How can workplace recognition impact employee mental health and wellbeing?

Need to know:

  • In addition to boosting productivity and engagement, reward and recognition can be a key element of supporting mental wellbeing, making employees feel valued and supported, and reducing stress.
  • Top-down and face-to-face recognition has added weight and authority, but peer-to-peer thanks can develop social cohesion, while digital platforms can ensure remote staff feel included.
  • The effects are not isolated to those receiving thanks, because giving out recognition can also boost emotional wellbeing and self-esteem.

It is widely understood that recognition in the workplace can be a great motivator, whether simple thanks for a job well done, peer-to-peer accolades such as nominating a ‘colleague of the month’, or benefits-based recognition platforms offering points and rewards.

Indeed, December 2019 research by work management platform Wrike found more than a quarter of managers (28%) cited recognition of accomplishments as a key driver of engagement within their teams, while nearly a third (32%) of disengaged employees suggested greater recognition could change their mindset.

More than simply motivating employees to hit targets and strive for achievements, however, recognition has a greater role to play in creating a healthy, rewarding working environment, ultimately generating a virtuous circle of happier, more emotionally and mentally resilient employees.

Improved social wellbeing

Recognition schemes can indeed help to drive good mental health, says David Gould, chief executive at reward provider CR Worldwide. “Recognition programmes, and the platforms that are put in place, the technology to enable managers and peers to say thanks and acknowledge a colleague’s contribution to the workplace ‘society’, can really help to combat the threat of poor social wellness,” he says.

“Good mental health is said to manifest in a sense of self-worth and contentment. Through social recognition, an employer can demonstrate its commitment to helping employees achieve such a state of mind.”

Corporate wellness 2.0, published by CR Worldwide in December 2019, found that there has been a rise in UK organisations investing in employee wellbeing and incentive schemes. Crucially, one of the drivers behind this growth was the desire to tackle workplace stress and mental ill-health, resulting in a focus on corporate wellness and social, health-based or experiential rewards. For example, wearable fitness monitors and an afternoon tea for two were among 2018’s top 10 most widely chosen rewards.

Eugene Farrell, mental health lead for corporate healthcare at insurer and healthcare provider Axa PPP Healthcare, and chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), says: “Being recognised in some way is, obviously, good for self-esteem. And self-esteem makes us feel better. If we feel better, we’re going to be better generally in our mental health, as well as work harder and commit.”

This boost to self esteem, especially if combined with benefits and rewards that are, in themselves, beneficial for reducing stress, boosting social wellness, or helping with work-life balance, can, therefore, have effects far beyond reaching targets.

Types of recognition

Considering the advent of advanced techniques, such as the use of intuitive platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) and gamification, as well as the wide variety of more traditional methods, ranging from employee of the month awards to thank-you cards, it might not be as simple as saying that recognition directly impacts wellbeing.

Just as different forms of recognition have varied effects on motivation and performance, how might the influence on mental wellbeing change between, for example, peer-to-peer and top-down accolades, or between simple thank-you cards and complex reward platforms?

Top-down recognition from managers and leaders can be powerful in terms of providing heavily weighted affirmation or validation, particularly if this is in a public forum. However, this has to be seen to be fair, relevant and meaningful, says Brett Hill, distribution director for health insurance intermediary Towergate Health and Protection.

“Recognition can improve social and mental wellbeing across the organisation because everybody feels that they are making a valuable and valid contribution towards that business endeavour, and that is critical,” he says. “If [an employer is] going to do recognition in the broadest sense, yes, it should be public where it is appropriate. It should be frequent, where that’s possible. It should be sincere, always. But it should also be inclusive; it should cover all parts of the organisation.

“If leadership is detached, then recognition from the leadership will feel remote. But that is a symptom of a wider problem.”

Peer-to-peer recognition can have a different role to play, though, in creating a more cohesive, positive environment within the everyday workings of a team. This can help improve social wellbeing, as well as reducing stress by, for example, publicly celebrating and reminding employees of the support available among their team members.

Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway, says: “Peer-to-peer recognition can be valuable in creating a sense of pride. Getting an element of recognition from colleagues is positive in terms of the chemical reactions, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, it produces in the body.”

Meanwhile, where face-to-face thanks can redouble the sincerity of a recognition scheme, the use of technology can make the impact more instant, and importantly, more accessible. This might be key to helping remote, dispersed or mobile employees feel more connected to, and supported by, their organisation.

[Remote staff] may be physically disconnected from the office, but they are not emotionally disconnected; they desire peer or managerial approval, recognition and acknowledgement just as much,” says Gould. “It is just about finding how that recognition can be best delivered and provided.”

Employers should carefully consider what effects they want to create, and which format, or combination of approaches, might work best for these goals and their specific workforce.

Although this might seem like a daunting array of options, the mere act of implementing a scheme might be enough, says Hicks. “I don’t think there is any one element of recognition that is more important than any other,” he says. “My advice [to employers] is always simply to make sure that [they] are doing something. The more [they] do, the more positive [their] impacts are, and the greater [their] individual impact on employees.

Culture of wellbeing 

Key to boosting mental health resilience in the workplace is the sense of belonging that can come with having good work recognised. “Recognition definitely helps to build a more cohesive workplace,” says Gould. “By workplace I don’t just mean the physical environment, but also the sense of belonging that employees experience when they feel connected as a result of the positive affirmations recognition brings.”

It is also not just the recipients of recognition who can benefit in terms of improved mental or social wellbeing: As Farrell concludes: “Giving is a good thing, as well as receiving; it is good for both people. If, culturally, you thank people in a structured and formal way, then that can boost the morale of the whole workplace.

“It is about rewarding each other, rather than just moving on all of the time. If we’re just on the treadmill continually, that’s not great for mental health; there is no boost in that. Mental boosts make us feel better, they make us feel that our contribution to colleagues is worthwhile and having good effect. And that makes for better business overall.”