• Behaviour

Cultivating Gratitude at Work

Research linking gratitude with prosocial, helpful behaviour highlights mindfulness as a way to achieve this at work


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“In normal life, we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The best creative, high-performance organizational cultures are exemplified by good employee relations, open communications, constructive teamwork and helpful collaboration. Showing gratitude to work colleagues and business associates plays an integral role in promoting these positive practices.

Organizations that are able to cultivate gratitude, able to ensure employees fully attend to and appreciate the various benefits they receive at work, are bound to profit. Yet, gratitude is difficult for employers to promote and for employees to experience.

Sincere gratitude, spontaneously generated from within, is a social emotion with deep roots in evolutionary history—emanating from the survival value of helping others and being helped in return. Neuroscience has shown how specific areas of the brain are involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude. Unfortunately, in our ultra-busy, geographically diverse, digitally enabled workplaces, characterized by rapid change and disruption, the natural human instinct to show gratitude can get crowded out.

A series of recent studies by researchers from five universities in the US has revealed how practicing ‘mindfulness’ can prompt greater levels of gratitude, prosocial motivation, and, in turn, helping behaviour at work. Mindfulness encourages managers and coworkers both to better appreciate the benefits they receive from the organization and to be are more aware of their fellow employees’ day-to-day activities and contributions—something difficult in noisy, fast-paced workplaces.

The researchers break down the complex relationship between mindfulness and employee helpful behaviour as follows:

  • Mindfulness leads to positive emotions and perspective. Perspective is the ability to see through other peoples’ eyes.
  • Positive emotions generate an appreciation by employees of the benefits in their work. Perspective leads to an awareness of the cost to others of providing such benefits (e.g. the time that co-workers donate to help them, the generosity of their company to offer flexible schedules or opportunities for career development).
  • Together, positive emotions and perspective generate employee gratitude.
  • Gratitude, in turn, leads to the desire to expend effort to help others, known as prosocial motivation, which leads to helpful behaviour.

Practical application

The common criticism that we live in an era for ‘egocentrism’ has undoubted resonance in our workplaces. This research suggests that mindfulness can be a partial antidote to this by fostering positive emotions and prompting an important shift in perspective—increasing other-oriented emotions, gratitude and prosocial drive.

From a practical standpoint, because mindfulness can become a regular part of people’s work lives, employers may benefit from adopting mindfulness interventions as a way of fostering employees’ experiences of gratitude and, in turn, motivating their helping behaviour. In addition, many companies have employee appreciation programs in place, such as monthly recognition ceremonies or regular emails from company leaders to managers and executives expressing their appreciation. The research indicates that mindfulness training would strengthen and enrich these programs.

The results from this study show how implementing mindfulness interventions and incorporating mindfulness training into work programs, employees can become more grateful for various aspects of their employment. This will increase employee helping behaviour, benefiting the organization’s culture and ultimately its performance and success.


Access the research paper here: ‘Being Present and Thankful: A Multi-Study Investigation of Mindfulness, Gratitude, and Employee Helping Behavior’. Katina B. Sawyer, Christian N. Thoroughgood, Elizabeth E. Stillwell, Michelle K. Duffy, Kristin L. Scott, and Elizabeth A. Adair. Journal of Applied Psychology (April 2021).

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