three years ago, Genesis Health System was not profitable. This was true for many hospitals, which were experiencing the lowest profitability since the 2008 financial crisis. Consequently, few leaders there were thinking about happiness at work, and Jordan Voigt, president of the largest medical center (Genesis Medical Center- Davenport), was facing new challenges ahead. They were about to undergo two rounds of massive cost reductions and layoffs. In addition, they were asking staff to reduce their hours and take time off with or without PTO (paid time off).

Still, Voigt felt it was important to focus on the company’s culture and hypothesized that positivity could help at this crucial time. We worked with the medical center to roll out a series of positive psychology trainings called The Orange Frog Workshop (based on a parable I wrote to teach the principles of “The Happiness Advantage”) department by department, so we could test the effectiveness compared to groups that had not been exposed to the interventions. Each department trained then designed positive changes to existing work routines and created new practices tailored to their subculture, spanning from gratitude exercises to increased praise and recognition from managers and team-based conscious acts of kindness.

The Results: Positivity Training Matters

After the workshop, the percentage of respondents who reported they were happy at work went from 43 percent to 62 percent. Team members reporting they were “very expressive of optimism at work” increased substantially after participating in the training (measured six weeks after the intervention). Burnout dropped by nearly half. Individuals reporting “high stress at work fell 30 percent. Social connection improved, as well. The number of respondents who said, “I feel connected at work,” went from 68 percent to 85 percent. And this was after staff reductions where some coworkers and friends were no longer at the organization.

In the areas of the hospital not part of the intervention, only 37 percent of respondents claimed Genesis was going in the right direction.

Embedding positivity wasn’t just good for staff; it benefited patients, too. Patient experience rates nearly doubled within a 12-month period. Following the intervention, Genesis Medical Center-Davenport archived Profitability. and in 2019, it was recognized as one of the nation’s most improved medical centers nation’s most improved medical centers for performance.

Connection Promotes a “Collective Confidence”

People don’t typically make positive changes alone or in isolation. A positive mindset at work is often a collective exercise because the behaviors and attitudes are reinforced when a group does it together. At Genesis, the emphasis in the workshops was on developing positive habits, brainstorming new work routines, and discussing culture together in groups. This allowed participants to take ownership of the new mindsets, routines, and ways of working. They were creating new social scripts, building a “collective confidence in real time, and connecting these changes to purpose, verbalizing the significant impact their happiness and positivity can have on their patients. It’s imperative that leaders help people feel connected first and then deputize them to make positive change.

Supportive Networks Are Needed, Too

But what about spreading positivity during a pandemic? Or even with a distributed workforce, which is common today?

Research shows that group support is the single most important intervention for psychological trauma, and that is what we’re going through right now. People need to understand that what they are experiencing is a normal response to an abnormal situation and to have tools to help them cope. As for people who are already connected to each other, it’s important to maintain those connections.

Our social structures have been altered, too. Many have disappeared. These structures normally create supportive connections— in meetings and at the water cooler at work, in class and at the coffee shop. Learning together helps reinforce this connection.

With our Orange Frog Workshop, we have moved everything we did in-house to be available in the house with live group and video-based virtual training, as well as self-study programs. We’ve also created tools and resources for families to help them come back into psychological and emotional balance. We’re working to help people mobilize their optimism, to see solutions, and to engage with their best brains.

Help your people find their best brains, too. Your organization will thank you for it.

I’ll do a deeper dive into this topic during my keynote at the Training 2021 Conference & Expo in Orlando, FL, February 22-24.

Considered a leading expert on the connection between happiness and success, Shawn Achor is The New York Times best-selling author of “The Happiness Advantage,” “Big Potential” (https://www.amazon.com/Big-Potential-Transforming-Achievement-Well-Being/dp/1524761532), and “The Orange Frog” (www.OrangeFrogExperience.com). One of this TED Talks (https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work?language=en) has had 22 million-plus views, and he has lectured or worked with more than a third of the Fortune 100 companies, as well as the NFL, NBA, Pentagon, and the White House.

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