In episode 21 — the sixth of season two of Knights Do That — we speak with Mindy Shoss, an associate professor of psychology. She shares her research and expertise when it comes to workplace well-being and advice on how we can improve our communication in the workplace, what companies can do to have the most satisfied employees and common misconceptions about burnout.

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Mindy Shoss: There are a  lot of misconceptions about burnout and satisfaction and wellbeing and I think the biggest misconception is that it’s an individual issue. So you see a lot of recommendations, “Oh, you’re just burned out, why don’t you do yoga or mindfulness or something like that?” And I love yoga; I love mindfulness. There is some good research supporting them. But a colleague of mine actually said this to me yesterday that those kinds of things are like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm. Band-Aids are good, they solve lots of problems, but they don’t fix deep rooted type things like a break. And I think that if you want to fix burnout and issues of job satisfaction, then you got to address the work environment.

Alex Cumming: Hey everyone, Welcome back to another episode of Knights Do That. The workplace is where we spend about 40 hours of our week. When you’re spending that much time in one place it can be easy to have fluctuating feelings about work. That’s why I’m excited to bring to you Dr. Mindy Shoss, an associate professor in the psychology department here at UCF, who has spent her career in the field of workplace wellbeing. While studying what it is that the best companies do to have the most satisfied employees, how we can improve communication in the workplace and misconceptions about burnout. So listen up as Dr. Shoss talks about how we can make those 40 hours a happier, and healthier, environment for everyone.

Dr. Shoss, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m so glad to have you here in the studio with us.

Mindy Shoss: Thank you, glad to be here.

Alex Cumming: Of course. So workplace wellbeing is the field that you’re working in. What drew you to that field of work?

Mindy Shoss: Great question, so I think I actually had a bit of an unusual path to this area. Most people in the field, I think when you ask them, it’s usually because they had a bad job or a family member with a bad job that really drew their interest in workplace wellbeing. But for me, actually, I did my undergraduate work at Washington University in St. Louis and I took a lot of coursework in economics. So based on that, I got a little bit interested in this idea of productivity. When I decided to pursue graduate education in industrial organizational psychology, I started getting interested in this area of study called counterproductivity, counterproductive work behavior, and that’s behaviors that people do that are directly against the productivity of the team or the organization, like wasting time or being late, including things like sabotage or theft too, things you get to hear about on the news. What was so interesting to me is that a lot of the research showed the reason that people were doing this is a lot of times, they were in really negative or stressful work environments. And to some extent, people were doing these things just to get some semblance of control back over their own environment. That really stood out to me and the more that I’ve gotten interested in workplace wellbeing and I’ve thought about it, I think work is this institution or construct, right? It’s a way that we give our labor and our effort towards some sort of aim that society has deemed as meaningful and if you think about work from that perspective, it could be a really good thing for people. They could do things that make themselves feel good about themselves. They can feel good about the contribution they could leave work at the end of the day feeling more psychologically empowered or fulfilled than perhaps they start at the beginning of the day. But that’s really, unfortunately, not true for a lot of people. A lot of people work in jobs where they leave at the end of the day and they’re burned out, they’re miserable, they spend all day getting yelled at, they’ve worked in an unsafe environment conditions. I think it’s certainly not good for people, it’s not good for business, it’s not good for the economy. So it really made me interested in workplace wellbeing as a really important lens to look at a variety of work issues.

Alex Cumming: For workplace wellbeing, it sounds like what you’re saying is that when people don’t have control in their job or they feel as though they’re being stepped on, or demeaned, or that people don’t respect them, that’s where you’re finding that they’re lashing out and trying to take back power, just because they feel as though they’re being pushed along in this vicious cycle of work.

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, absolutely. That’s exactly what we find. People have basic psychological needs, we have a need to feel control. We have a need to feel like we have connections with other people. We have a need to feel safe and secure. We have a need to try to feel like we can predict the future. Again, work could be a place where those needs could be fulfilled or it could be a place where those needs really go threaten and thwarted and people don’t always sit back passively and take that, people try to do something and sometimes that’s not always the greatest for productivity. Think of the case of theft or misuse of resources or something like that. But I think you’re right, like people are just trying to contribute and do good work and be a part of something. It’s much better to create an environment where you give people the opportunity to do that rather than the way I think unfortunately many workplaces are organized.

