Category Archives: stress

If you break a leg, stop running!

I just saw this video posted to LinkedIn with the following caption:

Salute to this runner Rei Iida, 19, fell and fractured her leg during a relay marathon in Japan but she crawled to her partner on her keens despite broken legs to pass the baton,How many of us has this passion to win and conquer the odds ?

How incredibly dumb. To hold this up as a positive example to follow is idiotic and perpetuates toxic workplace cultures that celebrate individuals who sacrifice their health, private lives and families in pursuit of their own or the company’s goals.

I think the true hero would have been:

  • The runner who decides to stop the race and get medical attention
  • The team mate who helps the injured runner
  • The coach who stops the team right there

It also speaks to some of the most damaging myths in business namely that success can only come from suffering or that quitting is a sign of weakness. Both of these beliefs are clearly wrong and clearly bad for workers.

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Being great at your work vs. feeling great about your work

If we want to be happy in our jobs, we need to be good at our jobs.

We human beings have a basic need to know that we contribute, create value and can make a difference and effect change in our environment.

That’s why doing a good a job feels amazing. It gives us feelings like pride, accomplishment, fulfilment, growth and worth.

On the other hand, when we feel that we don’t perform well at work, it creates feelings like inadequacy and lack of control plus of course fear that we might lose our jobs.

And it’s also in the company’s best interest to make sure that every single employee and team is getting great results and living up to their potential. Companies typically focus on 4 areas to make that happen:

  • Skills: Training, competencies, job skills match,  …
  • Resources: Time, tools, IT-systems, …
  • Structure: Organization, plans, goals, budgets, strategy, processes, …
  • Support: Coworker+manager support, coaches/mentors, …

These are all important and enable us to get results. If your workplace is not giving employees these 4 things, then how on earth can you expect them to perform well?

If we want people to be happier at work, we can definitely help them get better results. We can give them better training, more resources, more support, etc. in order to help them perform better.

However, many people already get great results – but don’t feel that way. And if that’s the case, then they won’t be very happy at work.

This is a crucial distinction that few companies make – the distinction between getting good results and feeling good about those results. If we want employees to be happy at work, they also need the latter - and many don’t have that.

When that is the case, employees may get great results right now but it won’t be sustainable. When people are not happy at work, it hurts their motivation, productivity and creativity. Stress and burnout tend to follow.

So in addition to helping employees get great results, companies also need to make sure that people feel great about their results.

There are 3 things that give us that feeling of results.

1: Meaning

I saw this sign in the lobby of Danish pharmaceutical company Xellia, carrying probably the simplest and most inspiring company purpose I’ve ever seen.

As you may know, one of the biggest current medical crises is the increasing risk of infection by multi-resistant bacteria, which are immune to traditional antibiotics. Xellia produces an antibiotic that is still effective against multi-resistant bacteria. Their research and products directly saves lives all over the world.

It’s crucial that we know what we have to do at work, but  equally crucial that we know why we do it.

That is what gives work meaning and purpose: when you know why you do each task and how it somehow helps someone.

And it’s not enough that your work is meaningful to the organization – it must be meaningful to you. Your work must have a purpose that you believe is worthy.

On the other hand, if you have no idea why your work matters and no sense that it makes any kind of a difference, it really doesn’t matter how good you are at your job – you won’t be very happy.

Many workplaces take great pains to give employees performance goals to clearly show them what they are expected to do. But we must make equally sure to show employees why their work matters and how it makes a positive difference.

US online retailer Zappos are a great example of this. Whereas most customer service reps are measured on how many calls/emails they handle, Zappos’ employees are measured primarily on how happy they make their customers. The former metric makes sense only to the company, the latter is meaningful for employees too because it shows them that they make a positive difference for the customers.

2: Autonomy

When you are free to do your job your way, you are much more likely to take pride in your results and feel good about them.

On the other hand, if a micro-managing boss is telling you exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it, you are much less likely to feel good about the results you get, because they won’t be your results.

As much as possible, we should be free to choose:

  • What we work on
  • Who we work with
  • What approaches and methods to use
  • When and where we work

One of my favorite examples of this is Middelfart Savings Bank in Denmark, one of the happiest workplaces in Europe. How did they achieve that? They gave their employees huge levels of freedom and responsibility. Their former HR directors said this:

“You’d be amazed what happens once people are empowered to make decisions.”

Another amazing example comes from the US Navy, where nuclear submarine captain David Marquet gave his sailors unprecedented autonomy. He explained how he did it at our conference in 2015:

3: Appreciation

And finally, we feel good about the work we do when we are recognized for it.

