How gratitude improves your mental health at work

Your brain and body benefit from showing gratitude and receiving appreciation. Here's how you can improve mental health at work.
How gratitude improves your mental health at work
Sharne McDonald

We know we need to be grateful. Our parents taught us to say “thank you” whenever we received something. Likewise, we can all remember pivotal moments when we received appreciation or praise at work which motivated us to keep doing what we do. Ever wondered why gratitude motivates you? Besides the positive effects gratefulness has on the brain, it’s proven to improve your mental health.

Gratitude for motivation

In his article The Grateful Brain, Alex Korb (Ph.D.) elaborates on 4 studies that prove the motivational power of practising gratitude 🙏

The first study was done with a group of young adults — one half had to keep a gratitude journal and write down each day what they were thankful for, the other half had to journal about what annoyed them or made them better off than others. Unsurprisingly, the first group saw positive benefits compared to the latter group.

“The young adults assigned to keep gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to the other groups.”

This study also showed that simply comparing yourself to others who are “worse off” than you, is not enough. True gratitude stems from appreciation of what you have, and not what others don’t have.

The second study was conducted with a group of older adults (who had a better grip on the sad realities of life 😜) who were tasked to keep a gratitude journal only once a week. Not only did their optimism increase, but the researchers also noted a positive change in their behaviours like better exercise patterns and less physical ailments.

“Subjects assigned to journal weekly on gratitude showed greater improvements in optimism.”

A third study was conducted in China simply observing the effect gratitude had on people’s daily lives. They found that grateful people were less depressed and enjoyed better sleep. A side-effect of better sleep was that they were also less anxious.

“[R]egardless of their levels of insomnia, people who showed more gratitude were less depressed… sleeping better improved their anxiety.”

Lastly, a fourth study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that gratitude positively affects brain functions, specifically in the hypothalamus, which controls basic bodily functions like eating, drinking, sleeping and also influences your metabolism and stress levels.

Image from Science of Psychotherapy

Another great brain-benefit to showing appreciation is that it triggers dopamine — the “reward” neurotransmitter. Recent research shows that dopamine is not necessarily associated with pleasure, but rather motivation or drive. When dopamine kicks in, you are more willing to work harder in order to obtain a higher reward. Dopamine in the brain gives you the impulse to continue doing what you’re doing. In other words, it reinforces behaviours.

On the flip side, when we take things for granted we actually stop releasing dopamine and are less motivated to work for something. It’s because your pleasure centre, a tiny part in your brain called the nucleus accumbens, encodes pleasure as reward versus expectation. That’s why you feel absolutely ecstatic when you pick up 100 bucks on the street corner, but meh when you receive your 10,000 paycheck each month. 🤷‍♀️

So, once you start focusing on being thankful, you put your brain in a “virtuous cycle” — this means that your brain will start looking for more things to be grateful for (look up: confirmation bias) and effectively, you’ll be a happier and more motivated person.

Gratitude for mental health at work

The above studies prove that being truly thankful and expressing gratitude in your daily life has definite, recurring positive benefits, but how does receiving appreciation from others at work affect your brain?

According to Dr. Gerald Koocher, the top 2 most common mental health issues in the U.S. are depression and anxiety, and workplace performance is most negatively affected by burnout and substance abuse.

Common causes of burnout at work:

  • Role ambiguity (employee is unsure of what is expected of them)
  • Conflicts
  • Big discrepancies between real and ideal work (unrealistic expectations)
  • Lack of support from co-workers or managers
  • Feelings of helplessness / lack of autonomy
  • Intimate relationships at work

“So if your colleagues and supervisors aren’t supportive, especially in a stressful workplace, that’s a problem.” — Dr. Gerald Koocher in The Benefits Guide

If we go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, we can see that in order for us to take the step from basic needs to self-fulfillment, we need to have our psychological needs for belonging, love and esteem fulfilled first.

Image from Simply Psychology

This means that in order for us to be successful, productive people at work who are reaching their full potential, we need to know that we are valued and appreciated by our co-workers and managers. When there’s a lack of fulfilment of our psychological needs, we cannot reach our full potential in our workplace. This also explains the growing awareness of the importance of mental health at work.

“Workers of all ages, especially the rising Millennial population, are motivated by real-time feedback, fun, engaging work environments, and status-based recognition over tangible rewards.” — Ken Comee, Badgeville CEO

There is plenty of research on how a compliment, or a word of affirmation, given to you drives your motivation to reach your full potential. Each time you receive a positive affirmation or reward, your nucleus accumbens lights up with pleasure, as well as the impulse to ‘do it again’ as dopamine is released. This impulse also helps us learn and keeps pushing us to do better, by reinforcing the behaviour that was praised.

“[W]hen we receive feedback — good or bad — activity in areas of the cerebral cortex associated with evaluating and comparing ourselves to others increases. As a result of this process, called “mentalizing,” the feedback informs how we feel about our abilities and our self-worth.” — Christoph W. Korn quoted in Vice

Obviously, positive feedback will feed positive feelings about our abilities and self-worth, making us more likely to try new things, meet new people, work harder and be much more motivated in what we do.

“To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money.” — Professor Sadato in the Science Daily

10 things you can do to improve mental health at work:

1) Create a platform for continuous feedback and recognition — both top-down and bottom-up

2) Reward great work with meaningful tokens of appreciation

3) Clearly define your employees’ roles and what is expected of them

4) Give employees more autonomy

5) Provide a safe space for decompression — a rec room with games, quiet spaces to be alone, debrief sessions to talk about the day, etc.

6) Start a health & wellness programme to promote camaraderie and healthy living

7) Offer training programmes to upskill, reinforce good practices & encourage continuous learning

8) Shorter work hours (even if only for a part of the year)

9) Talk to employees who seem to be struggling — take them out for lunch, express sincere concern and offer to help

10) Run mental health workshops to increase awareness & provide coping skills for employees


Gratitude is one of the most important and effective motivating factors in our lives and the key to mental health at work. It can be practised in any situation to experience its benefits — whether we remind ourselves of what we’re thankful for, show others how we appreciate them or experience that appreciation for ourselves. Quick recap:

Being truly grateful and showing appreciation:

  • Increases determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy
  • Makes you more optimistic
  • Improves your exercise patterns
  • Fewer complaints of aches and pains
  • Combats depression
  • Improves your sleep, leading to less anxiety
  • Helps you learn through motivation
  • Makes you even more grateful (“virtuous cycle”)

Being shown gratitude/receiving appreciation:

  • Increases self-worth, improves how we feel about ourselves
  • Increased motivation and risk-taking
  • Is as rewarding as receiving monetary rewards; carries real currency

So, go and be thankful ;)

Further reading: Muthia Huda, Business Insider, Forbes

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