What makes a good day at work? (2023)

What makes a good day at work? (1)

I am an Organisational Psychologist…its official! I enormously enjoyed this journey of learning, which had both: a joy of discovery and meeting inspiring people and lots of sweat and tears too. Trying to find a balance between study, work and family, with sleepless nights (my youngest son was only8 months old), and no resources left, living on adrenaline and litres of strongcoffee…at times I thought “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it”…but I did it! I am very grateful for all the support I received from my family, colleagues, and friends.

I would like to share with you the findings of my dissertation research. The topic I chose was “What Makes a Good Day at Work”. It was a tough year and all I wanted was to focus on something positive. I wanted to spend time talking to people about the positive stuff, about the things they enjoyed, things that made them want to come to work.Spoiler: that was not what happened.

What makes a good job?

The answer to the question: “Did you have a good day at work?” is directly linked to the person’s happiness, creativity, and overall wellbeing.The topic of the people's happiness and productivity has been explored for decades, but it has never been more important than now. The work-relatedpressure has increased due to continuous change, increased competition, faster pace, mergers, low income, financial cuts, downsizing, outsourcing, technological breakthroughs, and changing work patterns. At the same time, today’s companies expect their employees to be proactive, energetic, dedicated, and able to perform at the top level. How does this pressure make us feel? What makes a good day at work? What makes a good job? It is about our fulfilment, productivity, and happiness. Its about our mental health.

I wanted my research to help better understand what people go through at work. I wanted it to be subjective, because every person is unique and we all experience things differently. I chose a person-centric approach which is rarely used in the work psychology. I was curious about how various events made my participants feel and what were the consequences of those feelings.

Ifocused on the communications sector, people working in the advertising, PR and marketing agencies. They’ve got a lot in common: demanding clients, fast pace, long hours, human factor errors costing hundreds of thousands pounds. Stress. In 2018 ‘PR executive’ was named one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in the US, along with the military personnel, firefighters, and airline pilots. The interest to the wellbeing of the workers of this industry sparked a few years ago when the news about the 24 year PR executive suffering a heart attack due to ‘overwork’ broke out. The news was followed by a survey, which showed that 70% of the industry workers believed that their health was negatively affected by such work-related factors as an increasing pressure of deadlines, long working hours, and short lunch breaks. In 2017 the topic whether it was “possible to work in advertising and still have a life” was discussed again, however no considerable improvement in the wellbeing of workers was reported. Research conducted by NABS and Mind in 2018 brought even more disturbing news about 63% of the industry workers considering leaving the industry due to its negative effect on their health, with 36% of the respondents reporting their mental health as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor.

My participants worked in the advertising, marketing and PR agencies. I asked them to keep a daily diary for two weeks, taking notes of all theevents that affected their mood. At the end of this period I interviewed each participant about what had been happening and how they felt. I wanted to find out what made a good day at work for them.It was my intention to have a conversation about those positive things but my research took a sudden turn.

Making progress in meaningful work was the number one factor that made a good day.

What I soon found was that for some people Making progress in meaningful work was the number one factor that made a good day. Those people were high on energy, theywere enthusiastic and focused on making improvements. They also looked after their colleagues, and were keen to maintain an enjoyable working environment.

Those people who did not have that bond, could not enjoy their work progress or anything else at work. It was just one long bad day for them.

But for some participants this was not the case. Despite they worked in the same industry andhad very similar challenges and opportunities, nothing could make a good day at work for them. They did not have anygood days at work, despite of the fact they were satisfiedwith their pay and made progress in their work. These people had one thing in common: they did not have a bond with their colleagues and were not supported by their managers. Those people who did not have that bond, could not enjoy their work progress or anything else at work. It was just one long bad day for them.

Good day, Bad Day

What makes a good day at work? (2)

At that point I could choose to stick only to good days but I simply could not ignore "the bad day data"and decided to broaden my focus and include bad days too. Thats how "Makes a Good Day at Work" became "Good Day, Bad Day".

