The Untapped Potential of Cultivating Gratitude at Work

Showing gratitude at work can contribute to a healthier workplace, but new research says that work gratitude is conceptually different from gratitude in other areas of our lives.

Adobe Stock / Dragana Gordic

One of the most painful experiences as an employee is feeling underappreciated for the work you do. Toiling away for hours on end without recognition can impact your well-being, and may also lead to lower productivity—it’s hard to keep putting in the effort when you think that no one will notice. This has been especially challenging throughout the pandemic, with employees sequestered at home and juggling competing work-life pressures. 

On the flip side, when we feel grateful for our work and colleagues, and when our employer expresses gratitude for our valuable input, we can cope better with the stressful demands and pressures that a job places on us. Gratitude also promotes positive appraisals of our work, and we feel motivated to perform to a higher standard.

Despite these psychological and behavioral benefits, gratitude has not been well studied in a workplace context. In fact, gratitude may be an untapped resource that has the potential to propel employees to reach their full potential.

Feeling Grateful for Your 9-to-5

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology developed and evaluated the Work Gratitude Scale (WGS), designed to test the theory that gratitude at work may be conceptually different from gratitude we feel and express in other areas of our lives.

The scientific literature has defined gratitude in two ways: as a dispositional trait possessed by people who are naturally grateful, and as a fleeting emotion or experience, which may follow a kind act or a quiet reflection. Llewellyn van Zyl, an Assistant Professor in work and organizational psychology with Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and one of the authors of the study, says that work gratitude is different from gratitude in other parts of our lives because it’s more like a fluctuating experience than a dispositional trait.

Van Zyl and coauthors Carolyn Youssef-Morgan and Barbara Ahrens define work gratitude as “the intentional choice to engage in positive appraisals and feelings of thankfulness and appreciation toward the characteristics, situations, and people currently present in one’s work context.”

“Work affects how, why, and under which conditions you can show positive behaviors like hope, optimism, resilience, and gratitude,” says van Zyl. From this perspective, van Zyl and coauthors Carolyn Youssef-Morgan and Barbara Ahrens define work gratitude as “the intentional choice to engage in positive appraisals and feelings of thankfulness and appreciation toward the characteristics, situations, and people currently present in one’s work context.” It is the context here that’s important because our work environment can change the way we give or accept gratitude.

Van Zyl says that this definition suggests that employees can make a deliberate choice to show gratitude, or what they call an “attitude of gratitude.” Further to this, he says,  “Work gratitude also involves a positive reframing of things that are going on in your work environment,” which helps us to see challenging situations as opportunities for growth. The final component of work gratitude includes the notion of social appreciation, which is important for workplace relationships and cohesion. 

Testing the Theory of Work Gratitude

To test the theory that work gratitude is conceptually distinct, the researchers adapted items from existing scales to the specific work context, and then tested them statistically to select the best items. In a sample of 625 employees from a school district in the United States, Youssef-Morgan and Ahrens ran sessions to test and retest the consistency and reliability of the items on the scale. Van Zyl then analyzed and validated the results in relation to their theory of work gratitude.

In the end, the results supported a 10-question scale with three dimensions defined as: grateful appraisals (three questions), gratitude toward others (four questions), and the intentional attitude of gratitude (three questions).

Gratitude Is a Personal Resource

Dolly Parton’s catchy typewriter-beat tune “9 to 5” uses the analogy of a morning cup of coffee as a “cup of ambition.” Could gratitude act in a similar way, providing employees with the motivation and ambition they need to do a stellar job?

Van Zyl says that it depends in large part on the work environment and the employee’s personality, and whether these two pieces fit well together. “If my working environment is not conducive to the person that I am, it won’t allow me to activate the things that are important for me.” A creative person who is unable to use their skills in a role may view their workplace as a toxic environment, whereas another person with a different skill set may thrive in that same workplace. 

Van Zyl says that gratitude should be viewed as a currency, one that’s just as vital as the currency of pay and benefits.

Beyond the basics of personality-job fit, there’s a lot that employers could do to engage what van Zyl calls the “personal resource” of gratitude. “We can use [gratitude] as a mechanism to buffer against the negative effects of job demands on health, but also to enhance…things like engagement, motivation, and external behaviors,” he says. Organizations tend to focus on money, benefits, and job perks, and while important, these factors may not create a positive environment where employees feel appreciated. Van Zyl says that gratitude should be viewed as a currency, one that’s just as vital as the currency of pay and benefits.

Mindfulness and Gratitude at Work

Gratitude at work involves noticing the good things or people around you and being cognizant of the experiences you’re having at work. This can help to reframe challenges and put them in a positive context—it may also prompt you to reach out to your colleagues for support when you need it. 

Mindfulness plays a big role [in gratitude],” says van Zyl. “Intentional attitude is really about being mindfully appreciative of the things that you’re doing.” In van Zyl’s other research, he has found that mindfulness-based activities are the only positive interventions in a workplace that show sustainable results over time, more so than training or employee engagement activities. 

Fostering gratitude in the workplace starts with mindfulness, and the intentional choice to see the good around you. With the significant challenges that employees have faced over the pandemic, encouraging a positive workplace culture is more important than ever.

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