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Mental Health

The Positive Power of Gratitude for Remote Teams

July 13, 2021

A gratitude practice can help with mental health, burnout, and isolation. Show thanks in your remote team culture with these tips.

Corine Tan & Annie Yan
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5 min
A gratitude practice can help with mental health, burnout, and isolation. Show thanks in your remote team culture with these tips.

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Gratitude is powerful

It’s no secret that sharing appreciation with family and friends leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Research shows that gratitude fundamentally alters our brain chemistry and primes us for more compassion and happiness.

The effects don’t stop at ourselves and our loved ones either. When it comes to work, Harvard Business Review shares that gratitude can help improve coworker relationships, increase perseverance through difficult tasks, and make teams more collaborative. Of course, these results rely on a steady gratitude practice over a longer period. So why do we save all our thanks for holidays and special occasions instead of making it a daily practice for our remote teams?

An easy answer is that 2020 kept us busy. Indefinite work-from-home, recent rises in COVID-19 cases, and the daily distractions of 24/7 caretaking have left workers frayed. A recent study by Qualtrics revealed that 44.4% of participants working from home experienced a decline in their mental health. 53.8% report higher levels of emotional exhaustion and 75.2% report feelings of isolation. Remote managers are facing a widespread mental health crisis, and that’s on top of their back-to-back Zoom meetings and daily fires. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for another habit.

That is until we realize gratitude is a solution for remote work wellness. Studies show that a gratitude practice can help with mental health, employee engagement, burnout, and isolation. Incorporating gratitude in your team culture can create resiliency for 2021 and beyond.

A woman sits at her desk at dawn. She's reflecting on her team and thinking of ways to recognize a coworker.


How gratitude and employee recognition addresses common remote work problems

Mental health

Gratitude rewires our value systems. For mental wellness, research has shown promising effects. A study at UC Berkeley had subjects seeking counseling for anxiety and depression commit to writing a weekly gratitude letter. Over 12 weeks, they saw noticeably better mental health outcomes and a decrease in toxic emotions.


Burnout

We’ve all experienced or gotten close to burnout. There’s a cyclical feeling of exhaustion, frustration, and inability. While the issue of burnout is complex and can have multiple sources, a gratitude habit can put individuals on a path to recovery. Gratitude reframes the mind towards what you have instead of what you lack, breaking the negative cycle that drags burnout out for weeks and months. Studies have shown gratitude improves your resilience to stress. Sutter Health tried a two-month gratitude campaign with their Northern California hospital network to combat healthcare worker burnout and got overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Isolation

Gratitude is more than internalized reflection. Expressing our gratitude helps with team bonding. When a coworker goes out of their way to make our day or a manager praises our effort, their thoughtfulness translates to how they value us. We internalize this value, build tighter ties with the giver, and feel supported by our teams. There are dozens of studies showing this key link between gratitude, relationship building, and engagement.

Distraction

A recent episode of the NPR podcast, Hidden Brain, explores how gratitude affects our ability to make hard decisions and express self-control. David Desteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, shares an experiment where adults were given an immediate cash reward or a much greater amount in a year. The group that had done a gratitude exercise before showed a much greater aptitude for delayed gratification and willpower. Applied to a work setting, leaders can employ gratitude and its benefits for strategy-planning, decision-making, and team resiliency.

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How can I foster a culture of gratitude remotely?

Remote work is hard because it requires intentional interactions. You can’t treat a coworker to coffee or praise them on the way to your next meeting. In a lot of ways, this makes remote gratitude feel forced, flashy, and insincere. Thankfully, there are ways to show your remote team that you care and build a culture of gratitude outside of sending ‘thank you’ GIFs over Slack.

We’ll look at two kinds of gratitude practices: internal and external.

An pink and pastel infographic on gratitude in remote work.

Internal

These strategies can help you create a personal gratitude practice to rewire yourself for resiliency.

Journal

This is the most common gratitude practice and the most studied. It’s so common that you can buy aesthetic gratitude journals all over. Regardless of the prompts you use, the basic idea is to write down what you appreciate for a few minutes every day. Aim to be specific and meaningful over wordy and focus on today. I like to create a gratitude list for five minutes before I start my day. Here are a few prompts from Develop Good Habits, if you’re at a loss for where to begin.

Thank You Notes

Based on an exercise done at UC Berkeley, this practice has you write a weekly thank you note to someone you appreciate. The stationery matters less, you can choose later on to send it or keep it. Just make sure that you express why you’re grateful for this person and why they make a difference in your life!

Keep a Running List

This exercise is a personal favorite of mine because it offers a personal pick-me-up for low days. On the Notes app or in a journal you can return to, begin to list out all the things you’re grateful for. Try to get as specific as possible and don’t limit these line items to names or items. Likely, this list may not have an end to it. However, whenever you’re feeling down, you can easily return to this list for a quick reminder.

Food-based wrapping paper covers two gifts. Gifts are a great way to recognize remote teammates.


External

These exercises can help you show your remote team they matter and make “thank you’s” a normal occurrence.

Appreciation Slack Channel

It can feel a bit odd to throw a personalized shoutout into a public channel with discussions of clients, projects, and deadlines. That’s why a lot of remote teams create a dedicated appreciation channel populated with shoutouts. Creating space for employee recognition is essential, signaling to your team that it’s encouraged to share thanks and be thanked.

Sometimes Slack channels can get lost or forgotten. To make sure this channel is used, try to incorporate it into your usual processes. Have everyone share a piece of gratitude in the channel during stand-ups or all-hands. Or download a tool like HeyTaco to make rewarding others fun.

Zoom Gratitude Circle

I first encountered this practice while at Techstars. We sat in a meeting of almost thirty individuals and took the hour to each appreciate one person. Our managing director started and picked a person. The chosen person would share their person, and so on. This exercise is extremely heartfelt and intimate, a few tears were shed when we expressed how much other Techstars founders and mentors meant to us. We turned this into a weekly part of our team all-hands and felt extremely bonded by the end of the program.


Thoughtful Letters or Gifts

With social isolation and a blurring of usual celebrations, a small handwritten letter in the mail or a surprise gift can go a long way. You can choose to do these during holidays, company events, or out of the blue. The important part of this is aligning gift giving to the recipient’s love language and tying the action to how you appreciate them.


Gratitude goes a long way. Regardless of how you express appreciation while remote, know there’s one golden rule to keep in mind: gratitude should be personalized. Not everyone receives appreciation in the same way, and often praise can make us even more uncomfortable than criticism. Make sure you ask how your teammates like to be praised and follow suit. 


If you would like to identify and improve how your employees are experiencing recognition at your company, we’re here to help. Reach out to us about our EQ Platform Kona today!

Virtual Thank You Card Pack

Want to show your appreciation remotely? Send your teammates Thank You cards in Slack!

We've made a pack of three card PDFs for you and your team. Send one as a surprise or have everyone write cards!

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Meet the Author(s)

Corine Tan

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Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.

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