HR Means Business 3 – How Recognition can Help Improve Employee Wellbeing

Hosted by

Mervyn Dinnen

Analyst, Author, Commentator & Influencer

About this episode

HR Means Business 3 – How Recognition can Help Improve Employee Wellbeing

Host: Mervyn Dinnen

Guest: Derek Irvine, Senior Vice President of Workhuman

In this episode Mervyn talks to Derek Irvine, Senior VP at Workhuman, about their latest research with Gallup, which highlights the connection between employee recognition and thanks, and overall employee wellbeing. They discuss the links between a culture of authentic and personalized recognition, and an improvement in mental, emotional and social wellbeing.


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Transcript follows:

Mervyn Dinnen 0:14
Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the HR Means Business podcast. Today, I’m delighted to be able to welcome the Senior Vice President of Workhuman, Derek Irvine to the podcast to talk about something which is very much top of mind for most HR professionals at the moment, which is the link between well being, engagement and recognition. But Derek, thank you for joining the podcast. And why don’t you tell us a little bit about your role at Workhuman?

Derek Irvine 0:41
Sure that thank you, Mervyn, for the invitation, and a very important topic that we’re going to discuss. And I guess me personally, I’ve been working in this space of trying to make work be more human, for about the last 20 years. In fact, it’s 22 years now that I think about it. So I’ve been working with some of the world’s most admired organizations to help them to roll out initiatives that focus on the human in the workplace. And because so many organizations, you know, we do loads and loads of work on the transactional side. But what’s happening to encourage people to feel that really are themselves give them emotional strength, booster wellness, which we’re going to talk about in a moment. So I’ve been in various roles, or as you can imagine, Mervyn, over those 22 years, I’m there since the beginning of Workhuman. It was more of us sitting around a table right in the early days. And today, we’re well over 1000 plus employees. So we’ve grown considerably. I’ve done all sorts of things, including writing three books on the topic, leading our consulting group. And today, one of the key things that I love to do is to speak to HR leaders, business leaders about how they can do better in this space.

Mervyn Dinnen 1:56
Which is important. The reason we’re talking today is that Workhuman have just partnered with Gallup to do a quite an important piece of research around well being an engagement in the workplace and the role that recognition plays. So tell us a little bit about kind of how the research came about.

Derek Irvine 2:17
You know, when you think about the name, Workhuman, as I said, our focus is very much bringing the humanity into the workplace. So we, you know, we see it as a mission to understand what level are we at? What are the hot buttons? What are the issues today? And, you know, that’s why we partnered with Gallup, of course, we’re a worldwide recognized authority on everything to do with employee engagement, and HR issues. And and it’s something that we’re committed to continue to do of the over the coming years as well. And what we’ve discovered straight away as most of you, I know, will will fail, because you’re seeing it in your workplaces, is that there is a real culture decay happening. Coming off the back of COVID, we went into COVID, you know, with strong enough levels of culture, and that got us through COVID. But as a result of hybrid working, there’s just a lot less opportunity for human connection in the workplace. There’s all sorts of issues now kicking in around financial stress, what’s going to happen? Are we having a recession, interest rates going up? There’s a lot of issues that everybody is facing. So we undertook this research to see where are we at, and also to identify some of the simple tools that can help workplaces to become more human, and to help tackle those stresses that are out there.

Mervyn Dinnen 3:40
Definitely, and I think it’s an important time to do research like this. Certainly, the research that I’ve seen coming through lately around well being has shown that there is an issue with organizations, employees don’t feel particularly well supported. There was some research in the UK, I’ve seen recently, where people were saying that almost two thirds of people said that they needed a day or two off work because their mental health but they they they couldn’t tell the company or their manager or leader, what the reason was, because they felt they’d be judged. So they made an excuse. And so things like that, I think it’s important. And of course, one of the things that you’ve looked at in the research is the importance of thanks, just thanking people and the impact it has on a person’s brain. I mean, could you tell me a little bit about that?

