New study finds that expressing gratitude in the workplace causes better cardiovascular responses
SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – Coworkers and teammates who thank each other before performing a high-stress task had a better cardiovascular response compared to teams that did not express gratitude, researchers from UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management found Wednesday.
In their study, set to be published in an upcoming issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, they found this cardiovascular response leads to increased concentration and more confidence which in turn can allow individuals to give their peak performance.
The study found gratitude can benefit people in “loose tie” relationships, such as coworkers. It also revealed that gratitude builds biological resources, promoting better stress responses, which can have long- term health impacts. Repeated exposure to stress is linked to cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and weakened immunity.
“Our results have meaningful implications for organizations and particularly for employees who work together under acutely stressful conditions to accomplish joint goals,” said Christopher Oveis, senior author of the study and associate professor of economics and strategy at the Rady School.
The results were taken from an experiment with 200 participants who had to compete in a contest inspired by the TV show “Shark Tank.” UCSD students were paired in teams to replicate relationships between workplace colleagues — individuals who are not close personally, but who spend a lot of time together.
The teams were given six minutes together to come up with a pitch for creating and marketing a bicycle for students to ride on campus and were given six minutes to pitch their product and its marketing plan before a panel of judges. The winning team was awarded $200.
“It’s essentially an impossible task,” Oveis said. “The experiment is designed to create a maximally stressful environment so we can gauge how gratitude shapes stress response during teamwork because most people spend a third or more of their daily lives at work.”
Participants wore electrodes on their neck and torso which collected electrocardiography and impedance cardiography signals. Blood pressure was also monitored. A select group of teams were randomly assigned to express gratitude and their biological responses were compared to teams who did not thank each other during the contest.
“In a high-stakes, motivated performance task, people can react in one of two ways at a biological level,” Oveis said. “Some people really rise to the challenge and have an efficient cardiovascular response known as a challenge response: The heart pumps out more blood, the vasculature dilates, blood gets to the periphery, oxygenated blood gets to the brain and cognition fires on all cylinders.
“But other people don’t fare as well and instead have a threat response: The heart pumps out less blood, the vasculature constricts, blood flow to periphery is reduced and performance goes down,” he said.
Just a single, one- to two-minute expression of gratitude from one teammate to another pushed those teammates toward more adaptive, performance- oriented biological challenge responses, the researchers found.
Oveis and his co-authors — Yumeng Gu, a Rady School PhD student when the research was underway, Rady School alumnus Joseph Ocampo and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor of psychology Sara Algoe — tested the cardiovascular responses to stress on an individual and collaborative level.
According to the study, control teams displayed threat responses marked by decreased blood flow and increased vascular constriction. However, a simple gratitude expression prior to the task eliminated these threat responses. During individual product pitches, control teams showed modest challenge responses marked by vascular dilation and increased blood flow to the periphery. However, gratitude-expressing teams showed significantly larger, amplified challenge responses which aided their performance, the authors wrote.
“Gratitude expressions within work environments may be key to managing our day-to-day stress responses as well optimizing our how we respond during high-pressure performance tasks like product pitches, so that we can make our stress responses fuel performance instead of harm it,” Oveis said. “But at their core, gratitude expressions play a fundamental role in strengthening our relationships at work.”