Harvard Business School professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer talk about this in their awesome book The Progress Principle. They sum up the book’s main message like this:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

Even a small win can make all the difference in how people feel and perform.

Creating a culture of positive feedback in an organization is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to give employees a feeling of results.

When your coworkers, your boss or even the customers praise your good work, it clearly shows that you make a difference and get great results.

On the other hand, if you feel you do good work but nobody ever notices, it becomes much harder to maintain pride in your work. Some companies even take it a step further – they never praise good work, but all mistakes are instantly and severely punished.

Our absolute favorite way to praise others at work is The Poncho. Try it!

The upshot

It’s not enough to help employees get great results – we must help them get a feeling of results.

Of course we first need them to do good work. No one should expect to feel good about their work, if they’re not doing a very good job in the first place.

But that’s not enough.

Happiness at work only comes when people know that their work has meaning and purpose, when they have freedom and autonomy in how they work and when they are appreciated and recognized for their good work.

Imagine the opposite. Imagine that you’re very good at your job and get great results. But you have no idea why any of your tasks matter, somebody else has decided how you work on those tasks leaving you no freedom and autonomy and you are never recognized for any of your efforts.

How happy could you be at work under those conditions? How good would your results be in the long run? How soon would you lose all motivation and burn out?

So improving how people feel about their results is crucial.

It’s also a lot easier. Provided a person is very good at their job already, improving their feeling of results may be a lot faster and easier than improving their actual results.

It’s also a lot more effective, because if we can’t figure out how to make people feel proud and appreciated about their work, it doesn’t matter how stellar their results are – they will never be happy at work and their performance will ultimately suffer.

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The 3 most common objections to Biden’s awesome letter – and my rebuttals


10 days ago I posted this picture of a memo from Joe Biden to his staff, saying that he never wants them “to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 16.24.16

The image has since gone viral. It was retweeted by tons of people (including the amazing Sarah Silverman) and it has gained a lot of attention on LinkedIn too.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 16.30.31

The 1000s of likes/favorites show that people love this idea and so do the many, many positive comments. Here are some examples:

Having worked in the past for a company who insisted you “made up the hours you’ve taken off” for hospital appointments, dentist treatment and even funerals and bereavements, this makes me smile! A breath of fresh air.
- Lee Cashman

Having just started up a new business, one of the absolute joys is finally being able to treat everyone in the business as if they genuinely matter, not just paying lip service to this. I still find it amazing that companies fail to realise that treating the team with respect and trusting them will be reciprocated massively. We have written into our contracts that everyone gets time off for school plays, sports days etc.
- Glenn Martin

There is a real longing out there for leaders who understand that while work is important we must also recognize that sometimes important family events come first.

This is not only humane, it is also good leadership because it makes employees happier and therefore more productive.

In fact, it seems strange to me that anyone could be against it, but this being the internet, of course I got some negative comments too.

For instance, given the current political climate in the US, some comments were negative simply because Biden is a Democrat. This one was my favorite:

“The man is a complete baffoon!!!”

You know, if you can’t even spell buffoon… you might just be one :)

But there were three common objections that I’d like to offer my rebuttals to.

3: “This is too god to be true – it must be fake!”

Some people just can’t believe that this could possibly be true. Some sample comments:

“But those that go the extra mile get the promotion. It’s lip service of the politically correct. If anyone believes that memo they must not understand American work ethic.”

“If I ever got a letter like this from an employer I would think there is a hidden agenda.”

“This is Reverse Psychology at it’s best.”

I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds unrealistic. In many workplaces, particularly in the US, there is a strong belief in the cult of overwork.

And I have to say that I’ve never actually worked for Joe Biden’s office or met anyone who has so I have no way of knowing if this is true or just nice words.

But what I have been able to learn from some internet research, is that Biden is, by all accounts, a tremendously nice person.

Here’s republican senator Lindsay Graham talking warmly about Biden.

“I called him after Beau died, and he basically said, ‘Well Beau was my soul’,” Graham said, his voice trembling, adding that Biden gave a speech at Graham’s retirement party from the Air Force Reserve “and said some of the most incredibly heartfelt things that anybody could ever say to me.”

“He’s THE nicest person I’ve ever met in politics,” Graham said. “He’s as good a man as God has ever created.”

Graham added, “We don’t agree on much,” but noted Biden has “been dealt a real gut blow” yet “focuses on what he’s got to do, not what he’s lost.”

“His heart has been ripped out but he’s gonna make sure the other members of his family are well taken care of,” Graham said. “He’s more worried about his grandkids than anything…. He started talking about the future, the future of his family.”