Derek Irvine 4:34
Sure. Absolutely. And I suppose that the essence of that is the importance of human connection. You know, I mentioned a moment ago, we’ve come through COVID. We’re working in a hybrid world. And it’s a little bit of a you know, you ask your kids what do you want for dinner? Do you want you know, salad or chips, and they’ll always say chips. You know, we’re all very keen on hybrid working on flexible working and so on so forth. But what’s suffering as a consequence of human connection, and I feel there’s a relationship there with the mental health issues, spiking, because one of the things that we discovered in the research is that only 25% of employees have a sense of connection with our company culture. 25% saying I very often feel burned out. And this, you know, I mean, obviously, those are quite stressful, stressful figures. But we do have, as you said, Mervyn, some remarkable insights about ways to address that. And it’s what I’ve been doing for the past 22 years is helping people to have better human connection. And one of the ways to do that, surprisingly, is thanks. Just thanking people has this amazing, you know, it’s almost like a it’s almost like a human performance enhancer. Because when you thank somebody, it releases a hormone in your body, when you start to say, Hey, you know, I want to thank you for displaying the company values, I want to thank you for the innovation, the insight you showed in that meeting, you might not have seen it. But the rest of the team were super impressed by what you did, it triggers something in our minds is actually serotonin, and dopamine are released in our bodies, we almost get goosebumps when somebody spots us and starts to thank us. And what the research shows is that people that experienced that feeling quite often, and other words just being thanked in their workplace, they are way in above, more likely to be doing better than the rest of their colleagues. And in fact, some of the statistics, I mean, we’ll we’ll dig into more of the statistics in a moment. But one of the things that I’m amazed about our headline figure is you are 91% more likely to be thriving, not only in work, but also in your life. If you’re somebody that says I feel I get sufficiently recognized for the work that I do, I feel like it’s efficiently planned. So the difference can be huge, absolutely huge.

Mervyn Dinnen 7:00
Do you think that leaders are aware of this? Or do you think that it’s something that, you know, through the research that you do that we still need to educate? Particularly, I suppose supervisors, managers, leaders, directors in organizations?

Derek Irvine 7:18
Yes. I mean, I think if you go and you ask any any business leader, or HR leader, they will all say that they fully agree, they get this thanks is very important, recognition is very important, everybody will agree. But the problem is, in fact, many will say, Oh, I do lots of that I write personal notes. So make sure to give people a pat on the back. But the problem with all of that is that it’s not scalable. And the problem with all of that, too, is that it tends to fall to the bottom of the to do list, you know, so you, you might not even offer a training on recognition. And people will say, I’m definitely going to start doing that tomorrow. And then tomorrow arrives, and there’s budgets, and there’s planning, and there’s project milestones, it falls to the bottom of the to do list. So I’ll do that the next day. I’ll do that next day. So we just don’t do it often enough. And in fact, only about 20% of employees say that they receive sufficient things for what they’re doing 20%. So that means is 80% of people out there who say, people I don’t feel actually seen if I’m paid, I get benefits. But 80% of people are saying I don’t feel thanked often enough. And when you know what is often enough, often enough can be as little as five to six times per year is a tipping point that we have found in our research, five to six times per year is enough to create that sense of I’m sufficiently seen, I’m sufficiently thanked, and that in turn leads to the 91% more likely to be thriving in your life. We’ll come back to the you know the hormones in a moment because that’s an interesting one I was sharing with you before. I have four kids. And two twins, two girls, two boys. On Sunday mornings one of the things I do we always have scrambled eggs for whatever reason on Sunday morning, and it’s me who cooks and the kids have been watching the Great British Bake Off program, and they’ll take the scrambled eggs and they’ll go oh, oh the texture and the consistency and the presentation is you know, but at the end of it all ago, you know today 1010 10 Big round of applause for a daddy and it makes my day you know I feel different after you know I mean I we have to do the washing up but the preparation pack feel different. It makes my day puts a step in my day. And you multiply that feeling in 1000s and 1000s of Thank you moments in organizations and it has an effect it changes our chemical feeling for that day. And that in terms of so many positive benefits.

Mervyn Dinnen 9:59
To give out HR’s role in all this, but I suppose first, as you’re talking about some of the findings in the research, let’s dig, dig in a little bit deeper. And I know one of the areas you looked at which you touched on in the introduction is about this. connectedness, connectivity. What what did you find about that?

