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Paula Robinson

Positive Organizations –
A pilot case study at Sydney Business School University of Wollongong Australia

Paula Robinson, Ph.D.
University of Wollongong Positive Psychology Institute Sydney, Australia

The trend showing increases in mental illness in organizations is worrying. Research suggests that at least 1 in 5 employees are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition (Human Rights Commission, 2010). The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates the global cost of mental illness at nearly $2.5T in 2010, with a projected increase to over $6T by 2030 (Bloom, 2011). A report by OECD (2015) suggests that mental illness is responsible for a significant loss of labor supply, high rates of unemployment, and a high incidence of illness, absence and decreased productivity at work. Hence, an urgent need exists for organizations to invest in an integrated and proactive approach to mental illness prevention and well-being promotion and engagement.

Research into well-being at work is encouraging, for example, return on investment (ROI) analysis by Price Waterhouse Coopers (2014) suggests that every dollar spent on effective workplace mental health actions can generate $2.30 in benefits to an organization. These benefits are derived from areas such as a reduction in presenteeism, absenteeism, and compensation claims. This report also suggests ROI is likely to be increased from implementing multiple targeted actions. Therefore, well-being is becoming increasingly important to organizations not only for corporate governance and social responsibility strategies but as part of cost reduction, risk mitigation and positive links to ROI. Leaders around the world are only gradually becoming aware that employee well-being and business performance are complementary components of a commercially and psychologically healthy workplace. However, instead of being viewed as a form of ‘competitive edge’, perception of well-being at work has often been associated with ‘soft skills’ or the stigma of mental illness. As a consequence, well-being strategies and practices in organizations are often reactive, sporadic and tokenistic.

Effective leaders of the 21st century need to know more about the positive mental health and well-being research and practice as an integral part of their learning and development. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan is a leader in advancing the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship but other tertiary institutions are slow to follow in teaching well-being at work research and its applications to our leaders of the future.

Dr. Lee Styger at Sydney Business School, Australia, identified this innovative area of research and practice as important to his students so recently commissioned me to pilot a 3-day lecture series on Positive Organizations as part of the Executive Masters in Business Administration (EMBA). Below is a short summary of topics included in this lecture series that may assist other lecturers and teachers interested in designing and implementing a pilot program with their students.

The context of the lecture series is embedded in the EMBA framework of People – Product – Process. The lectures commence with an explanation that the 3 day series will focus more on the People aspect of the Masters, emphasizing people starts with you as students and leaders.

The framework and language for the lectures was drawn from the concept of Mental Fitness (Robinson, Oades & Caputi, 2014; Robinson & Oades, 2016) which draws on a physical fitness analogy (strength, flexibility, endurance and team) to explain the variables and process of achieving measurable positive mental health outcomes.  The mental fitness ‘lens’ was utilised to (a) reduce stigma when talking about mental health, (b) to emphasise the need for more proactive, preventative and holistic approaches to mental health at work, (c) to emphasisze a fit mind and body are equally important, and (d) to highlight that optimal mental health needs to be developed by way of regular intentional activities to form positive habits for sustainable change. The mental fitness analogy was extremely helpful in achieving buy-in from the students by using a language that was easy to understand and free of ‘psychobabble.’ It also provided students with an understanding that competitive edge can also be achieved at work through their own and others’ level of mental health and wellbeing.

Session 1: Self-Awareness leads to Self Management

This session starts with a question, “How can increasing my self-awareness and self- management assist me personally and professionally? Research to support this session is presented e.g., Cameron (2013) highlights the importance of the positive energy of leaders by studying various business units and found performance to be four times better because the leader produces a better performance from their team.

The students then complete a “You at your Best” exercise followed by an interactive session on “What’s your Mindset” (Dweck, 2006). Research examples with supporting organizational case studies are highlighted followed by a discussion about how their current mindset might form a barrier to their learning and leadership effectiveness. The students then do a basic CBT activity followed by an interactive discussion about thoughts not always being facts and how some thoughts/feelings can hold us back both personally and professionally.

Session 2: Mental Health and Well-being at Work

This session is the presentation of research to support Positive Psychology and well-being research and interventions (e.g., Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi, 2000; Ryff & Keys, 1995) and how it relates to measurable organizational outcomes, e.g., staff turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism, productivity, individual performance and intrinsic motivation. Research on the determinants and types of well-being are discussed together with the dual paradigm of mental health (i.e., the difference between diagnosis and treatment contrasted with prevention and well-being strategies). The importance of both rigor and vigor for the sustainability of an effective well-being program are considered followed by global examples of organizations implementing well-being initiatives. Students are asked to consider similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses across several organizations’ well-being programs.

