How to Cultivate a Gratitude Culture at Work

By Jennifer Thomas | November 3, 2020 | Rally Health


Taking time to feel grateful might seem a little strange these days. For one, many people are busy juggling their work schedules with remote learning or trying to fit in some outdoor exercise while the weather still holds. And then there’s the lingering stress and uncertainty about the future. But this is actually a smart time for companies to create and encourage a culture of gratitude. That’s because gratitude fosters a sense of hope and security, says Jennifer Wong Boyle, a licensed therapist with a practice in Los Angeles.

“It’s easy to be grateful when things are going well, but gratitude really flexes its muscles when things are challenging,” Wong Boyle says. “It gives us a breather from the intensity of any negative situation.”

The simple definition of gratitude is showing appreciation. That can mean taking time to appreciate the good things in your life or, in the context of work, recognizing the worth of each individual and the contributions they make to the workplace, Wong Boyle says.

When a company leads with gratitude, good things happen. Workplace gratitude makes employees feel respected and part of the team. Practicing gratitude in general can help reduce stress and improve people’s health. All of that is a positive for people’s well-being, says Linda Roszak Burton, founder of the leadership development firm DRW, and author of Gratitude Heals.

Fostering a company culture of gratitude, even during tough times, doesn’t have to be dramatic or formal. The best efforts are simply ones that are sincere, Roszak Burton says. Here’s how to do it.

Make gratitude a habit

For gratitude to take hold, it must be practiced. Roszak Burton recommends that companies start small. For example, managers might start opening every meeting or team huddle by naming one or two things from the past 24 hours that they are grateful for.

“It could be a positive emotion, an interaction, a relationship or a step forward in a tough project,” Roszak Burton says.

That introduces the concept of gratitude, and the next step is to offer avenues for employees to participate. Participation should always be voluntary and as natural as possible, Wong Boyle says. It could be as simple as creating a gratitude tree or jar with blank “leaves” or notes to write something they’re grateful for or something positive that happened.

If your company uses messaging software like Slack, create a specific channel where people can give kudos to someone whose hard work or teamwork they appreciate. There are also other simple low-tech ways to show appreciation. For example, you might email PDFs of blank organization charts and ask managers to create gratitude flowcharts with detailed thanks to their direct reports.

Positive communication on its own is a form of showing gratitude. Many employees are still working remotely, and it’s important to still regularly check in even if things seem to be going smoothly. “Pick up the phone, send an email, schedule a Zoom call, to see how they’re doing,” Roszak Burton says. Hopping on another video call may be the equivalent of a root canal for some employees, but it’s also important to maintain relationships and to show employees that you see them as people, and not just workers, she says.

Don’t forget to encourage them to explore gratitude for themselves, too. Gratitude journaling is one easy way for people to write down the things they’re grateful for. You might consider mailing out journals company-wide. There aren’t any hard and fast rules for gratitude journaling, but it can be helpful to set aside time every day or every week to write down three to five good things that happened.

Or instead of a journal, send your employees the supplies to make their own gratitude jar at home. Not only do gifts make people feel appreciated, Roszak Burton says, but creating the jar — a place for people to drop in written notes about things they’re grateful for — can also be a fun activity for families.

Say thanks

At the end of the day, a thank-you goes a long way. Employees of course want to be financially rewarded for their hard work, but that’s not what motivates people most. While performance bonuses can motivate employees to work harder, they can also lead to more stress and less job satisfaction, according to a study in the Human Resource Management Journal. Instead, what often sticks is the thank-you that people receive for their work, Roszak Burton says.

And while performance bonuses can motivate employees to work harder, they can also lead to more stress and less job satisfaction.

For a gesture of thanks to be truly meaningful, though, it needs to be specific and timely, Roszak Burton says. Timeliness is often where many companies fall short because they rely on tenure-based milestones like anniversaries or promotions to show appreciation to an employee.

“Pins and plaques are good, but the reward feeling doesn’t last very long,” Roszak Burton says. “A handwritten note or expression of some sort that truly captures the meaningfulness of what the employee did, the benefits that were derived from that, their intentions and any sacrifices they had to make to reach that outcome, is the level of detail that makes all the difference.”

Two of the most important aspects of expressing gratitude are giving someone the sense that they are valued and that they belong, Wong Boyle says. Part of that is treating employees as individuals and as humans, not just work units. That can mean praising employees not just for their productivity, but thanking someone for how their calm demeanor helped keep the team going during a stressful week. You can also recognize their milestones outside of work, like celebrating a birthday, having a baby, or earning a master’s degree.

“It’s important to feel appreciated for who we are, not just what we produce,” she says. “When people feel understood and valued, they are more productive and produce better work.”

Build camaraderie

Praise from the top is good, but it isn’t the only source of appreciation that matters. Many people are also motivated by peer-to-peer recognition, Roszak Burton says.

If you don’t have a peer-to-peer recognition program, now is a good time to start one. Again, it doesn’t have to be anything complex. You can create a real-world appreciation wall or a virtual one by creating a page on an internal company site or asking employees to download billboard apps to post messages or images of gratitude. If you don’t have the existing resources yourself, you might think about creating a private gratitude-focused social media page for your employees.

And don’t forget to celebrate team wins. A team lunch or outing may not be possible right now, so schedule a virtual gathering for team members to come together. Workplace relationships are an important component of employee happiness. A Myers-Briggs Well-Being in the Workplace study found that positive relationships with their co-workers are important to people’s well-being at work.

Company volunteering is another great team-building activity. Having a culture of volunteerism can help boost morale and atmosphere, according to Deloitte’s Volunteerism Survey. If it’s not possible for everyone to volunteer together in person, create a company-wide fundraising campaign such as a virtual run/walk, buying raffle tickets for prize baskets, or a pajama ball fundraiser where everyone shows up on a video call in their sleepwear instead of in fancy clothes at a banquet hall.

Continuing to create opportunities for social connections and chances to reflect on the positive is important, Roszak Burton says.

“Gratitude in the workplace leads to more positive social relationships, which increases the willingness of people to help each other,” Roszak Burton says. “That’s a great thing for a positive and healthy work culture.”


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