Positive psychology interventions at work

By Alexandra Michel, Federal Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, Germany and Annekatrin Hoppe, Humboldt Universität, Germany

Employees spend a major part of their waking time at work. It is no surprise then that reducing demands and increasing resources (e.g., autonomy, social support, self-efficacy) at work are important in promoting employees’ work-life balance, well-being and health. Over the last years, research has examined not only ways to repair the negative consequences of work stress, but also ways to promote resources to improve employees’ well-being at work. Especially, introducing positive psychology interventions to the workplace is a new avenue in the occupational health psychology field. Positive psychology interventions focus on building resources and preventing resource loss, and include activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviors and cognitions. In this blog post, we highlight three approaches that can help employees to build their resources and foster well-being at work.

  1. How can I see, experience and value more positive aspects of my work?

Cognitive strategies such as practicing optimistic thinking and appreciating positive experiences at work can help employees to create positive emotions and to feel better. In our intervention study, we asked caregivers to think about a positive and meaningful event they had experienced at work. This could be a positive interaction with their patient, a nice chat with a colleague or a treatment success. We asked the caregivers to reflect on this positive event and to savour their positive experience. This five-minute audio-supported exercise was repeated for ten consecutive work days. After the intervention period, caregivers in the intervention group had lower levels of fatigue and emotional exhaustion than caregivers in the control group. Particularly, caregivers with a high need for recovery, for example feeling low energy, benefitted from the positive thinking activity.

  1. How can I gain new energy during work? The benefit of rest breaks

Work demands can drain employees’ energy and result in low work engagement and feelings of exhaustion and fatigue. Taking short rests from work enables employees to temporarily shift their attention away from work tasks in order to maintain and build new energy. We developed two short rest activities: A simulated savouring nature activity (e.g., listening to nature sounds such as bird singing or waves); and a progressive muscle relaxation activity. We classify such a short break “as a micro-intervention” that can be completed at the workplace and which gives an employee a rest from work, during which they shift their attention away from work tasks. In our study employees were randomly assigned to either the savouring nature or the progressive muscle relaxation condition. The results show that both of these short daily rest breaks, which can be easily introduced into the workday, raise employees’ vigour and lower their fatigue over a course of 10 work days.

  1. How can I switch off from work and find a good balance between work and private life?

Employees who think about and emotionally engage with work-related issues during their leisure time often find it difficult to detach or mentally switch off from work. This can lead to a diminished work–life balance. Following boundary theory, we designed an intervention that enables employees to find their individual way to either integrate or separate both life domains. Our online intervention teaches mindfulness as a cognitive-emotional separation strategy. Mindfulness describes a state of being non-judgmentally aware of current experiences. In our intervention, employees reflected on their segmentation strategies (i.e. strategies meant to keep work and private life separate from each other) and learned mindful breathing exercises which help them to focus on the present moment and to let go of undesired work-related cognitions and feelings. This enabled employees to focus on an activity in a specific life domain (e.g., playing with children at home) and forget work-related worries or preoccupations. Our study results show that compared to a control group, employees in the intervention group experienced less emotional exhaustion, negative affect and strain-based work–family conflict, as well as more psychological detachment and satisfaction with work–life balance.


Interventions on positive work reflection, respite breaks and segmentation of life domains can help employees to build resources and improve their well-being. For organizations and employees we see the following benefits: These intervention activities can be easily integrated into the work day during short breaks or performed in the evening during leisure time. They can be applied across occupations and can be made available through online platforms, smartphone apps or on paper. Organizations and employees must keep in mind that primarily employees in need (e.g., high workload, emotionally demanding work tasks) benefit from these interventions, and that long-term effects of these interventions are not yet known. Finally, these individual interventions are not necessarily a substitute for more-comprehensive workplace health promotion efforts (e.g., reducing workload, team building workshops, leadership trainings) that aim to improve working conditions holistically.

Practical recommendations

  • Think about something that went well at work during your lunch break or when you finish your work. For example: a nice chat with a colleague, a successful presentation, a task you enjoyed
  • Plan short breaks during your working day to detach and recharge. Use them to relax, meditate or to go for a walk.
  • Try to switch off from work. Small mindful breathing exercises can help you to focus on momentary experiences and to let undesired thoughts and emotions go.