Employees happier, more productive when employers show small gestures of kindness

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A few small gestures of kindness from employer to employee can go a long way towards improving worker health and performance, according to a study by an international team of researchers led by Penn State.

Researchers observed what happened when employers improved the lunches being served to a group of bus drivers in China. When fresh fruit was added to the drivers’ lunches, depression symptoms decreased, while confidence in their own work performance increased.

“An ultimate solution to improve worker performance and health could be big pay raises or reduced workloads, but when those solutions aren’t feasible, we found that even small offerings can make a big difference,” says lead author Bu Zhong, associate professor of journalism at Penn State, in a media release.

According to Zhong and his team, bus drivers are especially vulnerable to numerous health problems due to stressful working conditions such as inconsistent shift schedules, unpredictable and difficult traffic conditions, and irregular meal times. Furthermore, the sedentary nature of their job, along with constant whole-body vibrations, contributes to other problems like fatigue, musculoskeletal issues, cardiovascular disease, and gastrointestinal conditions.

In all, 86 Shenzen bus drivers were included in the study. On-duty drivers were given an extra serving of fruit along with their standard lunch, either an apple or banana, for three weeks. The cost of each fruit was only 73 cents per meal.

The researchers also distributed surveys to the bus drivers three times during the course of the study: one week before the experiment began, once in the middle of the three-week experiment, and one week after the end of the experiment. These surveys included a personal health questionnaire recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The questionnaire asked participants to rate, among other things, how often they felt down, hopeless, depressed, or had trouble sleeping during the previous two weeks.

“Bus drivers reported significantly decreased depression levels one week after the experiments ended compared to one week before it began,” says Zhong.

Researchers also assessed each driver’s perceived confidence and ability to do their job using the 10-item General Self-Efficacy Scale. This scale asked each driver to rate how strongly they agreed with statements such as “I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough” or “I can usually handle whatever comes my way.”

“We found that self-efficacy was significantly higher in the middle of the experiment week than in the week after the experiment ended,” Zhong comments. “This research suggests that employees can be sensitive to any improvement at the workplace. Before an ultimate solution is possible, some small steps can make a difference — one apple at a time.”

The study is published in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics.

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Ben Renner

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