We’ve all been taught this simple lesson: Words matter. Do a simple Google search, and you’ll turn up hundreds of variations on that theme:
“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” —attributed to Gautama Buddha
“And, yes, words matter. They may reflect reality, but they also have the power to change reality—the power to uplift and to abase.” —William Raspberry
“Words matter, and the right words matter most of all. In the end, they’re all that remain of us.” —John Birmingham
Using the right words can be quite simple, and, as philosophers both ancient and modern agree, using the right words unlocks the power for good. BYU Marriott School of Business professor Taeya Howell is joining the throngs of those touting the importance of using the right words—and not just because she likes the sentiment. The assistant professor of organizational behavior has coauthored two hefty academic studies that show the measurable impact of kind words (or the lack thereof) on people in work environments.
Howell has learned that whether words of praise come from strangers or close associates, they have the capacity to strengthen workers’ resolve in the face of stressful challenges and help employees turn to healthy recovery practices when they feel drained. This is particularly true for those who work in the most thankless of environments.
Howell and her colleagues’ research is uncovering how praise and kindness make a significant difference for those on the front lines, such as healthcare workers, trash collectors, and janitors, as well as those in the workplace, just the next cubicle over.
Invisible and Unseen
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, some essential workers were immediately thrown into the limelight. While most people in office environments were able to shift to remote work, essential workers had no choice but to report to their jobs day in and day out, facing not only the strain of work but also the concern of infection. Fortunately, society recognized the sacrifices the most visible essential workers (healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, police officers, etc.) were making, and efforts quickly surfaced to thank these unsung heroes.
Like many people, Howell remembers when TV commercials encouraging people to find ways to thank frontline workers started to appear. Given her background and expertise in organizational behavior, Howell paid particular attention. The commercials sparked her research curiosity, so even though she was on maternity leave at the time, she reached out to colleagues to discuss the new development.
Howell’s collaborators from across the country—representing New York University, Rider University, and the University of Arizona—had seen the same commercials, but they also noticed that something subtle was missing. While the public campaigns took off and billboards, digital signs, posters, and social media posts thanking nurses and doctors came flooding in, there were hundreds of thousands of less visible essential workers who were receiving little to no praise.
One of those unseen worker groups was corrections officers. The more than 300,000 US corrections officers may be some of the most unappreciated, unrecognized essential workers in the country. Even in the best of times, they rarely cross the conscious of the public as they carry out taxing but critical work behind the scenes. A pilot study from Howell and her team found that only 3 percent of those surveyed thought of corrections officers when asked to list those considered essential during the pandemic. But they are—and when COVID hit, their work became brutal.
“We’re doing three times the amount of work and feel more unappreciated than before this virus,” said one unnamed corrections officer during a May 2020 interview. “Sometimes I question why I’m still an officer.”
It was corrections officers who inspired the first round of research from Howell and her colleagues. In the view of the researchers, corrections officers were a highly relevant sample to test because they are classified as essential workers who work in a highly stressful setting—one that has been described as a “vector for disease”—that also happens to be largely out of public view. Coauthor Hee Young Kim, an associate professor of management at Rider University, had connections with corrections officer associations in the Northeast, and only a few months into the pandemic, the team was recruiting and interviewing those officers for a study.
The researchers had hoped for at least 140 study participants to ensure valid results but ended up with a final sample of 186 corrections officers from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
“Usually we’re begging people to fill out surveys; no one wants to fill out a survey,” Howell says. “This is one of those few instances where participants actually thanked us for doing the research because they felt so marginalized and unseen. And here we were trying to shine a light on what they were experiencing.”
Gratitude—or Lack Thereof
With two waves of surveys in May and June of 2020, the authors set out to measure four basic items among corrections officers:
- Did the officers feel public gratitude toward them?
- Did they feel invisible or forgotten?
- Did they feel positive (enthusiastic/excited) or negative (agitated/distressed) about their work?
- How did they recover from work burnout? Did they engage in adaptive activities, such as exercising, meditating, or spending time with loved ones? Or did they engage in maladaptive activities, such as heavy drinking, tobacco use, and overeating?
The survey results lined up nicely with the team’s predictions: When corrections officers felt that they had received gratitude, they were more likely to feel seen and to engage in positive recovery efforts. The problem, however, was that a staggering 41 percent of the officers reported receiving no gratitude at all.
“When they hadn’t felt gratitude, they felt more invisible, which led to more negative emotions,” Howell says. “They were then more likely to engage in unhealthy coping behaviors outside of work.”
The researchers bolstered the study by moving beyond corrections officers; they carried out a second survey of 379 additional essential workers who were randomly assigned either to receive social media posts praising their work or the work of other essential workers or to be in a control group receiving pictures of food. Once again, researchers found that workers who felt invisible were more likely to turn to unhealthy recovery activities. They also found that some essential workers actually questioned how genuine the praise was when they were overwhelmed by too many messages of gratitude.
However, by and large, the study clearly demonstrated that gratitude from the general public—either indirect beneficiaries or complete strangers with whom the essential workers may never have had any direct interaction—could powerfully impact the recovery actions of those workers because it helped them feel more seen.
That was a huge finding because healthy recovery from burnout means more productive and effective employees who see more purpose in their work. “It was surprising to me that even a simple thank-you message is powerful, especially for those who feel invisible and unseen to the general public,” observes Sijun Kim, another coauthor now teaching and researching at Texas A&M.
So if simple praise from complete strangers can do so much good, the researchers thought, it stands to reason that praise from a close associate could be even more powerful. That’s what Howell, Hee Young Kim, and Sijun Kim are looking at now. And so far, the results are promising as the group looks at praise in a different scenario: the workplace.