Alex Cumming: In the hierarchy of needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where does work fit in when you have all of these needs for basic bodily functions and then just mental needs to feel respected, the people you surround yourself with?

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, good, I see you’ve taken a psych class or two here in your undergraduate career at UCF. But we talk about work in terms of mechanism for people to get what’s called manifest needs. So, money is one of the most obvious ones. You get money through work, but it also provides a lot of we call latent needs, psychological needs. So, work can help you find safety and security, it can help you find meaning, it can help you find connection with other people. All of these things work can help people do. If they’re in a good job and in a good environment with good people.

Alex Cumming: This could delve into a whole other conversation about social structures and capitalism and economic forms. It probably won’t delve into that for the long run of the conversation. But is there a way where you can ethically have capitalism working with this hierarchy of needs without some people or any group of people feeling as though they’re being belittled?

Mindy Shoss: I think it’s an important question because you’re right, I think work is part of a broader context and that context is economic, it’s social, it’s cultural, it’s political, all this stuff works together. I’ve been pleased to see companies take a perspective of some people call it the triple bottom line. There’s some other terms for it, but basically to think about the goal of the business is not just profit or shareholder value. But it’s also the environment to stakeholder, your employees that are stakeholders, the community are stakeholders. And if you start to conceptualize the goals of your business or organization in that way then that orients you towards different outcomes. That is not just all right, we’re going to cut as much cost as possible and squeeze everyone so we can get every little drop of profit out of you.

Alex Cumming: With your research into the workplace wellbeing, do you find that it also stems to people who are self-employed?

Mindy Shoss: That’s an interesting question and that’s actually a very somewhat new area of research in our field. Typically, I think the way the field has come about in organizational psychology, we’ve tended to focus a lot on your typical organizational structures. But I think self-employment is interesting because, well first I should say there’s a lot of different types of self-employment, but I think overall the needs that people have to meet their work are the same. It’s a question of how does that work meet their needs and are they able to get more autonomy and control over what they’re doing and use that to offset some of the uncertainty and stress that comes with self-employment? But generally the more autonomy and control you have the better off you typically feel.

Alex Cumming: As most young adults in need of money, I’ve done an Uber Eats or a DoorDash type of job where, although yes, I technically was working for DoorDash and was a representation of their company, I felt as though I had the autonomy to choose my hours to work when I wanted to. It did give me a sense of control because I was in my car, listening to my music, picking up when I felt like it. And if I wanted to work from 1:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Yeah, sure. Why not? But then on the other side, I’ve also worked in freelance where it’s been project-based, where if I don’t go out and interact with people and put myself out there, nothing’s going to come to me. So I have to take the initiative, so I’d be so intrigued to hear about the varieties of the freelance side of the work. So I want to ask you about this phrase we’ve been hearing a lot recently “The Great Resignation.” We hear it quite often. But based on your expertise, what do you find the reasoning for “The Great Resignation” to be?

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, great question. Clearly one that’s sort of often discussed these days and rightfully so. I think it’s actually a confluence of factors. First, I think the pandemic served as a watershed moment, a moment where people had to take a long, hard look and think, “OK what am I doing? Why am I doing it? And what are the costs and benefits of doing this?” So for many people, I think the pandemic and their experiences presented an opportunity to reevaluate some of these things. You know, a lot of the discussion about the pandemic is over remote workers, but really 75% of workers can’t work remotely. And you saw a large proportion of the workforce where now their work is posing major safety and health concerns. And what does that mean? And is it, is that worth it? Especially given their experiences? I think the other thing the pandemic did was it made people call into question what we call a psychological contract, this sort of idea of your relationship with your employer organization. The kind of mutual expectations or benefits of that relationship. At the beginning of the pandemic companies were laying off people right and left. That makes people think about, OK what am I really willing to sacrifice for my employer for some sort of unknown or anticipated benefit or advancement opportunity down the road? There’s some thinking about that as well. Obviously, I think money is a large reason why people are leaving. Obviously, there’s inflation, there’s lots of reasons why people certainly need money and especially coming out of this kind of crisis event, being able to have some sort of feeling of personal security financially is quite important. And then the last reason I’ll give you is that I think there’s a large proportion of the workforce that’s being basically pushed out for family needs. So largely women you see. Just the labor market participation in women go down and there’s just a major childcare crisis going on. It’s very hard to find reliable affordable childcare. Even if you have that with COVID shutdowns and all matter of issues, it’s just tough.