So, making progress in meaningful work was the number one factor that made a good day at work for people. Such themes as ‘growth’, ‘energy’ and being proactive when achieving organisational and personal objectives were only found in the interviews with the participants who had a supportive work environment. This indicates, that in order for the intrinsic motivation to be activated, we need to feel safe in our environment. This finding supports the research on the role of psychological safety in a workplace, which demonstrates that high-quality relationships, trust and liking are directly related to learning behaviours. Finally, this phenomenon can also be interpreted through the prism of neuroscience, which explains that ‘drive’ is the result of an activated SEEKING system, a primal positive emotional system, which makes it possible for an individual to lead a satisfying and meaningful life despite the existing negative events.

Another effect of the positive team-environment feeling connected to the group, is in its ability to reduce the influence of the negative work related events: individuals are able to cope with them more effectively if they feel supported by their group or manager, thus, social support acts as a buffer, activates engagement, and has a positive impact on self-efficacy and job performance. If working in the supportive environment, the effect of the negative work-related event does not spread to other aspects of life, and a person is able to quickly return to the previous level of wellbeing, when the negative episode is over, which again supports studies on the role of social support in ‘taking the strain’.

Whilst negative job-task related events, such as failure to win new business, also have an impact on an individual and can cause frustration, the participants perceived them as something specifically work related - the effect of these events did not tend to spread. With ‘rejection’ it was different. If negative emotions were triggered by a feeling of being rejected, they had a tendency to spread to other areas of life, acting as a disruptor to intrinsic motivation and affecting a desire to achieve team goals, which supports a statement that when people experience sadness or anger, they are not able to perform.

being cut out of the team activities activates the pain matrix in the brain, which means that social rejection hurts similar to physical pain.

The answer to why feeling isolated is so impactful can be found in a number of studies. ‘Relatedness’ has been found to be one of the basic psychological needs, fundamental for enhanced self-motivation and psychological wellbeing. An experimental study by Eisenberger (2003) revealed that being cut out of the team activities activates the pain matrix in the brain, which means that social rejection hurts similar to physical pain. This leads to a number of consequences. After unsuccessful attempts to identify with their teams, people start looking for an “Escape”, which is a major theme for those who did not have friends at work. In order to cope with pain, one of the participantschooses to work “with no human contact”, another participant’senthusiasm was replaced with frustration as her attempts to identify failed. It is important to point out that for both participants work progress or achievements were not able to improve the quality of the day.

"Escape" was the major them for those who were not feeling comfortable in their working environment. All theparticipants who did not feel accepted by their teams left their jobs.

Thus, the absence of the supportive team environment has the most profound negative impact not only on the quality of one day but the entire working experience.

The topic of recovery and other behaviour linked to the positive wellbeing received a special attention. Gallup study (2017) emphasis that no wellbeing strategy can be implemented until managers provide employees with cues of what the right behaviour is. "Modelling’ was named one of the ‘concrete, attainable pillars’ in achieving the wellbeing goals. This study has identified a clear demand for managers to provide cues regarding the behavioural norms that help maintain positive wellbeing.

To conclude:

The events the individuals experience at work trigger emotions, which, in their turn, affect the workers perceptions of their colleagues, their organisations, and themselves. These feelings make an impact on the individuals’ motivation and performance. Feeling accepted and valued provides positive emotions and sparks a desire for growth, making the strongest positive impact on the person’s intrinsic motivation.

Not being able to progress in one’s work is one of the top reasons for having “a bad day”, however, feeling isolated at work is far more significant factor that negatively affects employees’ feelings, overall wellbeing and has a number of negative consequences. To have “a good day at work” the worker needs to make a progress in meaningful work. However, to be able to enjoy success and achievements, as well as have a desire for growth, the feeling of being supported and accepted within the team is necessary.

Managers play a crucial role in shaping the employees perceptions of whats is right and about themselves, as we as the organisational climate overall.


If you are interested to know more about my research (i.e. other good and bad day themes, research methodology or references), send me a personal message.

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