With famine, pestilence and war constantly leering over humanity’s shoulder in recent times, positivity has become more important than ever. Studies show that levels of depression and anxiety are at extreme highs. In the business world, mental health and wellbeing has become one of the most pressing issues, affecting productivity, creativity and engagement.
But global thought leader on positive psychology Tal Ben-Shahar says that the science of happiness is there not just to deal with these hardships, but to help people grow from them.
"It’s the idea of anti-fragility, or what I’ve come to call resilience 2.0," he says. "If resilience 1.0 is bouncing back from hardship, 2.0 is bouncing back higher and actually growing as a result."
A leadership expert and entrepreneur in his own right, Tal is the author of international best sellers Happier and Being Happy, as well as 2021’s Happier No Matter What: Cultivating Hope, Resilience and Purpose in Hard Times.
A happy and positive work environment yields riches, he says, for the company prepared to make tough changes.
"When things are easy and flowing smoothly, people are reluctant to even look at change, let alone introduce it," Tal says.
"But when there’s science behind it, if a company can see through research that if you introduce a certain practice, creativity and innovation and engagement will actually go up, then there’s much more interest and it’s easier – not easy, but easier – to implement."
The workplace that invests, even a little, in the wellbeing of its employees will see significant returns when it comes to innovation and engagement, he adds.
"We know that if you increase levels of happiness, even by three or four per cent, which is not that much, then your employees are much more likely to stay. Even little by little, if you create more engagement, you get ordinary people delivering extraordinary results."
And it’s the extraordinary that’s front of mind at this year’s World Business Forum series of events and lectures, where Tal takes the stage alongside luminaries of the business world such as management guru Carly Fiorina, talent management expert Laura Huang and two-time unicorn builder Uri Levine.
According to Tal, the work of WOBI, who organise and curate the forum, has the power to bring about great change.
"It means the world to me, no pun intended," he says. "To be on stage addressing hundreds of leaders who then hopefully go back to their homes or businesses and introduce even small changes, it can make a big difference. You’re making a difference in people’s lives."
Breaking down resistance
Change is usually a slow process and often comes up against a sturdy wall of resistance. Tal says that one way to break down this wall and accelerate change is to be a role model.
"It’s one thing when a manager says, ‘I’ve just been to a workshop or read this study that says physical exercise is important’, but it’s entirely different if I, as an employee, see the CEO introducing exercise or any form of change," he says.
"To lead by example is the first step when it comes to introducing larger scale change."
Another hurdle is a disconnect between emotion and reason Tal says is encouraged by many leaders.
"They believe the workplace is a place where rationality is prized and your emotions must stay at home," he says.
"If we want the best out of our employees, we need to respect their emotions. Now, the workplace is not a self-help workshop and a leader is not a therapist, but if people aren’t given what I’ve come to call permission to be human, they’re going to underperform or leave."
There’s also the perception of stress, which Tal says has two common yet unhelpful approaches by the business world.
"There’s the ‘just deal with it’ response, and there’s ‘let’s eliminate it’," he says. "The right approach is to look at stress as natural, as part and parcel of literally every life and therefore every organisation, and then create periods of recovery."
Stress helps us grow stronger, he says, but only if we’re allowed to recover.
"The problem isn’t the stress itself, it’s the lack of recovery. That’s when you get injured. Successful managers understand that and they take the time for recovery themselves and encourage their teams to do the same."
Small changes can make big differences
With the Age of the Ideas well and truly underway, Tal says businesses must ensure they’re doing all they can for their employees in order to make the most of what’s possible.
"The great resignation is upon us. It hasn’t skipped Australian companies," he says. "Employees are much more likely to stay and flourish if they know the company has their wellbeing in mind."
Tal points to Google as a great example of a business in touch with its people. "The employees work hard, but they’re certainly taken care of. Their mental health is an important value for the organisation, and they produce accordingly."
The science of wellbeing isn’t a complicated concept, he adds. "It’s not rocket science. The key is for managers and leaders to take some of these ideas on board and implement them consistently, because ultimately it’s small change that can and does make a difference."
Tal will next appear at WOBI’s Mexico event on October 19-20.