If a happy worker is a productive worker then positive psychology could be one way for organisations to squeeze more out of their staff budgets, and the economic downturn appears to be encouraging more businesses to test the premise. The University of Technology, Sydney, is running what is believed to be the first short university course in positive psychology that is open to the public. Strong demand suggests businesses are hoping to inject positivity back into the workplace.
The course ran in Sydney in May and September, both were oversubscribed. A third session may be squeezed in before the year's end to help meet the demand.
Next year the three-day course, which is aimed at senior managers, will also be delivered in Melbourne and possibly Brisbane.
Tim Sharp, who has worked as a clinical psychologist for almost two decades and promotes positive psychology through the Happiness Institute, says the concept has gradually become more accepted over the past decade.
"When I first started doing this, people were a bit sceptical and some people still are and some people will always be, but now there is some really strong research in a whole range of contexts, particularly in the business world, so it's very hard for people to deny the validity of this stuff," he says.
Sharp, affectionately known as Dr Happy, says the course is relevant to anyone who works with, or manages, groups of people. It covers broad coaching strategies, then looks at applying the principles of positive psychology in the workplace.
One principle of positive psychology is helping people find meaning and purpose in their work, then breaking it down into specific goals that they can work towards daily. Others are building optimism in individuals and creating an optimistic organisation.
"It's not about ignoring the bad or burying your head in the sand and pretending things are perfect when they're not," Sharp says.
"Every individual and every organisation and every team has problems but it's about approaching them in a constructive way, in a positive way, in a way that will more likely lead to solutions rather than being bogged down in negativity."
The course also looks at the need to utilise staff strengths instead of focusing on fixing their weakness.
"Rather than saying, 'What's wrong with you and how can we fix it?' it's about saying 'What's right with you and how can you make the most of it?"' Sharp explains.
The course also touches on things such as forgiveness and building resilience, as well as developing appreciation and gratitude.
Penny Flynn, an executive director of client relations at BDO Kendalls Services where she coaches company partners, says the biggest thing she took away from the course was action planning.
PLAN is an acronym that encapsulates Sharp's four-step approach to coaching.
The letter P stands for positive vision of the future. The first step is to develop a detailed vision of what an individual is aiming towards.
L is for leverage: when an individual identifies their skills, talents and strengths, as well as considering the benefits of support from family, friends and colleagues. All these factors can help work performance.
A is for action plan: working out what is needed to make a person's vision a reality. This largely involves building on existing strengths, but might also mean learning something new, by doing a course, for example, or reading a book.
N is for now: "I encourage people to think, 'What do I need to do now? What do I need to do now to build my positive vision of the future? What do I need to do now to leverage off my strengths?" Sharp explains.
"That doesn't mean you have to be busy and active every second of the day because the 'now' might be 'I need to rest to re-energise and recuperate', but I see that as a constructive step because what we know about the most successful and happiest people is they stay focused on what's important more often by asking the question, 'What do I need to do now?'
Flynn says that using the PLAN approach in her coaching sessions with business partners has had a positive outcome.
"Basically, they can see that it is a logical approach, that it helps them plan by looking at where they are now, where they want to be and how they're going to do something like work more closely with clients," she says.
Sharp says the course is a "pretty full-on three days".
Groups of six or seven participants are given exercises or activities based around concepts such as optimism. They discuss the application of it in their workplace, for example how it could be done better. Each group then shares its findings.
Flynn would have liked more role play incorporated into the course.
"I think people learn from role playing, especially if it was under Tim's guidance where he can give that feedback then and there."
The course was also too full for Flynn's liking. There were 32 and 37 participants on the two courses, although the plan had been to cap numbers at 30.
Sharp says the global financial crisis has pushed more organisations to invest in this kind of training and the Happiness Institute has been busier this year than it was in 2008.
"During the good times you need to keep doing this stuff, but anyone can do well in good times," Sharp says of training in positive psychology. "It's those organisations that focus on this during tough times that will probably come out better."
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.