Alex Cumming: Obviously we know so many people got laid off at the start of the pandemic and people were using sick days just to try to alleviate the two weeks to stop the curve or something along those lines. People were giving away sick days and not know how long that was going to last, am I going to be able to coast this out till the end of March? Or am I going to have to coast this out until years down the road? So going back to what I said about the DoorDash and grocery delivery apps, services like that. I think it was like an 80% increase, because people had lost their jobs plus people don’t want to leave their houses and there are people who are willing to go to the grocery store and bring it to them. When you don’t have that sense of job security, how can you be satisfied in the work that you have when you don’t know how long it’s going to last?

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, that’s a major challenge. And so a lot of research has linked job insecurity to lower levels of worker satisfaction for the reasons that you’ve pretty much pointed out, right? It’s this kind of uncertainty and unpredictability is very stressful. And it’s hard when you’re under that kind of stress and don’t know what the next week or the next month or the year will bring and it’s very hard to live that way and so that’s a dissatisfier. We’ve done some research on that in my lab and we took a little bit of a different perspective. So we figured that, OK, at any given moment of time people are going about their daily business with some level of satisfaction with their job. But then you can have events that happen, like the pandemic or company announces a merger or some new policy changes, something happens that creates a lot of uncertainty. And so what we found in our research across a few different studies is that this kind of job insecurity reduces the benefit of job satisfaction. So, if you’re satisfied with your job but uncertain about whether you’re going to be able to keep it, that’s not particularly good for things like stress or burnout, even turnover, intentions. There’s a lot of discussion about the future of work and whether everything’s just going to be very uncertain and there’s not going to be long-term employee or employer relationships or those kinds of things. It takes a toll on people and it really, again, just mitigates any benefit that you might see from otherwise being pretty satisfied with the job.

Alex Cumming: If we go back to what we were talking about a moment ago about the hierarchy of needs, I love talking about it. The people that you keep around you and through the pandemic when people were working remotely, communication was of the utmost importance because there’s nobody going to walk by your cubicle when you’re working from your home office and say, “Hey, did you get those reports in by four?” You’re going to have to get an email or another messaging service where people can communicate. And now that, for the most part a lot of these offices that were remote, employees who did come back to the office space now have this new type of communication. You can’t go back to the ways of communicating before. Zoom is going to be here indefinitely. I doubt I will ever remove it from my computer because there’s always going to be people who want to have Zoom calls or want to have big groups or meetings on Zoom. Can you describe what interpersonal communication is and elaborate on how employees and coworkers can improve their interpersonal communication within an organization and an employer?

Mindy Shoss: Sure, so interpersonal communication very much captures just the ways that people interact with each other. So what people say, how they say it, where they say it, through what means they say it. Broadly we think about all of those things and there’s certainly formal kind of communication and informal communication. Which is the, you know, I bump into you on the way to the break room, “Hey, how’s it going? What are you working on? Any problems?” And we talk through things and I think you see, especially with a lot of that discussion about a return to an office, it’s this concern or notion that the informal communication is a lot of what is lost. And that is a real concern here. One of my students and I several years ago actually started to get interested in people venting about their jobs. So what happens when people are having these very informal discussions, but they’re negative, right? This stressful thing happened, this bad thing happened, some frustrating experience at work today. We started getting interested of what happens when people do that. And the typical thought in a lot of the research and organizations has been okay, good things lead to good things, bad things lead to bad things. So we thought here’s something that could be considered not so good. People are sitting around venting but is there a potential outcome that could be good from it? So actually our thought was, well, it really just depends on how other people respond. So if I tell you that I’ve just had this very stressful day, I have so much work to do, I can’t handle it. And you respond with some sort of support or help or advice, or hey, did you talk to so-and-so or don’t worry about this or you’re doing great then that’s great. That negative experience and my talking about it actually could serve as an entry point where you actually make me feel pretty good about where I am and what I’m doing and my value to the company. And so that’s exactly what we found. We did study in several branches of a social service organization. We collected some broad surveys of workers about their experiences and it turns out that these experiences, this sort of venting can be a good thing in the case of which people do respond positively and supportively. That’s associated with greater feelings of inclusion and self-esteem and things like that. But of course, on the downside, when you when you do that. Sometimes people don’t respond in supportive manners or they dismiss you or they make negative comments. In which case, then that’s not particularly good for self-esteem or feelings of inclusion in the work environment.

