UC Science Radio transcript: Episode 9

Prof Katharina Naswall: Wellbeing at work

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Molly Magid: Welcome to UC Science Radio, where we conduct interviews with a range of scientists to learn about the big issues facing our world and what science is doing to help. I'm Molly Magid, a Master’s student in the School of Biological Sciences.

Today I’m talking to Dr. Katharina Naswall. She’s a Professor of Psychology at UC, specialising in organisational psychology. Her research areas include work-related stress, employee resilience, and work-life balance. She often collaborates with organisations to help make the world of work a source of wellbeing and health.

Kia ora Katharina, thanks for coming on UC Science Radio. I'm curious, what is your role at UC and what's your research on?
Katharina Naswall:
Kia ora Molly. My role at UC is Professor in Psychology, and I do research on employee wellbeing.

What does it mean for people to have a good sense of wellbeing within their work? What could an employer provide that would make an employee feel that sense of wellbeing?
That's a really good question, that's what we're trying to figure out. What we know from our research and from just chatting with people is that if you feel good at work and you feel good when you’re coming home, that's a really good start. The jobs that make us do that, are jobs where we get to do something we're passionate about, that we care about, that we feel has meaning to other people. Where we feel we have some control and input into what we're doing, so I feel like I'm not just being told what to do, but I actually can have some control over what happens during the day. And where we feel like we belong, we have a sense of relatedness, of collegiality, of group belonging. So those three things are really important and they really help people feel good about going to work and thinking about work. Those are the things that we're trying to promote.

Do you find that employers are becoming more interested and focused on improving employee wellbeing in comparison to maybe ten or twenty years ago?
Yeah, I definitely see a change. The organisations that we chat with and we try to get in collaboration with are much more interested in talking about wellbeing. Whereas before they were more interested in talking about productivity, or health and safety was the closest that we got. Now they're more aware that how people feel actually affects how they work. There's definitely been a big change in the last ten years. I think, in Canterbury, a lot of it had to do with the earthquakes. That sped things along. After the earthquakes, employers became more aware that people had feelings and lives outside work that affected them and that what happened to people at work actually made a difference to things outside of work. So that's a huge change.

What happened during the earthquakes that really made people aware of that?
People had so much to deal with outside of work and people's clients, organisations’ and businesses’ clients, had a lot to deal with. Everyone came together and had difficulties, and sort of shared that in a way, which was positive, but it also created a higher emotional workload for staff and for managers who had to deal with the staff being stressed about dealing with their clients on top of dealing with their own situations at home. So it just came to a point where they said: "What we're doing now just isn't working. We have to look at what we can do to help people get through this better."

This is where they started to reach out to researchers, resources, psychologists, anybody who knew more about the softer side of work. They saw that this actually made a change, it made a difference to how people felt and how people were able to handle the situation, but also handle work. It improved how people went about doing their work, it had more than one good outcome.

Yeah, I saw that your lab and you did work with an organisation on improving resilience after the earthquake. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeah sure. We were fortunate to partner or work for the organisation who at first didn't know what they could do for their staff. They knew they needed to do something, but they weren’t sure what, and they saw that we were doing work on employee resilience and organisational resilience. We started just talking to them and they had some ideas of what the problem might be, but as we kept talking to them and their staff, we realized more and more that it was different sorts of issues and different solutions than what they'd been used to.

While we were thinking about resilience, it became more about overall wellbeing, and it became about organisations supporting their staff more, being open to knowing about the challenges that people were going through. So rather than just leaving your life outside the door when you come to work in the morning, people started opening up and talking about what the challenges were. What they found was that other people had similar challenges and they could help each other, even if it wasn't work-related. That this kind of relatedness or sense of belonging and being part of a community helped people get through the challenges and also do their work better. So it wasn't so much resilience as sort of capacity building, focusing on making people feel better, so getting their wellbeing levels up, and then they were able to handle challenges at work better, which I guess could be viewed as resilience.

We're talking at a time where on the one hand, people are going back to work and trying to come back as organisations. And on the other hand, there may be people who are now unemployed, or are continuing to work from home or to have their work shifted. I know that you're doing some work on what happened in lockdown and the fallout from that. Could you talk about your work - what have you been focusing on and what have you been doing, and then what are your hypotheses about what's been happening?
Yeah, so when the lockdown was about to happen, we were just starting up some research around how people were coping with this huge uncertainty that Covid was presenting, even before lockdown. Because we know from our past research on job insecurity and uncertainty, that uncertainty is really hard to handle. Even if nothing ever happens, as long as we worry about something, we're already dealing with that potential threat.

