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InPsych 2011 | Vol 33

April | Issue 2

Cover feature : Positive psychology: A flourishing field

Positive psychology in the workplace

Positive psychology has certainly had a significant impact in the corporate world: across all industry sectors, leadership and organisational development programs have incorporated positive psychology concepts; ‘psychological wellness' is being increasingly accentuated in workplace wellbeing programs; and ‘stress management' training has long been overtaken by ‘resilience building' workshops. The focus of this article is at the evidence-based end of the spectrum, and we provide an overview of a particular organisational research tradition and associated interventions that have validated and extended key positive psychology concepts and practices in the workplace.

Organisational health framework

The organisational health framework (Hart & Cooper, 2001) delineates how key individual and organisational factors interact to determine levels of employee wellbeing and organisational performance. In contrast to the traditional emphasis in the work stress literature on the consequences of negative work experiences, this approach highlights the role of positive work experiences and positive emotional responses. Thus as we have previously noted, problems with wellbeing in the workplace may not necessarily be caused by adverse work experiences, but can also be caused by a low level of positive work experiences and positive emotional states (Cotton & Hart 2003).

Organisational health research has shown that both positive emotional states (morale) and negative emotional states (distress) make independent contributions to overall levels of employee wellbeing. Moreover, this research has demonstrated that levels of employee morale directly contribute to a range of people and performance-related outcomes including discretionary performance, aspects of task performance and a range of withdrawal and counterproductive behaviours (Hart, 1999; Hart & Cotton, 2001; Hart & Cotton 2003). It is this emphasis on the antecedents and consequences of employee positive emotional states that links the organisational health framework with the rapidly evolving positive psychology tradition.

The original organisational health research program, based at the University of Melbourne, had National Health and Medical Research Council funding and developed the metrics and a range of measurement tools that accurately and reliably assess a wide range of ‘soft' workplace factors including: key aspects of people leadership capability; work team climate; positive and negative work experiences; psychological injury risk; withdrawal behaviours; counterproductive behaviours; job satisfaction; and individual and workgroup levels of morale and distress. Research using these survey-based tools across a wide range of industry sectors has confirmed one of the central tenets of positive psychology: increases in positive emotions have a more significant impact on employee wellbeing and a range of other people and performance-related outcomes than a comparable reduction in levels of employee negative emotions (Cotton & Hart, 2003; Hart, Caballero & Cooper, 2010).

Key drivers of wellbeing and organisational performance

Given that employee morale significantly influences a range of important workplace outcomes, what are the major determinants of morale? Key workplace drivers of employee morale have been found to include supportive leadership (e.g., empathy, approachability, support, role modelling behaviours, delegation and proactive engagement with at-risk staff) and a positive and engaging workgroup climate. Indeed, as shown in Figure 1, these factors have typically been found to explain approximately 60 percent of the variation in individual employee morale, and 80 percent of workgroup level morale¹.

Based on extensive research and evaluation of leadership and workgroup development programs, our climate framework has been reformulated into a four factor model, shown in Figure 2, which is focused on delineating the cultural pillars that underpin the work team environment.

Figure 1. Key drivers of staff wellbeing

Figure 2. Four factor model of key cultural elements underpinning workteam climate

Ongoing organisational health research suggests that these four elements determine the overall quality of the team environment and significantly influence employee motivation, wellbeing, discretionary effort and customer experience.

Learnings from evaluating leadership and workgroup development programs

Precisely parallel with positive psychology findings concerning clinical psychopathology (e.g., Seligman's work on positive psychotherapy for depression), research shows that organisational interventions designed to increase employee morale, without addressing levels of employee distress as such, can result in significant improvements on a range of people and performance-related outcomes (Cotton & Hart, 2003). For example, positive development programs have been shown to increase staff engagement and reduce a number of negative people-related outcomes (Hart et al., 2011). Such programs include: (a) building supportive leadership capability through strategies that foster genuine two-way feedback and enhance leader behavioural integrity; (b) facilitating staff discussion and professional debate to address operational challenges - rather than simply directing them around what to do; (c) proactively clarifying values and behavioural expectations; (d) increasing the level of informal and development oriented feedback; and (e) empowering representative staff project teams to drive business improvement initiatives.

It must be emphasised here that we are referring to organisational and workgroup level interventions, rather than individual employee level interventions². Moreover, it is critical to note that whilst positive workgroup level interventions can be very powerful, they are not, solely by virtue of their nature, a magical panacea; achieving sustainable improvement requires the application of particular approaches and certain pre-conditions to met.

We have implemented and evaluated leadership and development programs across a range of industry sectors including: health and community services; police; finance; primary, secondary and tertiary education; legal professionals; and local government. Some of these programs have achieved significant and sustained improvements whilst others have been less successful.

