The Most Energized, Productive Workers: Not Who You Might Think!

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 5.34.51 PMSeptember 15, 2015

What fuels the energy and excitement that’s visible among people who are highly engaged and productive at work? Is it something about what they bring to their careers to begin with? The management culture they experience? Or, are those qualities found mostly among the young, because of youthful energy, as some surveys indicate?

Some new research sheds some light on this. It finds that the most energized and creative workers are not only the young, age-wise. They are best described as “young at heart.” The secret ingredient is their emotional attitude about life in general; and the way they typically respond and deal with negative, stressful experiences. That’s what differentiates them from others. But these interesting findings also raise this question: Why so many work cultures actively undermine the positive energy and vitality that such people bring into their workplaces? And which – one would think – companies would value and support in every way possible.

First, let’s look what at the evidence from two unrelated but complementary studies tell us about this. In brief, the first found that your overall attitude about life – independent of age -influences your performance and creativity at work. The other study found that positive emotions and your outlook on life — especially how you deal with stressful circumstances or conflict — is linked with greater long-term health. And many sources of stress are found in the workplace, needless to say.

In the first study, over 15,000 employees from 107 companies were surveyed to determine how their subjective experience of age influences workplace performance. It found that employees who felt substantially younger than their chronological age were more successful in achieving their work-related goals and objectives.

This research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and described in The British Psychological Society’s publication, Research Digest, concluded that if leaders want a dynamic workforce, they should seek not the young, but the young at heart. It found that companies with more of these “young at heart” employees also tended to perform better overall in terms of financial performance, efficiency and a longer tenured workforce.

The other study found that people who maintain a positive attitude and spirit when faced with stress have greater long-term health. That’s significant, because stress raises your body’s inflammatory response. Over the long-term, heightened inflammatory responses put you at more risk for a number of diseases and illnesses, both emotional and physical.

That study, conducted by Penn State researchers, found that people who fail to maintain positive emotions when dealing with stress have elevated levels of inflammation. The key is how you respond to stress. That’s what affects your level of inflammation.

These two studies complement each other. They show that vitality and positive engagement at work is characteristic of people at any age who show vitality, passion and positive attitudes about their lives, including the inevitable ups and downs. The problem is that many sources of ongoing stress occur in the workplace — conflicts arising from unhealthy management or limited opportunity for learning and development, for example. Those forms of stress are often unending and challenging to the most positive of attitudes.

Significantly, the first study found that organizations whose employees felt that their work had meaningful impact tended to have more young at heart workers. That underscores the role that management and workplace cultures play in shaping people’s emotional attitudes and behavior over time. Negative and stifling management creates ongoing conflict and stress.

But in addition, your spirit and response to stress is also shaped by larger cultural and social norms that define success and self-worth through adulthood. That is, greater enthusiasm and energy might be more visible among younger people, but not because of their age. Rather, many people enter a long descent into emotional, creative and spiritual stagnation as they move into the mainstream of adult life and careers. We absorb culturally conditioned views of success that emphasize power, control, and materialism. An overemphasis on self-interest diminishes awareness of the heightened interconnection and interdependence that marks today’s world. That handicaps us, behaviorally and emotionally.

A management culture that is aware of the above and wants to grow a vibrant, positive workforce can do so. For example, management that enables and supports having a sense of having impact on the consequences of employees’ work – how and why it matters to the product or service – appeals to a healthy desire to serve something larger than just your immediate self-interest. That’s one source of supporting high energy and collaboration at work. Positive management practices will help sustain the dynamic performance that otherwise appears limited to younger workers – before they become jaded by adult life in the conventional career culture.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Credit: The Huffington Post