Alex Cumming: From friends that I have I’ve heard that one of the biggest things that people are getting upset about with their coworkers now is how they’re at this point in time, still reacting to the COVID pandemic. The levels of severity that people are taking it. Whether someone’s taking it too lackadaisical or some people are complaining that people are being too strict about it. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the workplace?

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, it really just permeated the workplace. It permeates probably all conversations. It permeates all even policies, procedures. It’s not only the way people do their work, it’s the work that is actually done given just all the disruption caused by the pandemic and supply chain issues and all those kinds of things. And then, because it’s has such a big impact on just life, it seems like that is the topic of conversation amongst people. And especially now in the current environment where there’s a lot of uncertainty about how to respond. That becomes either a source of people bonding, or it becomes a source of conflict. There’s a theory that talks about sense-making. And it’s this idea when there’s this big sort of disruption and there’s a lot of uncertainty that people are seeking to just make sense out of it. Making sense of their environment, what they should do, how they should feel, and people do it using any information available, but a lot of times it’s social information. Looking at what other people are doing and what other people are saying. People are spending a lot of time and effort and energy, trying to just make sense of all of this and looking to leaders for clear cues of how to do that.

Alex Cumming: So leadership is what I’m hearing you say is what gives people sense of direction.

Mindy Shoss: Good leadership.

Alex Cumming: Good leadership and bad leadership. One thing that we’ve heard through many of our amazing guests on the show is the importance of leadership and how without a good captain, I mean, all the sailors are going to be lost at sea.

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, that’s a pretty good analogy.

Alex Cumming: Just right off the dome, glad you liked it.

Mindy Shoss: I like it. We also hear the analogy of the rowers and if everyone’s just rowing haphazard, you just like just spin in the water.

Alex Cumming: That one would’ve been way better to use, why didn’t I remember that one. But you’re totally right, and it’s so interesting to think about how everybody was tested. Everybody went through challenges because of the pandemic and still are going through challenges. But in terms of leadership and how leadership styles had to change to acclimate to a new environment that’s so interesting to think about and to think about people who succeeded in it and people who might’ve failed in it. And one of the things that comes with this COVID-19 pandemic and one thing I’ve heard a lot about is working from home it can be hard to separate your personal life from your work. Because you’re working in the same environment and you’re in the same building and oftentimes people, if they live in an apartment, if they’re young people who maybe don’t have a house of their own might be in their bedroom and then that can overlay and you can have these negative and strange associations with your personal space now associated and linked with the stress of the workspace, which I know can lead to burnout. And can you talk about some of the misconceptions between burnout and job satisfaction?

Mindy Shoss: Yeah, absolutely. And first I’ll say, I think you’re absolutely right. I think the pandemic showed us just how interconnected work, life and family and community. How interconnected all of these things are, they really are. There are a  lot of misconceptions about burnout and satisfaction and wellbeing and I think the biggest misconception is that it’s an individual issue. So you see a lot of recommendations, “Oh, you’re just burned out, why don’t you do yoga or mindfulness or something like that?” And I love yoga, I love mindfulness. There is some good research supporting them. But a colleague of mine actually said this to me yesterday those kinds of things are like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm. Band-Aids are good, they solve lots of problems, but they don’t fix deep rooted type things like a break. And I think that if you want to fix burnout and issues of job satisfaction, then you got to address the work environment. You got to address issues of organizational structure of job design of all these work environments, social kind of things, try to figure out what is the cause? Because usually these are broader and deeper issues.

Alex Cumming: Broader and deeper issues than just the surface level take some time for yourself. Take a breather.

Mindy Shoss: People should do that. But at the same time, they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t have been totally overloaded to the point where they’re about to break. Maybe they shouldn’t be working in unsafe work environments. They shouldn’t be going to work and getting yelled at by their boss. There’s lots of situations that people shouldn’t be in. And obviously there’s value in helping people deal with those situations if they occur but there’s also a tremendous value in just keeping those situations from occurring in the first place.

Alex Cumming: You saying this is making me think of something you’ll see on social media every now and then where there’ll be unrest in a company. And maybe because of money issues or because of poor leadership and the company will give them like a pizza party or will give out t-shirts and instead of addressing the underlying issue of why the employees are disgruntled, here, have a piece of pepperoni pizza.