Derek Irvine 10:20
Yeah, so human connectedness is vital, also, let’s call it friendship is another aspect of that feeling that there’s humans you can talk to as humans, people that have got your back, people you can share your your good times and your bad times with. And what we discovered there is that only one in three people feel that they have sufficient human connectedness in the workplace. So again, a huge majority, that just don’t feel that there’s enough humans around them that they can have honest conversations with, or be connected. But the good news, again, is that there’s a solution to this, I like to talk about three powerful ways to create more human connection, we have a book on it, as you know, Mervyn, making more you thanking, talking and celebrating together. But those are three great levers for creating more human connection. And what we found in the research is that when you do more of that, thinking, when people are feeling more connected as a result of thinking, they are seven times more likely to feel that they have meaningful connections in the workplace, or to say that they feel they have a best friend at work. I think actually, that’s a really interesting topic of best friend at work in this hybrid work world. That’s become more difficult. That’s something we don’t realize how do you get your best friend at work? When you’re maybe not going into the office at all? When you’re there two days a week? You know, it’s quite different. I think we’re gonna see a suffering in the best friend, index doom.

Mervyn Dinnen 11:54
Is there any cuz obviously, you might be going to the office, but on different days? So is, is there anything that you saw in the research about maybe ways that the people are trying to, I suppose overcome this? So keep in touch, maybe, because they’re not physically being with each other? Seeing each other? Were there ways in which they were still trying to maintain the connection?

Derek Irvine 12:15
I think this is a great debate. And we haven’t got through, you know, the whole COVID in the hybrid working scenario, yet, it’s going to be well into 2023. Before this settles down, I would imagine you’re researching this a lot and we’re not there yet. But what I see is a lot of organizations and indeed, all of us, you know, workers, as we’re saying, Nobody got through it, we’re successful, productivity is high. What’s the problem? But it’s, I think, I think the success has been on the transactional side, you know, the do check boxes are checked, the cash is flowing, the the widgets are being produced. But that’s not the world of work entirely, you know, it’s transactional, and emotional, need to work side by side. And I feel the it’s the emotional side that we haven’t sufficiently addressed. So what the research for sure shows is that if you double down intentionally, in that emotional side, you can move the needle in your culture, you can boost the connectedness, you can change things. So my advice to listeners, and generally speaking, is we’re doing great on the transactional side, the business is taking over. But we need to be very, very intentional and boosting the emotional side. And that’s where, you know, the power of thanking, talking authentically, often, you know, which is about abandoning the annual performance review, and instead having regular check ins, and then celebrating things together, celebrating life events, celebrating milestones, was a three very powerful, intentional moments, just to boost that connectedness.

Mervyn Dinnen 13:56
A lot of this has to do with well being as I think I said earlier on, and the I think that the one that most people pay attention to, I suppose is mental well being. But what we’re talking about at the moment is things like emotional well being. And also, I think, one of the most important wellbeing areas over the next couple of years. Certainly, it’s going to be financial well being. And when people feel their financial well being is under threat that obviously makes them feel insecure in other areas. What do you think, again, maybe looking with an HR lens, from the research you’ve done, what do you feel HR can do to really support kind of well being across a lot of areas, not just you know, I said at the beginning kind of people won’t admit if it’s mental well being because they don’t want to admit that to their employers, but, but what can HR do is, I suppose have those conversations not, but there’s no fault. There’s no blame just to check in how are people doing?

Derek Irvine 14:56
Yes. Well, you know, I mean, I look at our own organization, and I see all sorts of helplines, I see all sorts of employee resource groups. I mean, these are really powerful, actually, especially the employee resource groups have been extremely successful for for many of our listeners, I’m sure they are too, but, but especially us, we’ve had great success, just being able to talk with, you know, peers are working on similar issues. I think that’s a very powerful way to, to, to make people feel supported. But, you know, back to the core theme, of course, I’m a huge fan of thanks. When I think of a recent recognition I’ve received from a colleague, you know, it began with Derek, you know, you won’t have known, but I’ve really been struggling and suffering, you know, during during the past month, for all sorts of personal issues. I’ve just been, you know, several notches below where I would usually be, but I wanted to reach out to you to thank you. Because at our recent check in, you just you saw me, and you said some things to me that reminded me of the skills that I have the contributions that I make, and I went home that day feeling seen.

