It may seem counter-intuitive, but expressing gratitude during trying times can provide a much-needed psychological boost.
By Jessica Mudditt
When will life return to normal? Even when restrictions are eased more noticeably, the lifestyle we took for granted may be a while away. The toll on public health and wellbeing has been heavy, yet there has also been an unexpected flourishing of creativity and innovation, and an outpouring of gratitude.
In cities around the world, frontline health workers receive cheers and applause from people living in nearby apartments as they enter hospitals. In many places, it has become a daily ritual.
Why is it important to show gratitude when the chips are down?
According to Sydney-based psychiatrist and Australian Financial Review (AFR) columnist Tanveer Ahmed, it is because we have the most to gain by having a grateful perspective during a crisis. Gratitude can bring hope, and make us feel less overwhelmed by circumstances. It can also help to remind us that they are temporary.
“Just this morning, I saw a neighbour engaging with the person collecting the garbage. I’ve never seen that before,” Ahmed says. “Whether it’s the delivery driver, the supermarket worker or the postman, workers who were once seemingly invisible are now highly visible and appreciated because they are on the frontline.”
He explains that in positive psychology research, gratitude is consistently associated with greater happiness.
Gratitude has several documented benefits, including helping people deal with adversity and build stronger relationships.
Being grateful and focusing on the positive can even improve health, according to a study by Harvard Medical School.
“Acts of gratitude are important because they help us look outward,” Ahmed says.
“They reinforce the sense that while we may not be in control of our lives, we are part of something bigger, and we each have a place in a large web of relationships. Reorienting ourselves in that direction is very helpful and emotionally healthy.”
Crisis leadership also calls for openly expressing gratitude.
“People don’t necessarily want to have fireworks set off for them, but they do want to be valued.” Clare Desira, Top Five Movement
“Employees are understandably anxious, but it’s not about having to know everything or even having a clear direction. You do need to convey that you have their back, that you’re sharing in the challenges and the uncertainty, and that any credit due is shared,” Ahmed says.
However, he cautions against performing acts of gratitude in isolation (pardon the pun). “It’s not about randomly performing acts of gratitude. It needs to be part of the broader way you interact.”
Even during normal circumstances, gratitude is an important attitude to cultivate. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that fundraisers who were told their efforts were appreciated made 50 per cent more calls the following week than those who were not spoken to.
Megan McPherson, head of donor relations at the University of Melbourne, knows first-hand just how powerful a thank you can be – her career is built around getting it right.
She believes that saying thank you is vital, and not just because it is the right thing to do.
“From a business perspective and particularly in philanthropy, saying thank you is more than just a common courtesy and good manners; it is expected.”
What happens when an act of generosity goes unnoticed or unacknowledged?
“The organisation can appear quite entitled,” she says.
“A person may feel that they’re being taken for granted and that they have been lost in the crowd. They may look elsewhere, to somewhere they feel more appreciated.”
A wrong way to say thank you?
McPherson does not believe that every thank you is created equal.
“When a thank you is delivered as a preamble for asking for something more, it’s not sincere. The receiver will switch off, because it sends the message that you only hear from an organisation when it wants something from you.”
Clare Desira, founder of Top Five Movement, cautions against combining a message of thanks with a pep talk for what lies ahead.
“Thanking your team for their hard work and then telling them to get some rest because the next month is going to be even bigger won’t work particularly well. People who have worked really hard may be very tired. Timing is important.”
So too is timeliness, says McPherson. “If you wait too long to express gratitude, it can lose its value.”
Desira has observed the benefits in many organisations of a quick gratitude session on a Friday afternoon.
“When a manager thanks someone for something specific they’ve done that week, it lifts the mood as people are leaving for the weekend. It helps people feel appreciated.”
When a job feels thankless
Failing to acknowledge a completed project may result in unnecessary anxiety and a drop in morale and productivity, says Desira. This is particularly important when most employees are working from home and are at risk of feeling disconnected and invisible.
“Some will assume that if they hear nothing back, that something is wrong. They will worry. This will impact how they feel about their job, their confidence, and their sense of value in the workplace,” Desira says.
A quick email with an estimated timeframe for a full response can work wonders for managing expectations, she adds.
While specificity is good, the message of thanks doesn’t need to be perfectly crafted.
“I think something is better than nothing,” McPherson says. “It might just be sending an email to 100 people across an office and calling out individuals for their great work and explaining the difference it made. Doing that in a public way and in an environment of peers can be effective.”
A study by the University of Chicago debunks any apprehensions that saying thank you will only make the receiver feel awkward. Researchers found that recipients were more delighted than the sender predicted, and were not focused on the wording or tone of the message.
To really stand out in the digital age, McPherson suggests a handwritten note. That, of course, takes time, which may be in particularly short supply at present. It is almost incomprehensible how the CEO of American multinational BELFOR Holdings, Sheldon Yellen, finds the time to handwrite 9200 cards to his employees every year. He says he does it to create “a culture of compassion”.
On the other end of the spectrum is a generically worded, mass email. This is unlikely to be valued, or even read. There are tech tools that can help save time, such as videos with a customisable message, or automated notes that appear to be handwritten. Either way, says Desira, “People don’t necessarily want to have fireworks set off for them, but they do want to be valued.”