Mindy Shoss: Pepperoni pizza is good.

Alex Cumming: It’s great, I would love pepperoni pizza and a t-shirt, but if it comes at the cost of wellbeing, when it comes to my job and my day-to-day life, it can’t be that good of a piece of pizza.

Mindy Shoss: Exactly, you might feel good for an hour, but you didn’t deal with what’s going to happen next week at work that people are dealing with. And of course, then sometimes it will and it probably shouldn’t come off as a little bit insensitive to the broader issues here.

Alex Cumming: With all that, given all the research that you’ve done and all the information we’ve spoken about here. The organizations that you see that have the best cultures. What is it that they have in common?

Mindy Shoss: Great question. So I think there are a lot of different cultures that organizations can be successful with. But I think common threads are that they have created cultures that really empower their workers, that they give their people voice to have input and to co-create the culture and the business or the organization. The best companies unite people around a common goal and a common vision or aim for the future that people can feel that they’re working towards and they’re all meaningfully contributing towards. And then I think the best places are places that support people that view people as a long-term investment and try to help people meet their needs, give them the resources to meet their needs. And to really involve them in being part of sort of lifeblood of the organization.

Alex Cumming: And these are things that these companies can also do to retain their top employees. To keep them from feeling burned out, communication, understanding where the employee is coming from. Going back to the start of our conversation it sounds like it comes down to, not the control that people feel they have, but the control that they actually have.

Mindy Shoss: Yeah absolutely and I think shared vision. A shared vision, a shared goal, and giving people the autonomy and the resources to succeed.

Alex Cumming: I like that, autonomy and resources to succeed. Well, Dr. Shoss, what advice would you give to somebody who wants to work in the field of workplace wellbeing?

Mindy Shoss: Oh, I would say great choice. This is a really dynamic and growing area of study. A lot of folks get into this area through training in industrial organizational psychology. So at UCF we have undergraduate classes, we have a master’s program, we also have a doctoral program. Students also can be involved in faculty research labs and get the chance to be part of some of the research that we’re doing in this area. There are also professional society resources. So there’s the society for occupational health psychology. Also the society for industrial and organizational psychology both have great student resources on their websites.

Alex Cumming: I love the psychology department here. I loved all the classes I took. There’s so many opportunities to get involved in this field of work and that there’s still a lot that’s coming on. I mean, even in our conversation and in my research on this subject, even I had all these thoughts flowing through my head, some of which I know spilled out here today on the podcast. But it’s just so much think about. It’s so interesting to see how it will all develop. And Dr. Shoss. What’s one thing that you’re still hoping to do in your career, the development of something you’re hoping to see come along in the field?

Mindy Shoss: I think for me I have high hopes, that there’ll be a larger kind of societal conversation about decent work and good work. I hope that some of the research that we’re doing and the research that other folks are doing in the field can contribute to not only changing one organization at a time to make work and jobs better. But trying to promote a general change in just how society sees work and how we build work and workplaces and to put people’s wellbeing really at the center of that. Because I really see people’s wellbeing and other things like economy and society, I think that are really all interconnected. And I think actually everything would get a lot better if we started trying to build these structures about making better lives for people. That’s my big view of, hopefully, that research doesn’t just sit on journal pages. But it can impact a lot of different groups who have a lot of different powers and impact over the future of work.

Alex Cumming: Well, I’m really looking forward to seeing it all come to fruition and hearing about how UCF is going to be such a major component of it all. Because the psych department and the psych students here are special. Thank you so much for coming onto the show and getting to sit down and have this conversation with me and I know I’ve really enjoyed it. And I like the work that I do here. I’m a big fan of it and I like my coworkers too, so that’s always a plus. So thank you, I appreciate it.

Mindy Shoss: I’m glad. Thank you for having me on.

Alex Cumming: Of course.

Workplace wellbeing sounds like something all employers and employees should be well aware of. And it’s so awesome knowing that UCF is at the forefront of that research to make workplace environments and cultures that much better. I hope you’ll join me on the next episode of Knights Do That where I’ll be speaking with Chung Park, director of the UCF Symphony and Chamber Orchestras and head of string music education as we discuss the upcoming UCF Celebrates the Arts. I’m excited to share our insightful conversation. I’ll see you then.