This GQ article on Biden also notes his friendly spirit and happy personality. Here’s what happened when Biden went to the Italian President’s palace:

I saw him freelance a grand Joe Biden entrance into President Giorgio Napolitano’s palace, teeth gleaming, arms fully outstretched, ready to hug this guy, that guy, Hey, guys! I’m here! You’re here! We’re beautiful!

Decked out in his smooth blue suit, white pocket square—his broad smile the kind a man reserves for his bowling team. This demeanor contrasted sharply with everyone else’s. Guards in shiny helmets sprouting horsehair ponytails, bedraggled White House advance team in smart skirts and solid-color pumps. A Biden entrance can make the stuffiest event intimate, for an instant human and vaguely…funny.

2: “This is easy in the government sector”

By far the most common objection was that this lax attitude of letting staff take time for family is easy in government. In a “real” workplace, it would never work. Some sample comments:

“Very easy to do on gov’t time.”

“Easier to write if one is not running a profit-making business, fulfilling commitments to clients.”

“Sure what does he care. Its the people money and he never signed a paycheck in his life so its not his money.”

Nonsense. This is good leadership in any workplace, public or private sector.

I firmly believe that if you want to give the taxpayers’ the best possible government, one that works as efficiently as humanly possible, then this is the exact right policy.

1: “This is soft - bosses must focus on results!”

Some commenters lamented that this soft attitude would surely tank any workplace sentimental enough to actually let its employees take time off for important family events:

“Nice sentiment, but totally disconnected from current reality & results. Consider it this way — If you were a C-level exec running a lackluster company with many problems and then taking long lunches and letting your staff take free days whenever they had an important moment… you’d be out of business.”

“What is right is the mission and getting the job done in either public or private. Showing you care is not the decisive management technique or sole point…winning is much more of a motivation.”

“I hope my competition reads this and adopts the policy, I’ll be happy to close deals while they attend graduations.”

This is exactly the kind of dinosaur thinking that is so prevalent in business today – and it’s exactly the kind of thinking that is creating a lot of stress, frustration and ultimately poor performance.

I call it the cult of overwork – the irrational belief that the more hours bosses can make people work, the better.

Look, it’s not rocket science: Studies show that happy employees are more productive, committed, conscientious and creative and also have lower absenteeism and turnover rates.

Simply put, happy workplaces get better results. And many bosses get that.

I found an excellent blog post about Wisetech Global, an Australian IT company with a completely different attitude to overwork:

If employees work more than 40 hours a week regularly, they have to talk to their manager to redress the situation.

WiseTech Global chief executive Richard White said the company’s approach was consistent with its core values, which state that although staff should strive for the best outcomes, “we do not ask people to impale themselves on their work commitments”.

“Its not the amount of work, it’s the quality of the work,” he said.

On the other hand, if you’re the kind of boss who demands that employees come to work even though they have important family obligations, you demonstrate clearly that you care nothing for the well-being of your people. What happens is they become stressed and frustrated. The best employees quickly leave and find work elsewhere, where they’re treated with respect and you are left with only those employees who lack the skills or the energy to get away from you.

Add to that the trail of devastation, the ruined health and the broken families that this antiquated management style also causes and I simply don’t understand how these managers can live with themselves. It is bad leadership, it’s bad for people, it’s bad for business and it’s just plain stupid.

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AWESOME letter from Joe Biden to his staff. Every boss should say this.


This 2014 letter from US vice president to his staff is AWESOME. Here’s the full text:

“To my wonderful staff,

I would like to take a moment and make something clear to everyone. I do not expect, nor do I want any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work. Family obligations include, but are not limited to family birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, any religious ceremonies such as first communions and bar mitzvahs, graduations and times of need such as an illness or a loss in the family. This is very important to me. In fact I will go so far as to say that if I find out you are working with me while missing important family responsibilities, it will disappoint me greatly. This has be an unwritten rule sine my days in the Senate.

Thank you for all the hard work.



There are three reasons why I love this:

  1. He shows staff that it’s OK to prioritize important family events over work.
  2. He starts with “To my wonderful staff.” This man clearly likes, respects and appreciates the people who work for him,
  3. Appreciating staff and giving them time for family makes them happier – and happy staff are more productive. It also combats the ubiquitous cult of overwork.

Considering the losses Biden has  suffered in his family, this letter becomes even more poignant.

UPDATE: This post went viral and generated a lot of comments. Most were positive, but there were also some criticisms, that I felt missed the mark. I’ve countered them here:

The 3 most common objections to Biden’s AWESOME memo – and my rebuttals.