Key characteristics of successful programs include: use of action-learning methodologies that reflect adult learning principles; workgroup willingness to learn; establishment of a representative project team; appropriately up-skilling the project team to drive team-based initiatives; focusing interventions on root causes rather than symptoms; senior management support; and fine-grained accountability processes. Common features of less successful programs include: a leader's lack of core people management skills; turnover of key project team members; poor staff engagement mechanisms; and a lack of adequate accountability processes for achieving a change in the behaviour of leaders and team members (Hart et al., 2011).

To be successful, it seems that interventions must achieve a substantial change in team-based behaviours that inform the way people work together. Ultimately, we have come to believe that there are two major pathways towards achieving sustainable organisational improvement: fundamentally changing the cultural pillars underpinning work team climate and/or substantially altering the organisation's selection and recruitment profile (Hart, 2011).

Workplace psychosocial risk

Organisational health research findings support ‘positive' workplace interventions that contrast with standard occupational hazard and risk management approaches that focus primarily on reducing workplace stressors and employee negative emotions. Of course, we cannot ignore stressors and employee distress, but emphasising positive interventions typically has more impact on key outcomes. Consider the example of complaints about excessive work demands. Frequently, we have found that improving leadership and work team climate results in significant reductions in employee concerns about workload and stress-related complaints - without changing the objective level of work demands (Cotton & Hart, 2002). From a positive psychology perspective, if we know a team has high morale and is still expressing concerns about work demands, then it will clearly be prudent to review and consider changing their actual volume and pacing of work demands.

In relation to psychological injury, a recent analysis of 262 consecutive pre-liability assessments (Cotton, 2011) found that one third of the cohort had low morale and sub-clinical distress features (i.e., no formal clinical diagnosis indicated). Unfortunately, these individuals currently seem more likely than not to receive ‘adjustment disorder' diagnoses from medical practitioners and psychologists. They are then likely to embark on a medicalisation trajectory that carries an escalating risk for long-term disability. Generally, this group does not actually need clinical treatment at this phase of their injury. Rather, if they had access to an early pathway towards engaging in alternative employment, or implementation of appropriate conflict resolution processes, the risk for long-term incapacity could be substantially mitigated and early return to work achieved.

These findings may help to explain why outcomes for psychological injury have not greatly improved over the past decade.

Concluding comments

At a macro organisational level, we do find correlations between an organisation's workers compensation premium and its dominant leadership culture. Hence, above and beyond individual level contributing features, organisational factors do substantially influence premium costs. Positive workplace interventions have an important role to play in improving employee wellbeing and organisational performance, as well as reducing psychosocial risk, but these need to be embedded in high quality and rigorous development and accountability processes.

The principal author can be contacted at Peter_Cotton@medibank.com.au.


Cotton P. (2011). Why have outcomes for psychological injury not improved? Findings from an analysis of 262 consecutive psychological injury presentations. Manuscript in preparation.

Cotton P., & Hart P. M. (2002). The management of work demands in Victorian schools. Melbourne: Department of Education, Employment and Training.

Cotton P., & Hart P. M. (2003). Occupational wellbeing and performance: A review of Organisational Heath research. Australian Psychologist, 38(2), 118-127.

Hart P. M. (1999). Predicting employee life satisfactions: A coherent model of personality, work and non-work experiences, and domain satisfactions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 564-584.

Hart P. M., (2011). What does it take to achieve sustainable organisational improvement? Manuscript in preparation.

Hart, P.M., Caballero, C.L., & Cooper, W. (2010, July). Understanding Engagement: Its Structure, Antecedents and Consequences. Paper presented at the International Academy of Management and Business Summer Conference, Madrid.

Hart P. M., & Cooper C. L. (2001). Occupational Stress: Towards a more integrated framework. In N. Anderson, D. S. Ones, H. K. Sinagal & C. Viswesvaran (Eds.), Handbook of Industrial, Work and Organisational Psychology (Vol. 2, p.93-114). London: Sage.

Hart P. M., & Cotton, P. (2001). Organisational correlates of fair and reasonable treatment and counterproductive behaviours. Office of Public Employment, Victoria.

Hart P. M., & Cotton P. (2003). Conventional wisdom is often misleading: Police stress in an organisational health framework. In M. F. Dollard, A. H. Winefield & H. R. Winefield (Eds.) Occupational stress in the service professions (p.103-138). London: Taylor and Francis.

Hart P. M., Tan J., Sutherland, A., Wellington, C., & Cotton P. (2011). Leading Teams: Working Well Evaluation Report. WorkCover Authority of New South Wales.

¹ The distinction between individual and workgroup levels of morale and distress is based on findings that individuals reliably differentiate between their personal and team level experience of morale and distress (Hart & Cooper, 2001).

² Whilst there is some evidence supporting particular interventions at the individual level, most of the recent crop of ‘resilience training' workshops currently sweeping through the corporate market make very strong claims that are unsubstantiated.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on April 2011. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.