Negative events at work, like being criticised, affect our mood far more than positive events, such as receiving praise. That’s according to Andrew Miner from the University of Minnesota and his colleagues. They gave 41 employees a palmtop computer that prompted them to answer questions several times a day.
The participants all worked at a light manufacturing company, some in engineering, some in information services and others in customer services. The palmtop beeped when they first started work prompting the participants to indicate their ‘baseline’ mood. Then it beeped again at four further random times during the day, each beep prompting the participants to indicate briefly whether any positive or negative events had occurred, what they were currently doing, and how they were feeling. This went on for about two weeks.
Reassuringly, Miner’s team found the employees spent most of their time (76 per cent) on work-related tasks, usually in a pleasant mood. On average, the workers reported feeling unhappy 14.7 per cent of the time they were asked, and sad just 7.8 per cent of time. But when employees reported that a negative event had occurred since the last Palmtop beep, this affected their mood five times as much than if a positive event had occurred. “Employees generally went about their work in mildly positive states, as most people do”, the authors said, “but when a negative event occurred, it captured attention through large changes in mood”. Organisations should therefore focus more attention on reducing negative events at work, than on increasing the frequency of positive events, the researchers advised.
The workers who tended to start each day in a better mood than most, also tended to respond more to positive events, but they weren’t protected from the powerful influence of negative events.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Miner found that people tended to report being in a better mood when the Palmtop beeped while they were avoiding doing their work, than when it beeped while they were working. “It’s possible that participants engaged in work withdrawal because they were in more pleasant moods, perhaps as an effort to maintain a positive mood state”, the authors speculated.
Miner, A.G., Glomb, T.M. & Hulin, C. (2005). Experience sampling mood and its correlates at work. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 78, 171-195.