In 2016, the United Nations published its sustainable development goals (SDGs) which marked a shift towards an aspirational, people-centred and globally focused development agenda. The SDGs highlighted 17 areas that require urgent action, including wellbeing and healthy-living, decent work, and inclusiveness.
While in the past well-being and good health tended to refer to an absence of disease, and health and safety in the workplace focused on preventing dangers, the World Health Organization (WHO) now define well-being as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being’. This has shifted the focus from removing illness to focusing on positives and promoting growth.
Well-being is considered an essential part of professional life, and yet, many working environments are increasingly unstable. Challenges faced by today’s professionals include significant changes to the labour market, such as a rise in short-term contracts, flexible forms of employment, and job insecurity. The global pandemic seems to have further reinforced these trends. The changing nature of work has led to increases in pressure, occupational stress, uncertainty and illness.
What is psychological capital?
To address these issues, a new field of study has recently emerged called the psychology of sustainability and sustainable development. It’s an applied field of science-based practice, which focuses on regeneration and positivity. Research in this area aims to understand how psychological processes can improve the quality of life for individuals and communities. The take-away is that a positive working environment which promotes employee health and wellbeing is essential to our quality of life. The psychology of sustainability is concerned with how that can happen: how we can have meaningful work experiences in a challenging environment.
The focus is therefore on how employers can foster people’s talents and personal resources, otherwise known as psychological capital. The idea is that improving people’s psychological state can lead to better performance, competitive advantage, positive work behaviours, job satisfaction, employee engagement, and career progression.
Psychological capital consists of four components: optimism, hope, self-belief, and resilience. Indeed, individuals who have good psychological capital are optimistic that they will be able to succeed in the future; they will persevere towards their goals and have confidence to take on challenging tasks. Importantly, they will also have the ability to ‘bounce back’ when things do not go to plan.
Building your resources
In the long-term, professional sustainability can be promoted if employers and professional associations focus on enhancing the soft skills and psychological resources of their staff, alongside technological and specialist skills. Soft skills are often neglected when it comes to staff development, but an understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and an ability to leverage these, is likely to be as important as specialist knowledge for professionals in the coming years.
In addition to actions at the level of the organisation, individuals can also take a few simple steps to build their psychological resources. These include:
- Engaging with a professional community and making an effort to form relationships. Evidence shows that being connected with other professionals helps you to learn and grow.
- Stepping back and reflecting on what meaningful work entails for you. We don’t often feel we have spare time to dedicate to this kind of reflective thinking, but it is vital to take time out to gain an overview of what we’re doing and why.
- Taking a preventative approach and incorporating wellbeing into your routine. While meditation or yoga may not be for everyone, there are other actions you can take.
- Committing to relevant staff development, for instance on emotional intelligence or goal-setting. To build psychological capital, it is important to undertake continuous professional development in so-called ‘soft’ skills.
Together, these actions will help to build optimism, hope, self-belief, and resilience. Having a regular work schedule can also help to set aside time for other activities that will build mental resources. Taking time to reflect, exercise, or journal is not self-indulgent; it’s key to a healthy lifestyle.
Towards a healthy workplace
Rather than providing broad seminars on wellbeing or resilience, forward-thinking organisations would do well to think about what are the specific psychological skills their employees need to build. Perhaps having an optimistic mindset is particularly important for certain types of jobs in their company, or it could be more useful for professionals in one industry to develop self-belief than for professionals in another industry. Human resource departments could try to identify what are the potential facilitators and barriers to developing psychological capital in their workplace: what helps employees to grow and what doesn’t? In this way, the findings could inform staff development and training.
More space for psychological reflection regarding what is sustainable for different types of professionals is sorely needed. This would help to achieve the UN’s ambitious people-centred development agenda.
Séverine Hubscher-Davidson, PhD is an academic and freelance writer based in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.