This is actually what employees need to feel valued at work

When it comes to what helps an employee really feel comfortable, valued, and at home working within a particular company, job, or position, a level playing field is almost always part of the equation. No worker wants to report for duty every day and feel like they’re being treated differently than everyone else.

However, fairness alone won’t get the job done, according to a new study just released by the University of Exeter. Researchers report that consistently recognizing and appreciating an employee’s skills, successes, and contributions is absolutely essential for making sure a worker feels validated, valued, and included. Referred to as “distinctive treatment,” this approach is also good for employees’ mental health.

“Organizations and other groups often recognize the importance of members treating each other fairly – with dignity and without bias,” says lead study author Dr. Christopher Begeny, of the University of Exeter. “In six studies of workplaces and other groups, we find that this is indeed key to fostering individuals’ sense of belonging. However, individuals also need to be shown that they have some distinct value to the group.”

In a way, researchers say their findings equate to a combination of “fitting in” and standing out.” As humans, we all want to fit in with the group, but at the same time, no one wants to feel like just another worker bee. There’s a reason why every employee is chosen to work for their company, and it’s important that workers be reminded of just how skilled they are on somewhat of a regular basis.

The onus doesn’t have to fall on managers or office leaders. Co-workers can provide this type of validation just as easily.

“When colleagues or fellow group members show interest and appreciation for an individual’s more distinguishing qualities, that individual benefits. This kind of distinctive treatment has real benefits for mental health too, including less anxiety and depression,” Dr. Begeny explains. “To be clear, fair treatment is a must – but our studies show it’s also woefully insufficient on its own.”

Of course, supervisors also hold more power, which means they usually have more opportunities to create and promote this type of atmosphere and culture in their office.

“It helps to have supervisors with the time and energy to recognize and tap into the particular skills and knowledge of the different people they supervise. Another method is to create well-developed systems of mentorship, allowing people to share their experience and expertise,” Dr. Begeny comments. “This can also foster a workplace culture that is not just inclusive, but value-affirming – where people regularly seek each other out for advice, which is beneficial to both parties.”

“Expressing distinctive treatment does not simply mean sending out a mass email saying ‘if anyone has any ideas about this project, please let me know’,” he continues. “It’s about going to an individual, or small group of individuals, and saying, ‘hey, I really think your insights and perspectives could be an asset to this project. Would you be willing to offer your thoughts?’”

In summation, the study authors stress that distinctive treatment should be a proactive approach. It isn’t enough for managers to just wait for employees to come to them with ideas. Actively seeking out employees and asking their opinion (because it matters, is valid, etc) can go a long way toward helping every worker, from entry-level positions to those at the top of the food chain, feel better about themselves and the contributions they are making to their company.

“Individuals need to feel more than inclusion. As well as ‘fitting in’, they need to ‘stand out’ – to feel that they have some distinct value and worth that they bring to the group,” Dr. Begeny concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.