Thriving Together Series: Why Leaders Matter for Boosting Workplace Thriving

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This edition of the Thriving Together Series is adapted from The Well-Being Lab 2020 Workplace Report, a collaboration between our center and The Well-Being Lab (a Michelle McQuaid program). The report is based on two surveys of more than 1,000 workers each, throughout the United States.

Caring for our well-being is not a solo endeavor. Well-being perceptions, experiences, and behaviors are diverse and spread through a complicated web of social connections. Our leaders’ actions play a significant role in nurturing or impairing that web.

Well-Being is Multifaceted

One way to understand, measure, and action evidence-based approaches for improving well-being is Professor Martin Seligman’s PERMAH Wellbeing Framework, which suggests that well-being comprises: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment, and health.

Each of the PERMAH factors provide indications of well-being in a number of areas. Importantly, there is no single number or specific profile that indicates thriving. Depending on one’s values and preferences, different numbers and profiles are best for different people. But as the six factors are interconnected and influence one another, feeling poorly in one area often result in feeling poorly in other areas as well.

Workers who were consistently thriving or living well, despite struggles reported statistically higher scores on all PERMAH factors than other workers. Meaning was particularly important for those living well, despite struggle, and relationships and accomplishment were important across all groups.

While workers who were really struggling were lower across dimensions than other workers, they particularly reported low levels of physical health, pointing to the important connection between our physical and mental functioning.

Leaders have a Big Impact

Previous studies have found that leaders have a significant impact on workers’ well-being. Our data confirm these findings, with workers who reported that their managers regularly expressed care, compassion, gratitude, and appreciation towards them showing, significantly higher scores across the PERMAH factors.

In addition, workers who reported that their managers regularly expressed care, compassion, gratitude, and appreciation toward them were more likely to be able to manage their well-being, and reported higher levels of job satisfaction, performance, and commitment to their organizations. They also reported significantly higher levels of productivity over the past month compared to their pre-COVID productivity levels.

While all workers appear to perform better and be more engaged with managers who express care and compassion, lack of care and compassion appears to be particularly problematic for workers with moderate to high levels of anxiety about COVID-19. Caring and compassionate managers may be able to buffer the negative effects of anxiety that workers may be experiencing at the moment.

Well-Being is Systemic

Respondents rated their own wellbeing, along with their perceptions of the well-being of their team and organization. Across the PERMAH factors, workers reported significantly higher levels of individual engagement, relationships, accomplishment, and physical health than their teams or their organizations. They also reported significantly higher levels of individual Meaning than their organization.

The team and organization scores represent workplaces norms, attitudes, and actions that undermine or amplify individual experiences of well-being. Given that studies find that these factors can be contagious, it is important for workplaces to be mindful of the impact their choices have on workers.

For example, studies have found that workplaces that support people’s basic psychological needs of autonomy (having a sense of freedom of choice), competence (able to do one’s work, learn, and grow), and relatedness (connecting deeply with others) make it easier for people to thrive consistently. The extent to which these needs were being met helped to distinguish those who were consistently thriving and living well, despite struggles from other workers.

Additional Resources

Learn how to apply the science of well-being to your leadership, in our Leading to Well-Being certificate programs.

Measure your well-being through the free PERMAH Well-Being Survey. See how you’re doing when it comes to your levels of thriving and struggle, and your abilities and motivation to care for your well-being. You can even create a free personal well-being plan, drawing on more than 200 evidence-based well-being actions. You can also use this tool for teams or entire workplaces.

Write one of these Thriving Together Series features! We’re looking for contributions on all topics related to well-being. Read other Thriving Together Series articles here and contact us at for guidelines. Thank you for helping our Mason community thrive together online!