My home life has changed significantly – we no longer have children living at home, rather, my elderly mother has moved in and we have had to discover a new normal, a new rhythm and a new way to relate to one another. My work life has changed – our physical work environment has changed on many occasions as we have responded to the moving target that is emergency healthcare in the season of COVID-19, staff are more exhausted than ever, emergency departments continue to be overcrowded and there is an increasingly unmet demand for mental health services across the board in both adults and children. I have held tight to my mantra “not in my circle of influence” and tried not to be overwhelmed by all the changing demands and increasing angst in the world around me. I have also had confirmed over and again, the power of our words and actions to impact a positive change to workplace culture and in doing so, to improve the health of our workplace families, when there are so many other things that I cannot impact.
In seeking to understand this further, I reached for an old familiar book – The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the workplace – by Gary Chapman and Paul White, published in 2011; already a decade old! Perhaps you are familiar with it? Or perhaps you are more familiar with “The 5 love languages” series by the same author. The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate was written in 1992 by Gary Chapman. Chapman very cleverly defined a paradigm of the experience of love between romantic partners - "love languages". Acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation are identified as “dialects” of love language. The original love languages book sold 8500 copies in its first year, exceeding all expectations. By its third year in print, there were an excess of 150 000 copies in circulation worldwide. It has been on the New York Times Best Seller list since August 2009, demonstrating that people were crying out for new ways to approach relationship. My first exposure to these concepts was in 1992 – I was 5 years into my now 35-year marriage – and to be honest, it was life changing.
What then are the 5 languages of appreciation in the workplace – can this be lifechanging as well? One way to understand the 5 languages of appreciation is to think of them as similar to personality traits. We all know that we work with a broad range of personalities, and that this can influence the success or failure of our teams. We also know that the most effective communication is achieved when the message is delivered in a manner that is understood by the recipient. If we do not take the time to understand the “dialect” of our team, we will experience poor communication and often the flow on effect, like a pebble tossed in a lake, will be ever spreading. Let me summarise for you the essence of Chapman and White’s recommendations – perhaps they will resonate with you!
The underlying premise is that not everyone will feel appreciated in the same way. For example, not everyone likes to be praised with words – so if you are in a workplace where appreciation is only ever expressed via an email broadcast, then this will be wasted on many. Chapman and White ascertain that while words are the most commonly used language of appreciation, more than half of the workforce want appreciation shown through different means. The second premise is that appreciation needs to be pervasive – not just a “top-down” process – we are all responsible for demonstrating appreciation to our colleagues and teammates. Take a moment to reflect on your own “score” when it comes to expressing appreciation at work – are you known for being upbeat, for thanking those on shift with you, for noticing when a colleague stays back to help out; or do you contribute to the negativity at your workplace (remember The mindful art of taking the weather – my last blog) being unnecessarily critical of your colleagues or your management.
The next principle is one of authenticity – the expression of appreciation needs to be delivered personally, on a regular basis and not out of a duty to “tick a box” or complete a scheduled assessment or performance appraisal.
So how can we translate this into day-to-day practice in our workplace to improve our workplace culture, and the health and well-being of our “families”? Like the “love languages”, Chapman and White have identified 5 dialects and it is important to take the time to understand your team and their individual preferences for “receiving appreciation”. How can you do this? To start with, understand the options. Perhaps take the online test and discover your own “language of appreciation”. The dialects include words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, tangible gifts and appropriate physical touch. Obviously, you need to apply your workplace values and standards overtop of these to ensure you are behaving in an ethical and expected manner.
Here are some pearls of wisdom from the book. Be specific and timely in your words of affirmation – make sure that you tell your teammate exactly what you valued about their contribution and try to achieve this in the moment. Be sensitive to the personality of your teammates – perhaps they don’t want to have their words of affirmation shared with the whole team. Sending a brief note of appreciation may be the right approach. Others will flourish with public recognition. My workplace has a great initiative – staff member of the month – this is elected by the staff from within the staff and everyone has an opportunity to contribute. Most recently, one of our recipients was our cleaner – she was moved to tears to discover she was nominated as the staff member of the month. These things truly matter to improve the culture in a workplace. The flipside is to guard yourself against words of criticism. Wisdom literature identifies the tongue as a powerful weapon. I expect that many of us would rather pay a fine than hear the words “I am disappointed in you”. In the words of Gary Chapman “Make it your ambition to look for opportunities to give words of affirmation”.
Quality time may seem like an unachievable goal in our busy work environments but look for those opportunities to stop and have a coffee. Establish buddy programs for the junior staff, so they can have a named person to connect with. Remember that often our junior medical staff are changing their work environment every few months and being dropped into something unfamiliar and overwhelming. Knowing you have an allocated “buddy” can make a difference. Make an effort to get to know your team – find out something about your new juniors and reveal something about yourself. At the beginning of each new RMO term in my workplace, we have a quiz to match the new resident with a trait or characteristic – this term, we had someone who had played in a band at Wembley stadium and someone else who was related to Lady Diana Spencer. This ensures your team are not invisible and are more than their role.
Acts of service can be as simple as grabbing coffee for your workmates during a busy shift or noticing that someone needs a hand with a cannula or in managing a distressed parent. Simply checking in to see if there is something you can do can make the world of difference to someone’s day.
Obviously, both tangible gifts and physical touch in the workplace are complex and sensitive areas. Both workplace ethical standards and personal boundaries need to be respected. Even in the time of COVID-19, a high five or a fist bump might be an appropriate way to celebrate a success at work.
If one is to believe the statistics associated with the Languages of Appreciation book, then as many as 63% of employees don’t feel appreciated at work. There are many things we cannot change in our workplaces – the government funding, the footprint of our department, the access to mental health services – the list goes on. But we can change our culture, and it can start with you. Become someone who offers authentic, timely and specific appreciation to your teammates – and do so every shift until it becomes a habit!
REFERENCE: Chapman, G; White, P (2011). The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Northfield Publishing. Chicago.
Dr Danielle Scarfe