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360° Autumn 2012 - Can you afford not to take employee wellbeing seriously?

Can you afford not to take employee wellbeing seriously?
Figure 3 shows Current Ashridge research topics on wellbeing at work
Figure 3. Current Ashridge research topics on wellbeing at work

Ongoing research at Ashridge

Given the startling facts around the impact of poor physiological and psychological wellbeing on individuals and businesses as a whole outlined above by the Nuffi eld and Ashridge research, and the potential personal and business benefi ts of a pro-active approach to wellbeing within organisations, the topic of wellbeing at work is seen as a fundamentally important area for research and teaching at Ashridge.

We have taken a multi–strand approach to wellbeing at work, and have a number of research communities examining both the psychology and physiology of wellbeing from an individual, team or organisational perspective. (See Figure 3).


Seventeen hours of sustained wakefulness (for example a long day at work) has been shown to result in changes in behaviour equivalent to drinking two glasses of wine — and if wakefulness becomes 24 hours (for example a long flight) then the individual is performing with the equivalent of having drunk four glasses of wine4. In addition, leadership skills and competencies, known as ‘executive functions’ are highly susceptible to even relatively minor sleep loss5. They include:

  • Comprehending and coping with a rapidly changing environment
  • Multi-tasking
  • Producing innovative solutions to problems
  • Assessing risk and anticipating the range of consequences of an action
  • Controlling uninhibited behaviour
  • Communication skills
  • Updating the big picture
  • Decision–making involving complex and creative ideas.

Our research has focused on the impact of poor sleep hygiene (both quality and quantity of sleep) and jet lag on the social, emotional, cognitive and physical health and wellbeing of senior managers and leaders. For example, a recent study found that in a sample of 350 managers, they spend, on average, fewer than seven hours asleep at night (less than the UK and international average) and this amount decreases as job seniority increases. The self-reported effects of poor sleep included headaches and migraines, poor emotional control (quicker to anger and become tearful), lack of empathy, poor quality decision-making, lack of concentration and reduced attention span.

Psychological and physiological resilience

Resilience has been defined in a variety of ways across a number of settings, including the ability to bounce back or recover from stress, to adapt to stressful circumstances, to not become ill despite signifi cant adversity and to function above the norm in spite of stress or adversity6,7.

For Ashridge, resilience is defi ned as the capacity for an individual “to thrive or to just keep going in the face of pressure, infl uenced by attitudinal, experiential and physiological differences”8.

We currently work with a number of clients on the topic of resilience from an individual, team and/or organisational perspective. Recent research initiatives include the Clipper project, where we are seeking to understand the role of psychological resilience (along with EQ, personality and sleep hygiene) in dealing with signifi cant physiological and psychological challenges during a yearlong round-the-world yacht race.

The Ashridge Resilience Questionnaire

The desire to help individuals’ better understand the personal side of resilience and to introduce them to a range of coping skills led us to develop the Ashridge Resilience Questionnaire (ARQ). The ARQ is a measure of resilience based on six resilient attitudes:

  1. Emotional control: Controlling emotions and taking personal responsibility for thoughts, feelings and behaviours when responding to stress and pressure
  2. Self-belief: Belief and confidence in the self and personal capabilities
  3. Purpose: Setting and organising goals and identifying a broader meaning from these
  4. Adapting to change: Adapting readily to change and responding to uncertainty in a positive and developmental manner
  5. Awareness of others: Demonstrating self-awareness and an understanding of other people’s situations and perspectives
  6. Balancing alternatives: Generating and managing alternative options, opinions and choices.

The questionnaire assesses individual’s resilience within each of these attitudinal areas and the feedback is then used to raise awareness of strengths and development areas, so that individuals can develop effective personal coping strategies.

Research projects at Ashridge that have used this questionnaire include a study examining the relationship between quality and quantity of sleep, personality and psychological resilience, and a study exploring the resilience of employees in a large UK charity.

Compassion at work

There are many sources of individual pain in organisations, such as bereavement, critical illness, family-breakdown, dealing with hostile co-workers, abusive bosses, demanding clients, or redundancy. By acknowledging that the ‘whole’ person goes to work, any suffering inevitably spills over into work life and may have knock-on effects in terms of an individual’s emotions and behaviours and subsequently their commitment and performance at work. However, there is a striking lack of knowledge in organisations about how to address individual suffering at work. This research strand aims to understand how the development of compassion (i.e. connecting and caring for others) within the workplace can improve the psychological well-being of individuals within the organisation. Compassion is a critical yet under-developed topic in organisations, since those people who practise compassion at work foster higher levels of well-being, commitment and connectedness. (See Rynes et al: 2012)9.