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New study confirms that positive feedback increases performance

Thumbs upYet another study confirms what we all know: Giving employees positive feedback leads to more happiness at work, less stress and better performance:

In the study, participants… were asked to solve problems. Approximately half of the participants were told to ask friends and family members to send them an email just prior to their participation that described a time when the participant was at his or her best.

Overwhelmingly, those who read positive statements about their past actions were more creative in their approach, more successful at problem-solving and less stressed out than their counterparts.

For instance, participants had three minutes to complete Duncker’s candle problem. Fifty-one percent who had read emails prior to the task were able to successfully complete it; only 19% of those who did not receive “best-self activation” emails were able to solve it.

Those who received praise were also significantly less stressed than the control group.


Which is kinda sad, when we know how many employees feel under-appreciated.

In our recent study of what makes people unhappy at work, a lack of praise and recognition was one of the major causes. 37% of participants in our survey mentioned it as something that made them unhappy at work.

So get praisin’. Positive feedback takes no time and costs no money. It does require you to actually pay attention to other people and be able to see their good work and positive qualities. But if we can’t even do that, there is something more fundamentally wrong.

Want better work-life balance? Learn from Denmark!

Copenhagen Balance

3 of my fellow Danes, Camilla Kring, Vivi Bach Pedersen and Anders Raastrup Kristensen have written a report on how Danish businesses have become more productive by focusing on work-life balance.

This is how they open the report:

The future can be found in Denmark. In this report we show how some of the most successful companies in Denmark developed their business through an innovative, results-oriented focus on balancing employees’ work and private lives.

  • Denmark has a unique position in the world when it comes to balancing work and private life:
  • Denmark has one of the highest participation rates for women in the workforce. (75% of women are in the workforce).
  • Among all EU countries, Danish employees have the highest degree of influence over their work.
  • (85% of employees indicate that they have an influence on their work situation).
  • Danish employees have some of the world’s most flexible work conditions. (43% of employees can regulate their work hours to meet their private needs).
  • Danish employees have some of the best maternity/paternity leaves in the world (combined one year leave per child).

The crucial insight in the report is that work-life balance is not about sacrificing business goals for the employees’ well-being. In fact, a good work-life balance makes the company more successful and profitable.

Read the whole report here – it’s clearly very written and has many tips and ideas for workplaces all over the world who want to create a

Happiness for knowledge workers

BrainYesterday I spoke at a half-day conference about stress for knowledge workers. And I kicked ass, if I do say so myself :o) That new presentation format I designed back in November is really working well!

Knowledge workers are architects, designers, writers, programmers, etc… People whose input and output of work is immaterial, rather than physical. In recent years, these people have turned out to be very prone to stress and the mini-conference examined this phenomenon.

Christine Ipsen presented the results of her phd study, which examines the source of this stress. Two friends of mine, Lene Thomsen and Nina Tange spoke about meaning at work and how this can reduce stress.

The main point of my presentation was of course that we can’t be focusing on fighting stress. That only makes people more stressed. We need to focus on promoting happiness at work – when people are happy at work, they’re not stressed. I also talked about some myths about stress.

I’ve previously blogged about the fact that happiness at work is important to all kinds of employees. It’s not limited to people in creative, high-paying or high-status jobs. But that being said, I think happiness at work is even more important for knowledge workers.

Here’s why:
Happy knowledge workers are more motivated
If you’re a welder, you can probably weld even if you’re not very motivated that day. If you’re a trash man, you can still take out the trash. But what if you’re an architect trying to come up with a new design, a programmer trying to solve a tricky problem or a journalist writing a tricky article?

When most of the work you do goes on inside your head, motivation is critical! And of course happy people are waaay more motivated.

Happy knowledge workers learn better
For all knowledge workers, the knowledge you have is almost never enough. That stuff tends to go obsolete real fast. You need to constantly learn new things. And all studies show, that people learn much better when they’re happy.

Happy knowledge workers form better relations at work
Relationships and teamwork are crucial to most knowledge workers. And you form much better relationships at work and participate much more efficiently in teams when you’re happy.

Happy knowledge workers share knowledge
Most companies that deal in knowledge also want employees to share that knowledge. As I wrote about previously, people only share knowledge, when they’re passionate about what they work with. People who don’t care, don’t share. Which is why so many corporate knowledge management systems fail miserably. The systems are fine – they’re simply asking people to share information they couldn’t care less about.

As you probably know from reading this blog, I believe that everyone should be happy at work. It’s just that happiness has an even bigger impact on the productivity of knowledge workers than it does on others.