Derek Irvine 16:08
So you know, I think but all the best will in the world would all have the, you know, the the hotlines, and so on so forth. If people don’t fundamentally seen and feel seen as humans, those things, they won’t patch over, you know, the fundamental thing that’s missing, because when you make people feel seen, they feel emotionally stronger, we have this hormone release, I feel more positive have a pep in my step. As a consequence, that tends to make you physically better. Believe it or not, when you feel like that it research shows that you have less aches and pains, you sleep better, you’re less likely to feel depressed, you’re more likely to feel open to reaching out to people. Because if you’re feeling good and seen, maybe you’re more likely to join the employee resource group, and be a contributor and want to help people. But if you’re the opposite of that, and you’re feeling, I don’t feel seen, I don’t feel thanked, I probably won’t bother calling that hotline, I probably won’t bother going to that employee resource group. It’s creating virtuous circles versus vicious circles. And I’m a huge believer, as you know, I mean, it just, you know, the one of the easiest and simplest ways is to make sure people feel really seen to begin with, and then they’ll access all of these other services and facilities.

Mervyn Dinnen 17:28
As an interesting point, when you were answering there, you mentioned sleep. And that’s that’s another thing that comes out across a number of surveys is that people reporting that their sleep is is is getting worse. They’re not sleeping as well, they’re not sleeping soundly, they’re waking up to three times in the night where they didn’t use it. And obviously, there are a number of reasons, you know, we’ve been through a global health pandemic. So there’s, there’s been that side, I suppose. But also, I think the world work is feeling in some respects, a little bit more insecure. At the moment, particularly, you know, you just look on a platform like LinkedIn, almost every day, there’s people talking about layoffs, and how they’re not being done very well, and things like that. I think it’s important that, you know, the person, as you’ve said, is recognized. I know, one of the things that came out in the research was very much about personal stories as well. Is that I mean, how would you say that that impacts and again, you know, HR leaders in particular who are listening to this? How can I incorporate that?

Derek Irvine 18:35
Yeah, you know, it’s, I think authenticity and vulnerability are really important to in today’s workplace, as you said, with, with all of these demands going on, there’s nothing more freeing as feeling that you’re genuinely seen, and you can talk like, like, like human beings. So we’ve spoke about Hawking authentically, which is is a huge booster to this to, you know, abandoning that annual performance review, making sure that you’re checking in genuinely not about the project, the milestone, because we’ve got slack for that we’ve got a Santa. Yeah, although clearly we need meetings about those things, too. But where are the meetings to say, you know, where are you at? What are the stresses? How can I help? You know, the command and control leader is as well gone, it’s about coaching, life encouragement, it’s about you know, helping people see the skills that very often they forget they have, and I just I’m a big big believer in that that, you know, to set aside that deliberate, intentional time to check in I do it once a week with my teams. But I think if it’s every second week, nothing longer than a month. You can boost just that sense of, I’m seeing. I know for sure that I’ve got the same priorities as the person that I’m working with. And that helps reduce Stress makes people sleep better. It’s the virtuous circle that you create the opposite that up that is so easy to create. I mean, we’ve all worked in environments Barban, where, you know, it’s all emails about the project. It’s worrying headlines. It’s nasty snipey bites at people for things they’ve done. Yeah, sleep, you’re depressed about and you don’t want to go to work when the alarm goes off, and you go in with a miserable face, and you snipe, and you email miserable things to other people. It’s so easy to create the nasty cycle. And it’s so easy to create the virtuous cycle.

Mervyn Dinnen 20:44
Now I get that in terms of the research, whether we’re talking about the headline, findings, were there other things uncovered that you found quite interesting, because sometimes, as you know, the piece of research, we’ve got the date, we’ve got the stats, we’ve got the key three or four points at the head. But was there anything kind of a little bit buried deeper that you found interesting?

Derek Irvine 21:07
Well, I think I think one of the things that was revealing was how consistent this is across geographies. You know, we conducted the research across 12 different countries, mainly European and North American. But there was very little variation in terms of how disconnected people currently do feel an equally high degree of correlation with let’s do some of these simple things. And we can change the company culture. One of the figures that really jumped out at me, was the recency impact to that there’s, there’s a question about if you’ve been thanked in the previous day, how are you likely to feel so it’s back to the whole point we were making here. And it was only people who have been thanked in the previous day, they were four times more likely to say that their organization cared about them, and specifically cared about their well being. So I mean, how, as I said, we’re talking about how easy is it to create a virtuous cycle, your thanks somebody, and the next day, they’re going to say, four times more likely, the company I work for cares about me, they care about my well being. And that carries on for, you know, it doesn’t carry on for the whole year now. That six or so times throughout the year giving that reinforcement?

