By Sezer Sherif, Founder and CEO of investment group, Vector Capital
Stress, Wellness, and Positivity in Business
In news that few will find surprising, recent data from the Office for National Statistics indicates a surge in feelings of stress and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic – a rise as high as 9%, in fact. This is clearly a problem that needs addressing, and it becomes even more acute in the context of business leaders, 67% of whom (according to leadership development company Lee Hecht Harrison) are suffering from symptoms of stress. With stress seeping into every aspect of life and business, it is more important than ever to embrace the power of positive thinking – not only as a way to deal with stress, but as a proactive means of improving business prospects and finding success.
At first glance, this solution might seem a little bit clichéd. After all, overcoming mental health barriers and achieving
business success through a good attitude is easier said than done. On top of this, the global wellness economy is an enormous money-spinning machine – mental wellness alone being valued at $121 billion, according to the Global Wellness Institute. And it’s just possible that the massive industry of self-help books, positivity podcasts, and candles hand-crafted by celebrities is not always designed with the consumer’s best interests at heart.
Even so, positive thinking does have its place in overcoming the challenges of our times, and it has a particularly important place in business. Some business leaders might have trouble accepting this idea. After all, business success is marked by numbers and quantifiable data, whereas changes in mental attitudes can seem vague or woolly by comparison. What do they look like? How can we tell if they’re working? To understand and appreciate the value of positive thinking in business, then, it is worth reflecting on the practical advantages of positive attitudes and confident approaches.
Confidence, Positivity, and Memory in and beyond the Classroom
Self-belief and confidence sound like useful qualities to have – but what form does that usefulness take? According to some scientists, positivity like this can have a real, physical impact on the quality of work in real-life situations. In 2018, Stanford University put together a trial which illustrates this idea. By studying a group of students, the researchers found that better performance in maths was linked to having “self-perceived ability” in the subject. Students with a positive attitude towards arithmetic performed better than those who suffered from “math anxiety.” The positive students weren’t cleverer; they weren’t better prepared; they didn’t have a higher IQ – they simply thought positively about what they were doing, and their work was all the better for it.
This kind of positive thinking was not just measurable in terms of test scores, but in terms of the actual brain chemistry of the subjects. Researchers found that parts of the hippocampus – the brain’s memory and learning centre – were activated by positive attitudes, suggesting a “link between positive attitude and efficient retrieval of facts from memory.” In short: thinking positively or negatively about a given task can have a real impact on whether or not we achieve them to a good standard. These are real, practical benefits with just as much application to the boardroom as to the classroom.
Narrow vs Broad Responses to Challenging Situations
The usefulness of positive thought does not end with memory – it has also been associated with a range of creative responses to challenging situations. According to American Psychologist, negative feelings are associated with danger: this means that the range of options that a person’s brain provides them in response to a given situation will be narrow and limited. Not very useful at a pitch meeting.
By contrast, positive thinking widens “the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mind.” This means that positive thinking can lead to creative problem-solving, broadening “habitual modes of thinking or acting” and allowing us to find new ways of overcoming adversity. With this perspective, positive thinking doesn’t mean quiet meditating or aimless grinning, but allowing the brain to provide the tools to handle entrepreneurial challenges.
Investing in Wellbeing for Employers and Employees
The above examples suggest that positive thinking should not be thought of as magic: its benefits are firmly rooted in grounded psychology. Positive thinking can increase the odds of finding success in business through improved performance in key tasks and helping with creative problem-solving.
If positive attitudes have practical impacts on business, then it is equally important for businesses and business leaders to not only invest in practical resources to ensure employees are happy but also regularly engage with them to ensure they feel engaged and listened to.
For example, a study by employee engagement agency Karian and Box of UK found that when leaders are seen to take the time to connect with employees and listen to their feedback, they are more inclined to feel positive about and advocate for their organisation. This translates into 2.6 times higher workforce engagement. It can also result in greater loyalty, lower staff turnover and reduced absenteeism according to Gallup.
Remember that it is often said that “the greatest asset of a company is its people”. By investing in ethical, compassionate approaches to mental wellbeing and actively engaging in positive thinking, business leaders and their employees will all benefit from greater levels of success – which is definitely something to smile about.