So if you work mainly with knowledge, increase your happiness at work. If you lead knowledge workers, do everything you can to make them love their jobs.

So how do you make knowledge workers happy? Same way as everybody else. Read all about it.

Top 5 myths about workplace stress

Myths of stress
Here’s some typical thinking on workplace stress:

  • Mike is getting stressed at work, but that’s just natural these days.
  • In fact, if Mike isn’t stressed, it probably means that he’s not really crucial to the organization.
  • The solution is to let Mike work less and with fewer responsibilities for a while until he recovers.
  • Or to let Mike work more for a while until he’s no longer falling behind and getting stressed over that.
  • And of course to send him on a stress management course to teach him all about stress.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, workplace stress is a serious problem. Yes, the cost to people, businesses and society is enormous. Yes we must do something about it.

But some myths exist around stress that mean, that most of what we do about it isn’t working. Often, it even makes things worse.

Here are the top 5 myths about workplace stress.

Myth #1: Stress is normal – it means you’re important and it’s even good because it pushes you to perform

Some people seem to think that if you’re not too busy, you’re not really crucial to the organization. These people revel in having full schedules, long working hours and too much work.

But stress does not mean you matter. It either means that somethings wrong at work or that you’re not doing a good enough job of matching your tasks to your time. Worse, it also means that you get less work done, because stressed people are less efficient, worse communicators and worse at making good decisions.

To accept stress as a normal condition of work is bad for people and bad for business!

Myth #2: Stress is caused by working too much

But then why do some people work 80 hours a week and feel great, while some people work 30 and get serious stress?

Here’s why: Stress has nothing to do with the number of hours you work, and everything to do with how you feel during those hours.

If you work 100 hours a week feeling great, doing something meaningful to you, having fun, feeling supported by you boss and co-workers and taking pride in what you do, you won’t be stressed. If you work 30 hours a week feeling inadequate, bullied or unappreciated you will be stressed.

Myth #3: Stress is cured by working less

Most workplaces react to stress by reducing employees’ workloads, responsibilities or working hours and in serious cases by giving people long sick leaves. According to Danish medical researcher Bo Netterstrøm who has studied workplace stress for 30 years, this is a mistake.

People hit by stress need to increase their capacity and confidence at work, and while time off from work can be necessary to treat the immediate symtoms of stress, a long absence from the workplace does exactly the opposite. When people return to the workplace, they’re even more vulnerable than before. Worse, some never return to work at all.

Also, reducing work or leaving work remporarily doesn’t fix any underlying problems. When employees return to work or to “normal” work conditions, nothing has changed and the stress returns quickly.

Myth #4: Stress is cured by working more

“Yes, I’m a little stressed at work right now because we’re falling behind. If I work really hard for a while I’ll catch up and it will go away.”

No it won’t. For three reasons:

  1. Workplace stress does not come from falling behind at work. It comes from how you feel about falling behind.
  2. In most businesses, people will always be behind. There is simply too much work and finishing all your tasks simply means getting assigned more work.
  3. Working more hours often means getting less work done thus falling further behind. Here’s why.

A temporary push to reduce a pile of work or meet a deadline is fine. But all too often that temporary push becomes the new standard.

So the solution to stress is not to work harder to catch up because in most workplaces this is impossible. The solution is to feel good about the work you finish and not to get stressed about the work you don’t finish. It’s not that you should stop caring, it’s just that you should remember that being stressed makes you less productive, which means you get less work done and become more stressed. That’s a vicious circle right there and we need to break it.

Myth #5: Stress is cured by focusing on stress

I’ve seen a lot of the literature and training about workplace stress, and the typical content is:

  • What is stress
  • Symptoms of stress
  • Health implications of stress
  • How to fight stress

This is often presented by a stress consultant. Here in Denmark that consultant may even come from the rather unfortunately named Center for Stress (shouldn’t that be against stress?)

A recent study showed that people who return from anti-stress training felt more stressed than people who didn’t attend. No wonder, because focusing on stress is not the way to remove it – it’s a great way to create more stress. Instead, you must focus on what gives you peace and energy. Here’s a great way to do that every day at work.

The truth about stress

Repeat after me: Work does not give you stress. Feeling bad about work gives you stress.

This means thant changing your workhours, your responsibilities, your priorities or your work environment is meaningless, unless it also changes the way you feel at work.

Those stress management courses will not do the trick either, unless they can achieve just that.

If you’re stressed, you must take charge and make whatever changes are necessary to go from feeling anxious, inadequate or drained at work to feeling appreciated, proud and energetic.

Which will not only remove workplace stress, but will also make you more efficient, creative, successful and happy at work.

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