We started out asking people what their employers and organisations were doing for them before the lockdown that was helping them. This was before we knew that lockdown was going to happen. Then the lockdown happened, and we kept working on getting this research out because we noticed the university was helping us in different ways and supporting, and we were interested in knowing what other businesses were doing. So that's the research that's going on right now.

What will come out of it, I think, my hypothesis is that organisations, from the beginning, showed that they understood that the pandemic, the lockdown, the aftermath could be stressful for people, and present a lot of uncertainty. Organisations that communicated that they knew what people were going through will seem more supportive and will have staff that feel more supported but also feel more loyal to their organisation. So these staff want to do more work, they want to help the organisations come through because now that we're sort of coming out of it, or at least looking at a post-pandemic environment, a lot of organisations have to think of new ways of working. And the staff will have to do those new ways of working. If people who are worried and don't feel supported, they will be much less willing to do new things. And they're going to be less likely to think of new things because the sense of creativity and innovation, and just coming up with new ways of doing stuff, doesn't happen if we're always worried about our job or we feel like the organisation didn't treat us right. So those are some things that I'm expecting to see, that people who feel supported are more willing to do extra things and have higher wellbeing in general.

Yeah, it seems like there's this idea that people are only motivated by a salary or are only trying to get paid, but there's all these other things and especially in a time of a lot of stress, providing that support is actually the biggest thing you could probably do for people to motivate them to keep working during this time.
Absolutely, I think the good thing is that showing support, for an organisation, is really low cost. You can be friendly and supportive and it doesn't cost more than not doing it. It's a low-budget way of strengthening your workforce. There's a definite opportunity there for businesses to express their support and in exchange get more from their employees than they might have expected given the situation.

How do you think the increased unemployment has hit people? Do you think people are more uncertain about their lives now, and what about these companies that have had to lay off so many people? How does that affect people who remain at those companies?
Yeah, that's a really important question at the moment, because of course many of us are so lucky to have our jobs still, but many are either worried about or feel it's fairly likely that they'll lose their job, especially if they might have had casual employments, or they’re in a business that's just really struggling like the tourism or hospitality business, for example.

So there's two pathways. There are people who have lost their jobs and have to deal with unemployment and those challenges that are there. And here's where as much as possible, there needs to be support for them to try and get a new job. That's a good investment from the government trying to help people get back into employment as soon as possible to avoid the long-term effects of unemployment. Losing one's job is a stressful time, but if it's short-term, usually that's okay in the long run.

Then there's the people who will have their jobs but worry about losing their jobs, and who might have lost colleagues due to downsizing. They're going to be in a heightened state of worrying about their job. They might have a continued fear of job loss, they might have a feeling like their job situation has change. That sense of belonging I was talking about, they might have lost some of their best friends at work, so they might have lost their morning tea group, and things have changed in that way. They might have lost things like benefits or resources in different ways, maybe the company has to move, or things are changing so there's more than just the job loss aspect to worry about. So I think the people who are still employed might feel more stressed, just because of that uncertainty.

I wonder if this shift more towards working from home has changed work-life balance because, you know, people were already more able to continue working at home with things like checking email on their phones or being engaged more digitally, but now that people are actually working from their homes, do you think that the line between work and home has been blurred even more?
Yeah, very possibly so. Especially for people who weren't used to keeping those boundaries themselves, but used the physical transition from home to work as that boundary. I think employers, but also staff, we have to do this ourselves, is to think about what works for me - do I want it to be completely blurred and I just work whenever I feel like it? Or do I need those set boundaries, is that what makes it easier for me to handle different phases of life?

In addition to the research we're doing on Covid, in general, we have student projects that look at how people feel about their work-life balance when they're working from home. We certainly take into account whether they've done that before Covid or not. I know internationally, there’s a number of larger-scale research studies that have started off the back of Covid, to explore exactly that, so how are people feeling about their work-life balance?

I think for people who don't mind the blurring, it will be easier to create a balanced lifestyle because you have that flexibility of working wherever, at home, and whenever. But there may be those who would appreciate some help with the boundary-setting and here's where managers also have to be mindful of who do they need to help in setting some of those endpoints to the work day and allowing people to say: "Well I'm done at five o'clock," or something that might help. So some people might need some extra support in keeping those boundaries.