Session 3: Measurement – What’s the Change Data?

The next session is discussion on the importance of achieving measurable, improved subjective and objective outcomes for the individual employee, teams and the organization as would be the case with any other change initiative. A selection of traditional change models are examined followed by a session on Appreciative Inquiry and associated case studies. Examples of research questions linked to pre/post measurement are presented to emphasize the types of change data they might target, for example:

  • Customer service
  • Cost reduction
  • Product quality
  • Downsizing
  • I.T. success
  • Growth
  • M & A outcomes

Session 4: Well-being Individual Topics

In this session, specific well-being at work topics are examined utilizing current research and organizational case study examples. These interactive sessions are used to highlight how well-being interventions can be applied at both the macro and micro levels of the organization to leverage and measurably improve outcomes. For example,

  • Within their own role, students are asked to commence planning and leading positive change utilizing Appreciative Inquiry. An example of an organizational change model is presented to assist their learning;
  • Via job crafting, group presentations are formulated on how to leverage strengths assessment, knowledge use & spotting at work;
  • A meaning at work exercise is examined for the leaders and their teams/departments;
  • Organizational virtuousness & resiliency are discussed as valuable concepts during times of challenge and how they can assist the organization and the staff to achieve their goals;
  • Positive relationships, positive networks, high quality connections are discussed and exercises on how these concepts might be developed in a their own organizational setting;
  • The importance of developing and implementing positive & regular communication strategies and methodologies around the above interventions are discussed.

Guest Speakers

In order to place the research and science in context a series of expert guest speakers were introduced throughout the three days presenting for 1 hour each showing well-being in action at work from several perspectives. For example, that of an entrepreneur, a corporate mindfulness expert and an intergenerational management expert.

Resources / References

An extensive resource and reference list is given to all students for their assessments and future learning and application.


Whilst this lecture series was implemented as a pilot, feedback has been extremely positive from the students, so much so that Dr. Styger has asked that the 3 days be embedded in another subject and repeated in 2016. It must be said that as soon as the students were able to (a) start the 3 days with themselves and understand the practice of self-awareness and self-management, and (b) perceive the direct links between the science and the traditional bottom-line improvement, they were engaged with the topics. Specific qualitative comments were:-

  • A high level, systems approach to well-being would be an advantage given some leaders and employees are already engaging in well-being initiatives at a more informal level;
  •  It is a breath of fresh air to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses and know that this helps the business as well as the people;
  •  The well-being language once in place is a powerful tool for leaders;
  •  These topics have been the best part of the program for me;
  •  Self-awareness needs to be emphasized more, I’ve learned more about myself in these 3 days than during my years as an executive.

It is hoped that the above teaching summary provides other tertiary environments with ‘food for thought’ as to how they could include the well-being research and application within their own organizational and business curriculum. 
As psychologists, we are fortunate to be at the forefront of a positive change in organizations driven by the science and practice of positive organizational scholarship. This paradigm shift will have a significant impact on corporate behavior, corporate outcomes and corporate development in the future.

About the Author

Following 12 years as a senior executive, Paula Robinson, PhD is now a Registered, Consulting & Coaching Psychologist and a leading expert on mental fitness, well-being and Positive Psychology theory, research and practice. She is currently the Managing Director of the Positive Psychology Institute.


Australian Human Rights Commission (2010). Workers with mental illness a practical guide for managers.


Bloom, D.E., Cafiero, E.T., Jané-Llopis, E., Abrahams-Gessel, S., Bloom, L.R., Fathima, S., Feigl, A.B., Gaziano, T., Mowafi, M., Pandya, A., Prettner, K., Rosenberg, L., Seligman, B., Stein, A.Z., & Weinstein, C. (2011). The Global Economic Burden of Noncommunicable Diseases. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

Cameron, K. (2013). Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

OECD (2015), Fit Mind, Fit Job: From Evidence to Practice in Mental Health and Work, Mental Health and Work, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Price Waterhouse Coopers. Creating a mentally healthy workplace – return on investment analysis. The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, beyondblue, Final report, March 2014, p.4.

Ross School of Business, University of Michigan http://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu Ryff, C., & Keyes, C. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 719–727.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikzentmihalyi, M. (Eds.) (2000). Positive psychology (Special issue) American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong. https://sydneybusinessschool.edu.au