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Positive factors at work – a new perspective

| By Marit Christensen

What makes workers happy and content, and what keeps organisations healthy and productive? What makes workers resilient and good at adapting when more and more is demanded of them in an ever changing environment?

These are the questions we've posed in The Nordic project "Positive factors at work" - questions which can be hard to answer in the framework of traditional work and organisational psychology, where the main focus has been on how to avoid stress, burnout, dissatisfaction or negative health symptoms. We feel it is not quite possible to understand what leads to good health, balance and purposeful work by studying ill health, stress and dissatisfaction. 

New focus in psychology

In later years we've seen great interest in the positive factors in working life - both from an academic and a practical perspective. At the same time a new branch of psychology has emerged - so-called positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific study of the good life, and is not an alternative to traditional psychology. It focuses on human strengths, resources and talents, and on what creates well-being, good health and personal growth. We wanted to explore whether this new perspective could give us new and exciting answers.

Consequences for working life

Positive factors in working life include social and personal resources within the work environment that contribute to good health and productivity. These are factors that help people achieve goals and perform tasks, while reducing physical and psychological strain and stimulating personal development. It is important to identify such positive factors if your goal is to improve the work environment. To do this we need well-designed surveys and ways of measuring areas in need of improvement and intervention. The aim for the "Positive factors at work" project has been just that: to develop knowledge and theories on positive factors in working life, while developing methods to investigate positive factors and provide knowledge about the development of positive factors in the Nordic countries' labour markets. 

Challenges in Nordic countries

We can get some interesting answers to some of the challenges we face in the Nordic region through positive work and organisational psychology. Some of the main challenges are increased globalisation, competition and new technology. This often means workers are expected to do more, while having to adapt continuously (including getting used to new technology) to stay competitive. This has led to more job insecurity, less autonomy and increased demand for productivity. These changes are here to stay. It is naive to believe jobs will become less demanding and that there will be an end to restructuring and other changes. Our challenge is to identify what makes workers adaptable, resilient and capable of dealing with an increase in demand and frequent changes.

The consequences of positive work conditions

The theoretical framework in the report indicated positive conditions in the work place had several positive consequences for both workers and the organisation - be it for well-being, health or productivity. The report shows positive conditions for workers emerge as a consequence of a motivation process. The motivation process comprises resources which, in balance with the demands of the work place, will lead to a positive environment in which workers will experience engagement, continuity, belonging and a meaningful job. A positive environment like that will have further positive consequences, like job satisfaction, better health an increased productivity. A positive environment has proved to be the fuel of well-being, good health and increased productivity in the work place.  

Which resources create engagement and continuity?

All our studies included different resources, and they seem to function as power sources for workers that help release positive processes which again have positive consequences like well-being, good health and productivity. All this benefits both workers and the organisation.   

Other positive resources that helped create commitment from workers were the tailoring of tasks and the presence of professional contacts providing feedback both at the end of longer work projects but also more immediate feedback on everyday results. Workers experienced a feeling of continuity when they felt they were in control of their task while receiving support both from managers and colleagues. Commitment and continuity both proved to have a relatively strong influence on worker productivity.

A feeling of purpose in the work place

There seems to be more purpose to a job if you have the chance to develop professionally and feel belonging to the organisation. These are again factors contributing to more well-being at work. The project also explored how demands influence these processes. High levels of demand have proved to have a negative impact on worker productivity and well-being. But even in situations where demands are high, the report shows positive factors and processes can still create well-being and increase productivity to a considerable degree. Positivity also increases the ability to deal with stress and promotes the feeling of belonging to an organisation while reducing the impact of too high demands.   

Resource caravans

The results from the project's model-based testing supports the theory of  "resource caravans" in working life. Resource caravans - or a cumulative increase in resources (personal, organisational, social or material resources) have a tendency to aggregate resources. If a work place has resources like good social support, good systems for feedback and autonomy, you often get an upward spiral to which new resources keep getting added. It is therefore very important to develop working conditions which promote good quality, i.e. resources and strengths with the individual and within the organisation. We hope our attempt to identify positive factors in working life can inspire other researchers, practitioners and students to use these measuring tools in their research and work. Perhaps this can lead to the emergence of new, innovative ideas. Positive psychology is not meant to be in conflict with traditional work and organisational psychology, but rather as a contributor to advancing this field of research.  

Marit Christensen Marit Christensen
  • Leader for the Nordic project Positive factors at work
  • PhD student, Institute of Psychology
    Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) N-7491 Trondheim, Norway
About the project
  • “Positive Factors at Work” is a three year Nordic collaboration financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, executed between 2006 and 2008.
  • Project leader was fellow Marit Christensen, Department of Psychology, NTNU.
  • The project gathered participants form several Nordic countries: Jari Hakanen and Kari Lindström from The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Gunnar Aronsson, Klas Gustafsson and Ulrika Lundberg from the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University , Vilhelm Borg and Thomas Clausen from the National Reseach Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark, Lisa Vivoll Straume from the Department of Psychology, NTNU and Karoline Hofslett Kopperud, Norwegian School of Management, BI, Norway.
  • Two reports were written during this period, one being
    ”Positive Factors at Work – the first report”, published through TemaNord in 2008.
  • The project's first report introduced the general framework for researching positive factors in working life.
    The report provides an overview of the theory, method, selection and measuring tools which form the basis for the development of knowledge and method adapted to Nordic working conditions.
  • The main aim of the second report was to test the reliability and validity of measuring tools and to suggest material for mapping positive factors in work, adapted to Nordic conditions. We also tested correlations between resources, positive states of mind and well-being, health and productivity by using the material and measuring tools we mapped.

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