Mervyn Dinnen 22:27
Yeah, otherwise, you’ve got to each day, you’ve got to keep thanking everybody. So it would then lose his meaning. So he obviously has to be tied to an action and achievement.

Derek Irvine 22:37
Exactly something. And that’s one of the most common questions I very often get when I’m speaking on this is, it all sounds very nice. And if we don’t get too much recognition happening, it becomes a game you paying me, I thank you. And my response to the audience is, you know, hands up, anybody who’s ever experienced an overdose of recognition in a job that they worked at. And, you know, it’s super rare, I virtually never got even one hand going up. So it’s really difficult to overdo it. But you’re absolutely right, Mervyn, the authenticity has to be there. If the authenticity folds away, there’s problems. But but it’s a rare, rare problem to have.

Mervyn Dinnen 23:21
No, I get that. So I mean, I, you mentioned earlier about kind of things changing about, you know, we tell people what to do, and we don’t and one of the expressions that I like to use is that we’ve kind of moved from an era of kind of management and direction to support in enablement. We don’t have to manage people, we support them. We don’t get you know, like performance management is not as performance enablement, was supporting them. And also, I think that particularly in the corporate, sphere, people employees want to feel cared for, and supported. And this obviously is coming through, I’ve noticed from some of the things you’ve said, if you’re, as I said, as I’ve said once or twice if you’re an HR leader, or an HR professional, rather, who’s listening to this. Where do you start? How do you start if you’re in an organization where you think you know what, I wish my company was a bit more like that. Do you have any tips for how to get started on this journey?

Derek Irvine 24:20
Yeah, I mean, it’s a common phrase, it starts at the top. So for sure, gaining executive sponsorship is is vitally important that it’s difficult to do without it. Although having said that, I think the you know, traditional, old school way of doing recognition and thanking people only relied on the top, you know, everything was decided by senior leadership. fill out a form, nominate people will have an Oscar award ceremony. You tend to get you know, the 5% at least would be recognized. That’s not at all what we’re talking about here in the in this whole sphere. What we’re doing Talking about is taking the pressure off the manager actually, and having it be a peer to peer grassroots up movement. So if you’re an HR leader, you know, this can actually be surprisingly easy. Because we know how to do this. We know how to do this in our personal lives. Like I said, my four young kids, they know how to celebrate me when I make scrambled eggs, it’s easy to say Thanks, daddy, and round of applause. We know how to do it in our personal lives. But we need to open up the permissions for all of our humans and our companies to do this to each other. So my advice is, of course, get executive sponsorship. Wherever possible, other otherwise it’s going to be difficult, more difficult, let’s say. But then focus on creating that grassroots up, focus on making it peer to peer taking away the bureaucracy of the form filling the nomination, let it flow. And you know, it’s it’s you can build in all sorts of work controls approvals, you know, so that there’s a safety around what’s happening. But that in my experience is the most liberating way to let thanks just spread and spread and spread. Thanks spreads like a virtuous circle. It’s contagious, saying thank you each other. Because when you feel good when you feel banked, you know, you’re going around saying Did I mean the kids probably felt in the right, they were putting me in a good position so that they can then later that day be requesting comics and Lego. So you know, everybody gets it. It makes us feel feel better. So the grassroots is wonky advice, for sure.

Mervyn Dinnen 26:39
Okay. Well, it’s been great to talk to you, Derek. Some lots, lots of interesting insights there. Next time, I’m in the US, I’m expecting scrambled eggs. Just while just before we go, why don’t you let people know how they can connect with you on kind of LinkedIn, Twitter and things like that?

Derek Irvine 27:00
Yeah, well, I think probably the best spot if you’re interested in the research, first of all, is to go to, you’ll find the research there, our latest Gallup wellness research, as well as a pile of other resources, a whole series of things. And then as you mentioned, I’m on LinkedIn, Derek Irvine, LinkedIn, you’ll you’ll find me easily enough and it’s a good way to track some of the latest news coming out of myself or Workhuman.

Mervyn Dinnen 27:28
Derek, have a great rest of the day. And I will set up a hotline with your kids to find what the scrambled eggs are like next week. Thank you for your time.

Derek Irvine 27:40
My pleasure.

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