Willpower and Ego Depletion

Being skilled at managing oneself effectively, behaving appropriately, making good decisions and working well with others — particularly when under the pressure of difficult, stressful or ambiguous environments — is extremely important at every level within an organisation, and thought by many to be an essential leadership competence. Indeed some research goes as far as to suggest that mismanagement of emotions, self-perception, self-presentation and interpersonal relationships can act as potential ‘derailers’ of otherwise successful executives10,11. Thankfully, human beings have the capacity to override our automatic responses affording us the capacity to choose the way we respond in any given situation by using our willpower to think, do or say something different from our internal response (think resisting the desire to say what you really think to a senior stakeholder, or going to the gym even though you can’t really be bothered!). Indeed successful use of willpower (or self-regulation) has been shown to contribute to success in life and the workplace by way of superior wellbeing (including reduced susceptibility to drugs and alcohol, or overeating in response to stressful situations), more creative problemsolving, more effective coping strategies and increased motivation, productivity and bottom-line performance 12,13.

However, there is a down-side to using our willpower. A growing body of research has established that an individual’s capacity for willpower is limited and that failure to manage ourselves effectively or resist temptation stems from the fact that all these volitional processes draw on a single limited resource of self-regulatory energy in the brain. The result is rather like power steadily draining from a battery over the course of a day and, when depleted, has serious implications for an individual’s success, not just in subsequent acts of willpower but on performance generally – a state referred to as Ego Depletion14,15. The good news is that it is possible to attenuate the negative effects of Ego Depletion and furthermore to increase willpower via a number of routes. Ashridge is undertaking research examining the implications of Ego Depletion and helping to develop strategies to further understand and maximise individual and organisational performance.

About Nuffield Health

Nuffield Health is the UK’s largest healthcare charity, established for over 50 years, which operates a range of health and wellbeing facilities including 31 hospitals, 65 fitness and wellbeing centres, 200 corporate facilities and 20 medical clinics. Independent of the NHS, it employs around 15,000 health experts. It is an award-winning not–for–profit, having won Health Investor Social Enterprise of the Year in 2010 and Private Hospital Group of the Year in 2011.

Nuffield Health, one of the leading providers and thought leaders in employee wellbeing, chose to work with Ashridge for their research experience in this field and their extensive experience of working with organisational and personal change.

Ashridge/Nuffield Health Reports

Further information

The full Ashridge and Nuffield Health research project is available in two reports which can be accessed on the Ashridge and Nuffield Health websites:

Corporate Investment in EmployeeWellbeing: The emerging strategic imperative

Developing a Strategy for Employee Wellbeing: A framework for planning and action.

Research contacts

For further information about Ashridge research and teaching on:

Sleep: contact Vicki Culpin
Resilience: contact Alex Davda
Compassion at work: contact Amy Armstrong
Ego Depletion: contact Angela Whelan


  1. The Wellness Imperative: Creating More Effective Organisations. The World Economic Forum in partnership with Right Management, 2010.
  2. CIPD: Absence Management Survey 2010.
  3. Working for a Healthier Tomorrow: Dame Carol Black’s review of the health of Britain’s working age population, March 2008.
  4. Maruff, P., Falleti, M., Collie, A., Darby, D. and McStephen, M. (2005) Fatigue-related impairment in the speed, accuracy and variability of psychomotor performance: Comparison with blood alcohol levels, Journal of Sleep Research, 14, 21-27.
  5. Harrison, Y. and Horne, J. (2000) The impact of sleep loss on decision making – a review. Journal of Experimental Psychology – Applied, 6, 236-249 6. Carver, C.S. (1998). Resilience and thriving: Issues, models and linkages. Journal of Social Issues, 54(2), 245-266
  6. Tusaie, K., & Dyer, J., (2004). Resilience: A historical review of the construct, Holistic Nursing Practice, 18(1), 3-8
  7. Davda, A. (2011) Measuring resilience: A pilot study, Assessment and Development Matters, Autumn, 11-14
  8. Rynes, S.L., Bartunek, J.M., Dutton, J.E., Margolis, J.D., (2012) Care and Compassion Through an Organizational Lens: Opening Up New Possibilities, Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 503-523..
  9. Lombardo, M.M., & McCauley, C.D. (1988). The Dynamics of Management Derailment, Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, NC, Technical Report No.34.
  10. Muraven, M, Tice, D.M. & Baumeister, R.F. (1998) Self-control as limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3), 774-789.
  11. Gailliot, M.T. & Baumeister, R.F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 303-327.
  12. Tangney, J.P., Baumeister R.F. & Boone, A.L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271-324.
  13. Muraven et al. Op. cit. 15. Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Ego Depletion and Self-Control Failure: An Energy Model of the Self’s Executive Function. Self & Identity, 1:129-136, Psychology Press.