If pay raises and reduced hours are not options at the moment for employers, there are other ways to help improve employees' mental health and performance — including small gestures of kindness.
A study from Penn State University, in State College, PA, found that a simple gesture of kindness from employers, in the form of fresh fruit added to employees' daily lunches, was a morale booster and improved employees' mental health.
The researchers summarized their findings in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics.
"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 Bu Zhong, Ph.D., an associate professor of journalism at Penn State and the first author of the paper.
A simple gesture has big benefits
For this study, an international team of researchers decided to focus on bus drivers in China, whose jobs are particularly stressful, both mentally and physically.
This is due to erratic working hours, irregular mealtimes, continuous whole-body vibration from the buses, and the overall sedentary nature of the job.
As part of the experiment, employers gave 86 participants fresh fruit in their regular lunches, which the employers provide and which ordinarily do not include fruit.
The increased cost of the fruit, either an apple or banana in each lunch, was the equivalent of 73 cents per meal.
Kindness reduces participants' depression
To determine how the fruit affected the participants' mental health, the researchers distributed surveys to each bus driver at various points throughout the experiment.
The first surveys went out 1 week before the experiment began. The researchers distributed the second round of surveys in the middle of the 3-week experiment and the final round 1 week after the experiment had finished.
To find out how the fruit had affected the bus drivers, the researchers evaluated depression with a questionnaire developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
They also assessed the participants' confidence in completing tasks and reaching specific goals, using the General Self-Efficacy Scale.
The researchers found that depression in participants had improved by the end of the experiment, compared with its start. Responses also indicated that self-efficacy was quite a bit higher in the middle of the study period than at its end.
Kindness and work-related stress
If stress lasts for a longer period, it can become chronic and lead to more significant health problems, including heart disease, back pain, depression, muscle aches and other pains that do not go away, and a weakened immune system.
In addition, stress can negatively impact focus and increase the chances that mistakes are made. It can also impair emotions and behavior.
While there are ways to manage workplace stress, it can be extremely difficult to do so, depending on the nature of a person's job.
Workplace stress can ramp up when employees have to complete tasks in a short amount of time or do not have a certain amount of control over their work as a whole.
The study's lead author says that while the small gesture in the research may seem insignificant, the demonstration of kindness on the part of the employer went a long way toward countering some of the constant stress that the bus drivers experienced as part of their job.
"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."
Bu Zhong, Ph.D.