Shifting away a bit from the Covid-19 situation, I think there's this idea that productivity comes from just putting more hours in. I don't really know the research or the ideas behind what actually makes people productive, so have you done research about that?
Well, when are you most productive?

When am I most productive? I'm most productive when I have a short period of time to work and then have a break and can come back, so it's more broken up.
Yeah, like a manageable amount of work that you're interested in that you possibly know when you're done with, so this is boundary-setting. You have a sense of this is what I'm going to achieve, so you have set goals, so goals are very motivating. Where you have some input into what your reward will be important as well. So it's not just about salary for example, even though that can be motivating. Having a meaningful task that doesn't look overwhelming, that we feel is within our wheelhouse, we can actually do this, even if we have to work a little bit harder to learn something, and we feel if we run into an issue, that we can ask somebody for help, or we know where to find a solution. That has to with the sense of not being overwhelmed. So a manageable workload, some pressure that pushes you a little bit, and something you care about.

Yeah, it seems like if people are spending the majority of their lives in work or the majority of their time, that it should be meaningful.
Yeah, I think that's a reasonable thing to expect actually and I think that there's actually a good amount of studies on creating meaningful work and how important it is for people to have some input into what makes them feel their work is meaningful. Reframing a task, as maybe I'm sweeping the floor, but I'm actually part of a bigger vision. I'm making things look good so that the students are happier, so I'm actually helping the university move forward. You can reframe the same task in different ways. Seeing how it fits into a bigger whole is motivating. Having a job where you feel you've fulfilled some of your own values is actually quite motivating and it helps you be productive.

I'm just picking up on what you said about time, so you might have heard about the company in Auckland who's gone to a four-day work week, just in the last year or so. There's researchers at Massey and AUT who are working with them and evaluating it, in organisational psychology. They've found that productivity is about the same, if not better, and people are feeling better about it. Even though they're working fewer hours a week, they're achieving the same thing. They believe that this a good move and there's several researchers people who have studied work and productivity over a number of years who say it's definitely not the hours you put in, it's what you do with those hours. If you have fewer hours, you might be more efficient, and you're less tired, so you're better able to perform.

I usually ask people what's the most fun or exciting part of their work, but I'm very curious with your last answer, what is the most meaningful part of your work?
Well, I get excited about thinking about our area of psychology or research as a way of improving people's lives. So we’re not just seeing it as studying a couple of variables in an organisation and doing correlations. We're actually finding things out and creating a resource of information that can enable organisations to be a positive part of their employees’ lives. I've found that really exciting because, as you said we spend a lot of time at work. For every person, if their work experience is just improved ten, twenty, thirty percent from what it is now, whatever that is, that's a huge difference to how they feel about going to work.

I think based on research as well, what happens to us at work affects how we feel outside of work.

If we have a positive day of work, we'll be more positive outside and we'll be able to handle things that happen outside more constructively or be less stressed, we might have more time for family and other things. So the meaningful part of my job, is that I see it is as a way of improving people's lives, which is exciting.

Now that things are changing a little bit more, what's next for you?
Pretty much the same, so the research that we launched, we'll have a look at the preliminary results and keep developing the resources that we want to make available to organisations. That was the objective of this project is to make sure that we get this information out as quickly as possible. And then invite some of the participants who volunteered to be part of a long-term study to see how they do over time, so that six months from now, we can say, well some things were really good to keep up doing. So we can keep that information going.

What's exciting right now is that we have the opportunity to provide a really quick turnaround of information that we think will be useful. Trying to have more of an impact, a direct impact, rather than waiting for a publication two years down the line which only academics read anyway. Getting information out to people who we think hopefully will use it to a make a difference, that's the next step I think. Then of course in Semester Two we'll come back to teaching and engage with the students, which will be nice.

So my last question is if you could say in one sentence why your work is so important?
I think our work is important because a lot of people spend a lot of time at work, and most people have some relationship to work - either they don't like it or they like it or they want to like it - and improving people's experience at work will eventually improve people's lives and make the world a better place.

Thank you so much Katharina for your time and for talking with me, I really enjoyed it.
Thanks Molly, I appreciate chatting about this. It’s something I enjoy talking about, so thanks for taking the time!

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