Words with Friends
Kylee Spjut works in a profession that most people would agree is high stress. As a PR strategist for Salt Lake City–based Penna Powers communications agency, the BYU graduate balances a heavy client load with the high expectations of her management team.
“I am a people pleaser, so I want to make sure I am doing my best for all my clients,” explains Spjut, who earned her degree in communications from BYU in 2018. “I am genuinely stressed most of the time because I want to prove myself capable and be good at my job.”
That stress, it turns out, can be shaped into a positive thing with only a few simple gestures of thanks from coworkers. Howell and her research colleagues are now studying just how impactful praise in the workplace can be when it comes from a colleague. What they’re finding is that praise transforms the nature of workplace stress from a hindrance—something that keeps you from achieving your goals—to a growth mechanism, the “good stressors,” as Hee Young Kim puts it.
“When people are given gratitude for their work by a colleague or a supervisor, there is a flip of the switch as it pertains to stress,” Hee Young Kim says. “Just like that, people start to see hindering stressors as the more positive challenging stressors. A reappraisal of sorts happens, and the outcome for that employee is a net gain.”
Sijun Kim likens it to Marvel or DC superhero films. In these movies, he says, the main characters are usually facing significant hindering circumstances, but by overcoming those things, they become the hero of the movie. “But we’re learning that this isn’t just happening in the movies,” he says. “It’s happening in business, in offices, in entrepreneurship, in startups: people do overcome things that appear to be depleting or hindering, and the ability to reappraise these stressors is based on the appreciation they receive.”
The research findings are so clear that the authors suggest managers move past the often unfruitful focus on trying to eliminate stressors. The reality is that in many occupations, stress will always be part of the job. Reframing those stressors with words of gratitude will change the way employees see their work, the team is discovering.
Spjut agrees “1,000 percent. In a work environment, words of praise and acknowledgement are often the easiest and most appropriate way to show appreciation,” she says. “I definitely take notice of the extra effort my coworkers and supervisors make to give positive comments about my work. When I have the confidence of my superiors, that allows me to reframe my stress and not worry about proving myself to them but focus on the problem at hand.”
Spjut says she’s lucky to have management team members who take time to give positive feedback despite their own heavy workload. Sometimes all it takes is a quick, sincere message complimenting her on how she is handling a challenge. A short email reply, a phone call, even a text can make a difference.
It’s a lesson that past generations stuck in the “no news is good news” mindset could learn from the current and upcoming workforce: keep the feedback coming, especially the positive feedback.
“To me, no news is bad news,” Spjut says. “Spend the extra minute to reply and show appreciation.”
The Real Cost
Every good manager desires a team that works efficiently, effectively, collaboratively, and—now more than ever—stress free. According to the American Institute of Stress, workplace stress costs American businesses $300 billion annually in losses due to absenteeism, lost productivity, and accidents. Job stress results in an additional $190 billion in annual healthcare costs across the nation, with an average of five hours of office work lost weekly to employees grappling with stressors.
That’s why companies spend good money to improve the workplace environment and why entire industries exist to advise, consult, and train on establishing a model work experience. Of course, the pandemic turned everything on its head. Now, in addition to workplace stress, managers are facing a bout of collective burnout never before rivaled in history. One Harvard Business Review study found that by fall 2020, 62 percent of people surveyed who reported difficulty managing their workloads were experiencing burnout more frequently.
It’s no surprise, then, that investing in programs and interventions to minimize or reduce stress and burnout seems worth the cost. But the magic of the words-of-gratitude approach tied to Howell and her coauthors’ unfolding research is that it can provide a cost-free solution with a proven impact on the well-being of all types of workers.
In short, words matter to employees—and they don’t cost a penny. And this new peer-reviewed research from some of the top experts studying praise shows it’s not only free to use the right words, it’s also one of the most effective ways to build up and empower workforces.
“From an organizational perspective, this is a pretty powerful insight because companies spend a lot of money on other programs or initiatives that are intended to improve the well-being of these workers and yet may not be positively impacting these workers in the same way that felt gratitude does,” says study coauthor Sarah Doyle, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.
This revelation was eye-opening to the research team, says Sijun Kim. And, he says, there is an added bonus to the praising approach: appreciating the work of others doesn’t incur any additional cost, and it doesn’t require any shift of resources away from other efforts.
Howell adds that for managers who are trying to retain employees and help them perform at the highest level, expressing gratitude can make a significant impact toward helping employees cope with the stress of work and reframe it in a way that’s beneficial.
“A little bit of thanks goes a long way,” Howell says.
Where to Go from Here
As Howell and her colleagues continue this line of research, they can’t help but put the principle into practice in their own lives. The work has impacted Howell’s daily interactions with her students and fellow faculty members and has caused her to make a more conscious effort to express gratitude to essential workers she interacts with regularly, such as grocery store clerks or others in service industries. And it’s definitely made her more aware and appreciative of corrections workers and the many other less visible essential employees in the workforce.
“People just want to be seen,” she says.
For Hee Young Kim, the research has prompted her to speak with her dean and encourage efforts in her college to establish a more consistent environment of praise and gratitude. Like every large institution, the university where she teaches and researches faces red tape and a lack of resources, and there is a need to boost morale without breaking the bank.
“This is a topic of great interest to university administrators because it doesn’t cost much, but if it does work, it can do wonders,” she says.
After all, it just takes a few kind words to show how much words matter.
Written by Todd Hollingshead
About the Author
Todd Hollingshead is a media relations manager in BYU’s University Communications office. He lives in Springville, Utah, with his wife, Natalie; their four children; and a dog and a cat.